Saturday, October 04, 2014

Vignettes of Indian life

RM Rajgopal has written a remarkable book, ‘The Empty Pedestal and other stories’. It is a debut of a naturally-gifted writer

By Shevlin Sebastian

A winter party is in progress in a bungalow at New Delhi. The guests, a mix of Punjabi and Anglicised upper class people, are bragging about various international cities. One guest says that Singapore has become too expensive. Another says, “Dubai is excellent. Real place to go. Especially, yaar, the shopping festival.” A Punjabi guest says, “I was in New Yorkjee. Kiran was delivering. A healthy baby boy. And a citizenjee, from day one. He can contest even for President’s post, you know.”

But what is astonishing is what happens after the party is over. All the leftover food is taken in containers and poured into a hole, in the garden, specially made that afternoon, which is then covered up.  

Author RM Rajgopal writes, “And as Mr. Sawhney walks he nods to himself, satisfied. No, no point in distributing the stuff among the retinue as many do, it will only end up spoiling them, create uncalled for cravings upon taste buds used to dal and subzi and doesn’t Mrs. Sawhney provide them with as many rotis at each meal as they would like to eat?”

This extract is from a short story, ‘The Burial’ from Rajgopal’s remarkable collection, ‘The Empty Pedestal and other stories’. “The spark for ‘The Burial’ came from an anecdote told by a friend of mine,” says Rajgopal. “There was, indeed, a wealthy man in Delhi who actually buried the leftover food.”

The title story, ‘Empty Pedestal’, is about a firebrand union leader Dhani Ram who wages a strike to get higher wages for workers at a factory. Dhani Ram tells a new management recruit, “Do you know what it is like keeping awake all night when it is natural for the rest of the world to sleep? Not merely keeping awake, but labouring hard? Do you know how much heat these machines generate? Have you any idea of how hot it is there?”

Unfortunately, Dhani Ram is mysteriously killed and soon a statue is put up in his honour. The local MLA and other dignitaries pay homage. Just next to the statue is a large blob of cement left by the masons in their hurry to finish the statue. The new union leader points at it and tells the young recruit, “That is the empty pedestal. For the next one who creates trouble. And is turned into a statue of stone. I have a wife and three children to look after, sahib.”  
So, it is no surprise the union leader quickly strikes a peace deal with the management and the strike is over.  

All the 21 stories, written with fluency and charm, highlight the different facets of life in India. So there are tales about the life of a honest Travelling Ticket Examiner in the Railways, an old and jaded piano player at a restaurant, a boy who is a star in school but grows up to be a nonentity.  Of a mid-winter bird shoot that goes wrong. Of a man who feels insulted when his girlfriend gets a promotion, while he misses out, in the same Delhi-based company that they work in. Of hard-core Communists in their youth who live a plush capitalist life in their middle age.  

What is remarkable to know is that Rajgopal is not a writer, but a senior corporate professional. He worked for several years for the DCM Group and remains a Bangalore-based adviser, at the age of 63, with the SRF Limited.

Asked how he got interested in writing, Rajgopal says, “My father TRK Marar was a professor of English at Maharaja's college, Kochi. I grew up amongst books. So writing and reading was part of the daily habit.”

The urge to write was always within Rajgopal. Sometime in the mid-1980s, he began contributing middles to a national newspaper. Then, in 1995-96, he began writing a column for a national magazine called ‘Business Travelogue’. “I travelled abroad a lot,” says Rajgopal, who was general manager of SRM Limited at that time. “Any country that I travelled to, I would do an article on the business climate, apart from the food and culture.”

Some of the countries he visited included South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Thailand, Russia, Mauritius and Sri Lanka. Again, during this time he began writing short stories in his spare time. “Most of the stories of ‘The Empty Pedestal’ are more than 20 years old,” he says.

Now, he has finished his autobiography, tentatively titled ‘Retro’. There are 70 vignettes of his life in Kochi, Kota in Rajasthan, Delhi and Chennai. It takes the reader back to the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

God has given me a natural writing gift,” he says. “I write very easily. I take five days to write a story and another five to ponder over it and polish it. I don't rewrite a lot.”

His family offers moral support. Rajgopal’s wife, Viju, a home-maker, also edits all his stories. His son Arjun, a New Delhi-based lawyer, as well as daughter Uttara, who runs a music management company in Mumbai, love their father’s stories.  

And Rajgopal is upbeat about his debut book because the reviews have all been positive. With a little bit of luck, and a good publisher, Rajgopal could become an important voice in the Indian English literary canon. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

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