In conversation with Braham Singh.

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It’s a perk for the reviewers to get connected with too many talented writers. Today I find myself lucky to get to know about Braham Singh, author of Bombay Swastika  published by Om Books.

Since I could not hold my anxiety, without much preface, let me ask straight away, How did the idea of Bombay Swastika come to your mind?

In Bombay, every gully has a story to tell. In the case of Bombay Swastika, bits and pieces come from a mildewed building on 3rd Pastor Lane in Colaba. My father’s best friend, a German Jew, lived there. The penhouse floor of that building was a whorehouse. I was filled with awe when old enough to understand what that meant, but I digress. Back to my father’s German friend. His life could be a book in its own right but there are legal issues. With true stories, one can end up spending more time tap dancing around landmines, than writing. That’s why writing fiction is such a trip.
The trick is to take true tidbits from whereever one finds them and weave a yarn, which is what I did. For good fiction, lack of restraint is a must. One learns over time nothing can be more outlandish than what real life throws up.
Luckily, I was cut out for outlandish stories. Most people want to write their memoirs. Clearly, they had exciting lives. Mine wasn’t. I was the fat kid in class, and a Sikh to boot. That’s a double whammy. It confused classmates accosting me—should the fat boy joke come first then the Sardar joke, or the other way round? 
I became a what-if expert. What if I was the slim captain of the criket team? What if I could fly? What if girls in the nearby convent school fought over me? Each such query led to long flights of fancy, driving my parents to despair and the teachers to label me a daydreamer. When you’re in school, daydreaming is a capital crime.
For a writer however it’s a prerequisite. What if the hero’s Jewish wife in Bombay Swastika, went back to Nazi Germany? What if refugees fleeing Karachi during Partition, had their escape blocked by Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s ambulance while he lay dying in it? What if this, what if that, and before I knew, we had a story that ends up being surprisingly relevant to today’s India. Who would’ve thunk?

Bombay and Swastika, the Nazi connection is not lost to the readers from the title. How did you coin the title?

What can be more obvious than the nexus between the Hindu Swastik and the Nazi Swastika? And yet this connection is barely explored in school texts or literature. It puzzled me. Growing up, we had World War Two comic books full of Nazi bad guys with Swastikas on their arms. An Indian kid with an iota of curiosity could compare that to the rangoli swastik on the floor of his house, or the little swastiks adorning his doorway. 
When I sat down to write about a German Jew in India, the good luck swastik became a sort of talisman in the story and after that, the name was a no-brainer. It came so easily, that at one point I thought, too easy, and wanted to change the title to, ’The Haunted Whorehouse, and the place of the Hidden Moon’. Luckily, good sense and a determined editor prevailed.

Which genre would you categorize your book?

Bombay Swastika is Historical Fiction.  A comfortable fit, except that these days if you search under Historical Fiction on Amazon India, the first title that pops up is Immortals of Meluha—a book on Lord Shiva. A novel on Sita was actually #1 a few months ago, until Shiva came displaced her, one mythological character taking down the other, neither having anything to do with history, but who’s asking.

Between Virginia and Hong Kong, how do you schedule your writing time?

4am to 8am every morning, before leaving for my day job. Mornings work for me in Virgina.  Strangely, in Asia it’s evenings. Why, don’t ask.
Flying time, with no interruptions, is a huge bonus. When boarding, I always pray they have crappy movies.

How vast was your research?

Well, let’s try list all the topics researched to death for this book. There’s 1935 Berlin. Did you know before the Nazis got their hands on it, Berlin was a Jewish city, with forty percent of the population intermarried into Jewish families? Gentile (non-Jewish) women prefered marrying Jewish men because they didn’t drink or beat their wives, and because they worked hard. The Jewish Hospital in Berlin figures prominently in Bombay Swastika and in itself took up months of research. 

The book had to be dead accurate about locations in 1935 Berlin, 1948 Karachi, and 1964 Bombay. Bombay Swastika also famously tackles India’s nuclear program and the spectacular failure of Dr. Homi Bhabha’s plutonium reprocessing plant that no one talks about. 

Then in what turned out to be the the Yin to the nuclear program’s Yang, one got educated on tantric Krishna bhakti. It’s part of the layered plots that make up Bombay Swastika. I had to study it from scratch, not that I am complaining. 

How was your publishing experience?

Two ladies at Om Books sum it up. Dipa Choudhuri and Ipshita Mitra, editors extraordinaire.  Bombay Swastika is not an easy work to handle. Especially since India has become such a prickly nation. I mean, at one time, the best Sardar jokes came from Sardars.  Today, they protest. Marathas protest. Hindus protest. Muslims protest. Everyone wears their animus proudly for all to see.  Om could have asked to tone down the book.  They didn’t. Om Books are also supurb marketeers, going that extra mile for a debut novel. Overall, I can pat myself on the back for signing up with them. 

Where do you find yourself as an author, ten years from now?

I have four books to be done sequentially and they are eating away at me.  They include a history of the Internet that I have to write and be done with. It’s called, Packet Wars— how the Internet became a video playground. Non-fiction, but a fun read. Then we have, Emperor, The Little Eunuch and, Her Browser History. These four books mean the next five years are spoken for. Besides writing these books, new stories have to be spun. What if this & what if that, is a habit that’s not going away. All in all, I’ll be disappointed if after ten years I haven’t continued to offend the right people and entertain the rest.

Do give a glimpse of The Little Eunuch to the readers.

In 1974, a farmer digging his field outside Xian, stumbled across the mausoleum of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi. It was like nothing the world had seen. A vast underground city guarded by a life-size terracotta army totaling 7000 warriors, infantrymen, horses, chariots and all their attendant armor and weaponry. Here’s the thing. Each terracotta soldier has distinctive features, different from the others.  This leads us to believe these were statues of real people. There were statues of civilians too, in the underground mausoleum and one of them is a boy in a kneeling position, dubbed The Little Eunuch. 
Attempting to unite China’s warring nations into one country, First Emperor Huangdi was merciless in imposing his rule. Castration was a pretty standard punishment at the time of the First Emperor. So no surprise there are statues of eunuchs in the mausoleum. The Little Eunuch however, is special and in the novel becomes a symbol of Huangdi’s ’strict but just rule’.
The ’strict but just’ Emperor Huangdi was Chairman Mao’s personal favourite. The communists lauded Huangdi’s oppression and killing of scholars and burning of books, as necessary. They used him to justify the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution. The novel, The Little Eunuch, is about how the little eunuch’s statue becomes a symbol for the necessity of harsh punishment, if society is to be ruled justly.  The boy must have commited a terrible crime to be castrated. The novel is about what he really did.

What is your advice to aspiring authors?

Young writers always ask, how did you get published? Dumb luck, I suggest, but advise not to bank on it. Instead, enforce time discipline. If you can’t block at least two hours every day for hard core writing, don’t bother.
Put your daydreaming to work. Make notes after you’ve indulged yourself. What can you take away from your flights of fancy?
Buy Syd Field’s book on scriptwriting and learn the discipline of writing a tight script. That discipline will help you stay on track when you write your novel or short story.
Write poetry to learn how to have the right beat, the right tempo in your paragraphs when you write prose.
Develop a voice. For this learn from your favorite authors. If you aren’t a massive reader, you’re never going to be a published writer. Steal ideas from what you read. Stealing is allowed. Plagiarizing isn’t.
Polish and polish and re polish your manuscript. Then polish again before polishing some more. Read a chapter from your favorite writer. Then read your chapter. Compare the feel. Keep doing this exercise. Compare, polish, repeat. Then, get a line editor to okay your work. Then get beta readers to pummel it further. A beta reader cannot be friends or family unless it’s your spouse or partner after a massive fight.
Make rejections work for you. I’m talking about the ones that are more than a sentence and which implicitly or explicitly tell you where you’re going wrong. Wait for a day or two for the anger and disappointment to subside and then get back to correcting your manuscript. Bombay Swastika was completely re-worked four times because of rejection letters.
And lastly, have the reader learn something new from what’s in your book. Provide her information that otherwise would require reading some boring textbook. This is HUGE and will get the reader hooked to your work. But it means you have to spend time on research. Real research and not just Google. 

How can readers reach you?

Shoot me a message on facebook. I always reply.

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