Corporate diaries!

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–Do you have a BOOK in you? In recent times, we have seen many corporate honchos churning out bestsellers…be it fiction or thriller, they do it flawlessly. In a day time, they are dressed sharply and are busy with boardroom meetings and discussions for almost 12-16 hours a day. While back home they are ready to don author’s hat…and ready to chase their dreams.

Ashwin Sanghi (left) and Vikas Rathi (Right)The list of such authors/writers is long. Smita Dwivedi (SD), in conversation with Ashwin Sanghi (AS) and Vikas Rathi (VR), makes an attempt to understand what makes them different in their own professional league. The most popular Indian name to this list would be Chetan Bhagat, who was having a flying banking career in Singapore. The other leading names include Amish Tripathi, national head, marketing and product management at IDBI Federal Life Insurance; Ashwin Sanghi, an entrepreneur with interests in automobiles and real estate; Ravi Subramanian, president and CEO, Shriram Finance (Non Chit); Vikas Rathi, finance manager for the Asia Pacific Region with Procter & Gamble Healthcare and many more.

Their novelistic concerns are diverse ranging from romance, thriller, mythical Puranas, Indus Valley civilization, corporate politics and tales of real world. Similarly, they all have diverse ways of stealing time to write way to their dreams. Some write in cars…some in coffee shops…late nights…early morning…but they write. Here, Ashwin Sanghi and Vikas Rathi share their professional corporate-cum-author’s life.

SD: Share a brief about yourself?

AS: As you know, I am not a writer by profession. I was born and brought up in a business environment. I started working at 16 and completed my MBA when I was 22. By the time I completed writing my debut novel, The Rozabal Line, in 2006, I had already been in business for over 20 years! Now at the age of 45, I have been managing a parallel writing career for over a decade.

VR: I am a Chartered Accountant and an MBA from IIM Bangalore. I specialise in finance & strategy. I worked for 11 years at Procter & Gamble across various locations in Asia and presently I head the business planning & analysis for Novartis Consumer Health for their international operations.

SD: When did you realize that there’s an author trapped inside, who just want to break free? Was it an instant realization or it was a long yearning?

AS: My parents used to regularly take us for holidays to Kashmir during the seventies. During these visits, we would do all the touristy stuff—including visiting Rozabal. As a child, however, I did not fully understand the significance of the tomb. It was only in 1999 that the notion that Jesus may have left behind a bloodline came to my attention when I read Holy Blood Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. A couple of years later, I read Holger Kersten and was fascinated with the idea that Jesus could have been inspired by Buddhism and that he may have drawn much of his spiritual learning from India. I began to wonder whether I could marry the two theories i.e. that he survived the crucifixion and traveled to India and that he left behind a bloodline. That question was the spark that inspired me to write my first book.

VR: It had been a yearning for a while. The only thing holding me back was taking the time to tell a compelling story. Writing a novel is indeed a long-term project and requires discipline and commitment. One can easily take years to write one book and then the publishing process can take many months. Resident Dormitus, my first novel, took five years from the first time I started writing to when it was eventually published.

SD: Being a busy professional, how do you manage your writing schedule?

AS: I write early mornings on weekdays and then put in a regular eight-hour day at the office. I use my Saturdays to gain writing momentum and leave Sundays entirely for family time. During the year I take four weeks off to write so that I may complete whatever happens to be my current project. Work keeps Lakshmi smiling and my writing keeps Saraswati in good humour… what more could I possibly ask for?

VR: I write mostly over the weekends and sometimes in the evenings. I make it one of my top priorities and accordingly make time for it. Sometimes, it is difficult especially due to travel but I have cultivated an ability to write in any environment e.g. in the flight, at airport lounges, and of course at home/cafes.

SD: Did you ever experience writer’s block?

AS: There is no ailment that a peg of whiskey cannot cure, just remember that! I never fight writer’s block. Instead I use the time to read more, refine my research notes, tweak my plot outlines etc. By the time that I am done, the block has miraculously vanished.

VR: Visualization is the key technique I use while writing a story. I start to play the situation in my mind, imagine myself to be one of the characters and see where it goes. A little bit of day-dreaming also helps. But it does leave you emotionally drained. To keep doing it over a long period is the most challenging part for me.

SD: Successful entrepreneurs make bestseller authors. What’s your opinion on this?

AS: I have always worried that I would be boxed in… compartmentalised. I get bored rather easily and I need to keep finding ways to reinvent myself. Writing was a chance for me to do something different. I imagine that boredom might very well be a reason for others too!

VR: I think different people have different reasons and it is not in my place to generalise. In my specific case, I like writing and have graduated from simply blogging to writing novels. It is an alternate outlet for my creativity and an enjoyable process.

SD: Just as your books inspire authors, what books/authors have inspired you to write?

AS: It’s difficult to say because I grew up reading both classics as well as potboilers. My spiritual sense is influenced by Paramahansa Yogananda, my love for fast pace and racy plots is influenced by Dan Brown and Frederick Forsythe, my fascination with historical retelling is inspired by Dominique Lapierre, my passion for research is fuelled by Arthur Hailey and my Indianness of voice is influenced by Salman Rushdie.

Infact, I was brought up on a diet of commercial fiction and thrillers for most of my growing years: Jeffrey Archer, Sidney Sheldon, Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, Irving Wallace, Jack Higgins, Tom Clancy, Ayn Rand, Ken Follett, Arthur Hailey. In the past decade, Dan Brown, John Grisham, Stieg Larsson, Ian Rankin and countless others were added to my list of favourites. I prefer thrillers to any other genre and that is precisely the reason why my books are always fast paced.

VR: As a reader, I oscillate between heavy philosophical literature (such as by Dostoevsky, Albert Camus, etc.) to obscure humour (such as Hitch Hikers guide to the galaxy, Catch-22, Dilbert and Calvin & Hobbes) to thrillers (Andrew Burdett is a recent favorite) to science fiction (Isaac Asimov, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley). Dostoevsky, Camus and Upamanyu Chatterjee have influenced me the most.

SD: Do you dream? Do you have any recurring dreams/nightmares?

AS: Sure. These days it is one in which I’m sitting at my desk for days but am unable to write a single word. I have always believed that I am simply the medium. I am the water pipe, the transmission cable… the words come through me not from me. I dread a day when my inspiration dries up.

VR: Dream, yes. But I hardly ever remember them when I wake up. My wife complains that I repeatedly engage in ridding the bed of imagined worms but I have difficulty in recalling it in my wakeful stage.

SD: What do you consider to be your best accomplishment?

AS: Commercial fiction writing in India did not take off primarily because of our snobbish attitude towards commercial writing. Most Indian authors were busy churning out literary fiction and publishers continued actively searching for the next Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, or Jhumpa Lahiri. They could hardly be bothered with finding the Indian equivalent of Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, Jack Higgins, or Tom Clancy! Satyajit Ray would not have given us Feluda if an Indian market for mysteries, suspense, adventure and thrillers did not exist. It’s sad that we allowed ourselves to cede space to foreign authors in these genres. I think that authors like me changed things for other aspiring commercial fiction writers.

VR: The idea first popped in my mind when a batch-mate committed suicide within six months of her first job. Subsequently, I heard another story through alumni network about a junior committing suicide within the first term at IIMB presumably because he could not cope with the pressure/ expectations. Later, I heard stories about educated youth being enrolled in terrorism. This prompted me to think what could cause people to take such extreme steps. A little bit of soul searching led me to realise that almost all of us go through an existential crisis when we step out of university into the real world. Most are able to tackle such crisis through finding meaning via trial and error or through guidance. For some, however, such crisis can be so big that they turn suicidal or violent. That theme stayed with me for a long time till I penned it down into a novel.

I tried to imagine a situation as to what will happen if a person (who goes through life with disdain, almost as if doing a grand favor to the universe but who happens to be lucky enough to still excel) meets another equally talented but downright unlucky person. That was the broad plot I started with, vague as it was. Since, I am intrigued by dark literature such as self-destruction, sacrifice, unconsummated love as well as irreverent humor stemming from daily ordinary affairs, those themes found their way in the novel. I am proud of Resident Dormitus but I think my second novel, work in progress, will be better.

SD: Where do you see yourself in 10 years from now…A successful corporate honcho or a fulltime author?

AS: Who knows. All I can hope is that it is a happy place. I am happiest when writing so I assume that it will have something to do with the pen!

VR: Writing, for me, is neither a hobby nor a full-blooded career option. It is my passion. I immensely enjoy the process of writing. Even if there were no publishers, I would have still written for myself. Ideally, I would like to preserve that feeling and so am not looking to make writing a career option.

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