$ankaran's $uceess $tory
American publishers battled it out to win rights over local girl Lavanya Sankaran's manuscript
PHOTO: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.
SUCCESS STORYLavanya Sankaran: `None of my stories have any agenda'
We heard about the war long before we knew what it was being fought for. It all started when Lavanya Sankaran, on the advice of friends, decided to do something about her "private passion" of fiction writing and sent off two of her short stories to a few American agents. Before she knew it, not one or two but five agents were falling over each other to take her talent forward. She finally signed with Lane Zachary, who has the Kennedy family among her clients.
Two years after Lane's cryptic go-ahead "Just write" Lavanya was ready with The Red Carpet, a collection of eight stories. Lane loved the book, but warned that the "the market for short stories was very weak". But two weeks later she called: "You better come to New York right now because there is unprecedented interest!"
What followed was another war, much bloodier than the first. Nine publishers fought tooth and nail in a bidding war through a three-day auction. Figures kept climbing at a feverish pitch, and Lavanya finally picked The Dial Press (Random House), one of the three highest bidders, for a "significant six-figure dollar deal".
Finally, the stories that roused the passions of agents and publishers are ready for us to behold. The Red Carpet has been released simultaneously in 15 countries.
Set in the multicultural cauldron of Bangalore the place where Lavanya was born, brought up and now lives, after a short break in the U.S. (where she studied and worked as an investment banker) the eight stories approach the changing city from eight different angles. It speaks of several worlds and points of view that cohabit a landscape and touch each other, collide with each other, or go their separate ways after brief encounters.
This sketching of a city transforming by the day in its physical and psychological contours is nuanced and sensitive in the better stories such as "Closed Curtains". But why does it tend to be laboured in others, as if the writer is trying to drive home the point about a changing city and a changing people in a dogged, self-conscious way, rendering the characters and situations flat in the process? As it happens in even the title story? In fact, the book cover itself seems to spell out the agenda a little too literally for comfort!
But many of Lavanya's admirers have loved precisely the title story, which, she points out, was earlier published in The Atlantic Monthly. "Readers bring their own experiences into what they read. But none of my stories have any agenda. If I started a story with one, it would dry up after two pages." She adds that all the nine publishers loved the literary quality of her writing that "juggles both wit and compassion", providing a new glimpse into India "that they had not seen captured". One of them even said: "It blows the lid off contemporary India."
The post-IT-BPO-boom Bangalore, Lavanya's "errant muse", is perhaps the best representative of this India. "The Bangalore of the '70s and early '80s is different from the Bangalore of today. Growing up, Bangalore was a gracious city. Now it's changed. Among the positives is that it has this extraordinary energy. It's vibrant, chaotic. It's a city where people are producing 21st Century professionalism with very old-fashioned infrastructure. It's where people's lives are trying to bridge those gaps. They have ambitions in western terms, trying to aim for some professional goals, but also carrying certain ancient values with them. Some bridge those worlds with great ease, which is fascinating. Doesn't happen anywhere else in the world. But sometimes you get conflicting, extremely absurd situations." The Red Carpet people range from a very Americanised TamBrahm girl mesmerised by the Gayatri mantra and an America-returned girl bonding with her mom over the grandmother's nine-yard sari to a smart young lad caught in the great Indian marriage machinery.
"I wanted the stories to be true to my experience of contemporary urban Bangalore. Interestingly, when the publishers read them in America, the same thing appealed to them as well!" The book is marketed in America as The Red Carpet Bangalore Stories, "which is lovely".
The American publishers have, no doubt, done a wonderful job in their own right. But didn't all the fairytale-ish stories about publishing wars starkly different from the familiar ones of aspiring writers running from pillar to post with completed and bound manuscripts pitch the readers' expectations too high and build enormous pressure on her? She was definitely taken aback by the overwhelming response, says Lavanya. "But it's gratifying to find that it's already on number five in the bestsellers' list in India."
And no, there were no market pressure on her creative process at any point either. "I was lucky to get an agent of Lane's calibre. She functioned almost like a gatekeeper. She said, `What you have written is great, and go write how you want and don't worry about what happens.' So it gave me extraordinary freedom while removing a level of worry."
Neither Lane nor her publisher put her under pressure to write for a western audience either. Yes, she did make a few stylistic allowances such as incorporating a long description of a salwar kameez where she found "no creative problems". But they were also gracious enough to let her chumma and one-tharah be without qualifiers.
More wonderful things have come Lavanya's way after The Red Carpet. Both the U.S. and U.K. publishers have now offered her a two-book deal and again they have given her "complete freedom".
So she is now busy on her novel (set, of course, in Bangalore), getting up at four every morning "to have everyone's voices out of my head" and achieve "just the communion between myself and computer".
You can chip in
You can support the NGO Dream A Dream to build a learning centre for underprivileged children by participating in the Bangalore marathon. All you have to do is register with it to participate in the marathon. Forms are available at its office. You can call 2224 7745 or 98455 24118 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The registration fee is Rs. 150, of which Rs. 90 is for Dream A Dream and Rs. 40 for the organisers. Only registration forms picked up from Dream A Dream will be eligible for supporting the program.
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The character in the first story, "Bombay This", wants to say this about Bangalore to a Bombay-obsessed girl:
"... Bangalore was a strange city, potpourri of beggars and billionaires and determinedly laid-back ways. People dressed down here, not just on Fridays, but every day, and more so on occasions and gently derided those who didn't. They spoke of their city's attractions to visitors in tones of disparaging surprise. Oh. You like the weather? Yeah, it's okay. I guess. Cool. Blue skies and all. Cosmopolitan people, you think? Yeah, they're a mixed bag. Different, one-tharah types. Not so hard-and-fast. A chill crowd, like. Doing ultra-cool things chumma, simply, for no reason other than to do it."
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