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January 23, 2016

ZEE JLF Conversations: Sidin Vadukut

Text by Tanisha Choudhury

“Humour… leads you to contradictions and farces and absurdities and hypocrisies that are inherent to the human condition”

On being a writer
“I knew I wanted to write books almost as soon as I started reading them I think. Which would make it a very young age. As soon as I started reading stories and enjoying them, I’ve wanted to tell stories of my own. So the writing bug was one that I contracted at a very early age. However I think the real tipping points were firstly when I started writing in engineering college, and then when I started blogging in the summer of 2004. The first really gave me confidence. And the second helped me develop an early style and some sense of the substance I wanted to deal with.”

On reading
“The book that eventually goaded me into becoming a writer was William Dalrymple’s From The Holy Mountain. I remember it well. I finished the book, put it down, and immediately thought to myself: “Can I become a writer like this? Can I take people away to fantastic places to meet interesting people?” That book was hugely influential.
My list of favourite authors changes every few years I think. Along with my interests. These days I tend to read a lot of history and culture, mostly because it helps me with a Masters I am doing at the University of London. So I love Hobsbawm, AJP Taylor, Conquest and most recently I’ve really enjoyed Mary Beard’s SPQR. So this is a list that keep changing always. I also love Sjowall and Wahloo’s crime novels, Martin Cruz Smith, Dave Barry, Bill Bryson, and several writers in Malayalam such as Basheer, MT and so on. I read all kinds of things. My favourite humour writer has to be Dave Barry. I’v consciously tried to avoid his influence on me in recent years. But once upon a time I tried to write everything like him.”

On imagination vs. observation
“Oh absolutely. Imagination is important, and powerful and can often give greater narrative urgency to your writing. But you have to observe. Always. I am always observing, making notes, recording things, looking at connections and, most of all, keep an eye out for absurdities and farces. They are all around us. And I find them utterly fascinating. Especially in the workplace, something I make a lot of fun of.”

On the move from humour to history
“I haven’t moved in any permanent sense. I will probably swing back later. But I have always been fascinated by history. From almost my earliest years as a reader. I have just utterly been fascinated by the stories of how we are what we are. (And not just as Indians but as human beings and Hindus and Chrsitians and writers and footballers and whatever else.)
So when Rupa said they were happy to try out non-fiction I swooped at it. And the book has sold very well. I think it is perhaps my best selling and most widely read book. I enjoyed writing it. The Sceptical Patriot has many flaws. But it taught me so much and I have only grown in my commitment to learn more history.
But my next book is a medical thriller with historical elements in it. I just really want to try and dabble in every genre. Books are never going to make me rich. So at least they should make me happy.”

On the challenges of writing his first book
“Staying in person. Robin Einstein Varghese is a very different person to me. So it was physically and mentally exhausting to be in his head for hours each day. That was very hard. That was perhaps the hardest part of the whole thing for me. Getting published was not that hard. I was very lucky and despite some ups and downs I finally found a publisher.
The other thing is my crippling insecurity. I am an extremely insecure writer as all my editors will tell you. I am always convinced a manuscript is garbage.”

On writers having a sense of humour
“I think writers should have a sense of humour. Because it leads you to contradictions and farces and absurdities and hypocrisies that are inherent to the human condition. And I mean that in all seriousness. A sense of humour is like giving your writerly radar an upgrade with greater sensitivity. I can’t think of a writer who isn’t improved with a great sense of humour. It also prevents you from getting too full of yourself. It keeps you on your toes. Also, a sense of humour is a great coping mechanism. I think I have always had a tendency of getting horrible initial reviews for every single book of mine. I have learned to laugh them off. (Through the tears.)”

On his creative process while writing fiction vs. non-fiction
“They’re not very different actually. In both cases I spend upto a year just letting an idea ferment in my mind. I then write the first half in six months. And then the last half in a six week burst. This is how I always end up writing my books. Non-fiction involves a lot more research though. And I always end up doing excessive research. I perhaps only end up using 30% of all the stuff I record and catalogue. But I really enjoy the researching process. It is the best part of writing non-fiction.”

On literary festivals
“I love them. I love Jaipur but I am a huge fan of literary festivals. It helps you get close to writers and understand their process and their sensitivities. But also I have discovered so much great writing and great books thanks to festivals. I am not particularly keen on the socialising. But just being able to walk around these ideas and thoughts and imaginations is just wonderful. I always come back from a litfest brimming with things to explore and understand.”

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