Karan Bajaj, an engineering graduate and an MBA, is the author of ‘Keep off the Grass’, which has been on the bestseller lists in India since its release in 2008. The author’s latest ‘Johnny Gone Down’ (HarperCollins) is already getting the right kind of reviews and his works are evincing interest from Hollywood and Bollywood alike. However, the author has expressed indifference to both film deals.
In an interview with Shivangi Singh of Spicezee.com, Karan Bajaj talks at length about ‘Johnny Gone Down’, comparison with Rakhi Sawant, Bollywood’s call and more…
Q: Congratulations for ‘Johnny Gone Down’ (JGD). In what category would you put the novel: thriller, travelogue or philosophy?
A: I would term it a character-based thriller since, at its core, the novel is a deeper, darker Forrest Gump-ish adventure. It relates the bizarre, almost surreal series of events that transform a pretty ordinary NASA scientist into first a genocide survivor, then a Buddhist monk, a drug lord, a homeless accountant, a software mogul and a deadly game fighter over a period of twenty years.
Q: Although the central character, Nikhil Arya, feels that he is a loser, the readers and other characters in the novel feel otherwise and call him ‘different’. What do you think?
A: Of course I’m biased but I think Nikhil Arya or Johnny has probably lived the best kind of life there is — a life that knows no limits; lived in a world that has seen no boundaries. Maybe Johnny hasn’t really gone down after all!
But eventually, I guess, it’s probably a matter of interpretation. My own definition of success has evolved very significantly over the years and now for me everything pales in comparison to living a big, interesting life — which sometimes comes with the baggage of dramatic highs and lows that are perceived as failure. But you grow tremendously as a result. I guess you see those views reflected in the novel.
Q: What would you like to say to the critic who called writers like you as the ‘Rakhi Sawant of Literature’?
A: Surprisingly enough, I actually find criticism like that tremendously helpful if you look behind the vitriolic to understand what the critic is truly trying to say. I am not being modest for the heck of it, but I truly valued the feedback I received from critics as well as the hundreds of readers who wrote to me after reading ‘Keep Off The Grass’ (KOTG) — and consciously acted upon it. Given the mixed reviews on plotting, I focused heavily on JGD’s plotting while trying to retain the pace and freshness that made it a success. I may not be a great writer yet, but I think I have improved as a because of feedback like this.
Hopefully, Rakhi Sawant is also trying to improve her acting abilities since she must be equally disappointed on being compared to the writers of our generation!
Q: Do you think the Internet could take over the publishing industry?
A: I’m too small a person to attempt a knowledgeable answer to this big a question. All I can say is that I think Internet and traditional publishing can complement each other versus being antagonistic to each other.
For instance, I read recently about Paulo Cohelo making his book available for free on the Internet which actually helped with physical sales because many more people read it which led to word-of-mouth publicity that translated into better retail sales.
So well, like everything, it is what you make of it, I guess.
Q: Will you respond to Bollywood’s call? Which actor do you think will fit in the role of Nikhil Arya and which actress would play Lara perfectly?
A: I am completely indifferent to both film deals and choice of actors etc. as I have no desire to be involved in the film-making process, nor do I find Bollywood particularly fascinating or glamorous. Actors and film-makers do a job as you and I do and I don’t think that equips them with any special insight into life or elevates them to any higher pedestal.
Eventually, I just hope a filmmaker with some level of empathy buys the rights so they can transfer the broader, emotional/philosophical thoughts in the novel into a film versus just make it a fast-paced, racy, intercontinental adventure that the novel automatically lends itself to. That way the thought or the message behind the book can be relayed beyond the limitations of a book.
Q: You balance your job as well as writing. How do you manage, really?
A: As I’ve said before, I don’t think my corporate career is coming between me and the Nobel Prize in Literature! The lack of skill and ideas limit me more than a lack of time. I’m lucky that I’m in a very fulfilling line of work which actually infuses my life with energy versus sap it out of me. I work in brand management which requires a lot of leadership, teamwork and creativity and you work with a lot of diverse, interesting folks — advertising agencies, design agencies and such — which always keeps things interesting. My job leaves me a little more energized and creative at the end of the day versus the other way around.
I also feel that having a steady career makes me a better writer. I can choose to write what I want to and compose from the heart because I don’t have to cater to the latest publishing trends or specialize in the genre I’ve written in before or lobby for author awards or worry about networking for film deals.
It’s liberating not to make writing my only source of self-worth.
Q: What are you reading now? Apart from writing, what else interests you?
A: Right now I’m re-reading the Bangkok Series- Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok haunts- a series of mystery novels written by a British lawyer based in Bangkok. I dig these novels both because of its gritty take on Thailand’s underbelly — snuff films, drug cartels, tantric practices etc —as well as the spiritually confused Buddhist detective protagonist of the novels, Sonchai Jitpleecheep. I’m an unsuccessful armchair spiritual seeker, and in that, I find myself relating very closely to the protagonist who is unsuccessful in his quest for Nirvana or enlightenment, but remarkably succeeds in solving some of Thailand’s most surreal, morbid crimes.
Besides reading, I have a lot of solitary pursuits. I enjoy traveling, backpacking, hiking, running. I’m also reasonably social, though in weird bursts. For a few days/weeks/months, I am extremely gregarious and active, but then I retreat into a shell for a long time. Thankfully, I have very, very close, strong friendships built over many years and over many ups and downs, and they accept my schizophrenic behavior pretty unconditionally!
Q: At the end of the novel, the protagonist is able to see the tapestry (plans) of God. Have you been able to figure out yours?
A: That’s a loaded question. Let’s just say that I’m an armchair spiritual seeker and have dabbled unsuccessfully with many religious philosophies, meditation practices and spiritual techniques over the years, none of which have provided the answers I seek. Instead, they’ve always added more questions to the list!
Right now, I think a blend of Buddhist teachings and ancient Hindu philosophy is the closest to my beliefs and I try to live a life which is a curious intermingling of the two. So, in a sense, I think I believe in the tapestry that God creates but also believe in my own ability to choose the colors and the patterns—ultimately I think I can decide how rich or vibrant I want it to be.