MEET THE WRITER

Ravi Subramanian on his new thriller set in a temple: ‘Even I didn’t know who the killer was’

The anatomy of writing a thriller.

Even when he had reached Chapter 100 of the 120-chapter long thriller he was writing, best-selling author Ravi Subramanian had no clue who the killer was going to be. The thrill of building the plot was an unimaginable experience, he says, and he believes In the Name of God will keep the reader guessing till the end. He spoke to Scroll.in about his ten years in publishing, moving away from books featuring bankers, and the hold that the Padmanabhaswamy Temple has on his imagination. Excerpts from the interview:

What was the principal difference from the past when writing your latest novel, In the Name of God? I know you’ve spoken about how it moves away from banking, your domain expertise.
In hindsight, moving away from my core comfort zone of banking thrillers was not as easy as I thought it would be. No wonder In The Name Of God took me two years to write. It is the first Indian contemporary thriller set in the mysterious Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The research required was quite intense. I have been to the Padmanabhaswamy Temple a few times earlier. I knew about the place. But to write a book based in the temple, one had to have perfect knowledge of the place and the events taking place therein. This was important not only from the perspective of what to write, but also what not to.

The canvas too was broader than all my previous books. A story set in a temple richer than one can even imagine in one’s wildest dreams, and in the Mumbai Diamond Bourse, which plays host to what is unarguably the largest diamond trade in the world, involving an antique smuggling racket flourishing in the shards of the 33,000 temples in Tamil Nadu needs a fair bit of effort and creativity. As if the canvas was not complicated enough, there are the murders in a temple being investigated by a Muslim CBI officer. Passions fly thick and fast in this novel, which I would not hesitate to call my best till date.

What is the most exciting thing about writing a thriller? And the toughest or most challenging?
Simple. The most exciting thing is the thrill of writing it. Readers often think that the thrill is in reading. But wait till you write your own. It is an unimaginable experience. The thrill of building your plot, introducing unpredictable twists, trying to outwit the reader, planting red herrings – all of this gives an author an unparalleled adrenalin rush. Ask any thriller writer and he will tell you that the plotting is the best phase of writing.

For me the excitement lasts till I finish writing the book, and that’s primarily due to a peculiar writing style that I have. Most authors plot the book in advance. I never do that. Somehow it has never worked out for me. I always start with a backdrop and an incident which is central to what I want to write about, and begin writing. The first chapter leads to the next and then the next and thereon till the end of the book.

So, in a way, I also discover the story as I write. It would be fair to say that while writing Chapter 75, I know only as much as the reader knows while reading Chapter 75. The benefit is that if I don’t know what the next page contains, then there is no hope in hell for the reader to know it either. The book becomes unpredictable and the story, thrilling.

In The Name Of God has 120 chapters. Even when I had reached Chapter 100 I had no clue who the killer was going to be. Now tell me, if I didn’t know who the killer was at that stage – 90% into the book – do you expect the reader to have a clue? Anyone could have been the killer. Anticipation, suspense, mystery all set in and make the experience a thrilling one.

There’s no doubt the Padmanabhaswamy Temple has caught the public (and media) attention, which your book alludes to in its many aspects. When did you first sense this would be core to your plotline? Or was the controversy that played out was what ignited the entire story?
I had always been aware of the Padmanabhaswamy temple. But the thought of writing a book against the backdrop of the temple struck me about three years ago, when the temple and the vaults hit the headlines. Some $20 billion in the vaults makes it richer than even the Vatican. So much wealth in the vaults, and not a hint of security around the temple! How about a heist then! That was the thought which crossed my mind.

I started doing my research accordingly. I read the court case papers which were online. I read the Amicus curiae reports on the misdeeds, the pilferage, the scandals, the suspicions about what was going on in the temple. Fingers were being pointed at the titular king of Travancore and his involvement. Well, it didn’t take time for a story to start taking shape.

My initial thought was: “Are we relying on the fear of god and not the fear of law to keep the Padmanabhaswamy Temple vaults safe?”. It didn’t take much time for me to change my drift to “Does god kill, or does man kill, ‘In The Name Of God’?”

“He didn’t notice the body immediately.

Not even when he dipped the holy vessel into the Padma Teertha Kulam, the divine pond, to fill it up for the Devaprasnam. It was only as he was lifting the vessel, filled to the brim with water, that the right hand of the floating body scraped against it and he saw it break through the surface of the weed-infested tank. His voice deserted him; he stood stupefied. The vessel dropped from his hand and sank to the bottom of the pond with a gurgling noise.

‘Padmanabha! Padmanabha! Padmanabha!’ he chanted loudly as he ran up the steps to the pond and sprinted towards the temple gates. Whether he was upset at having touched a dead body early in the morning or it was the shock of having found said body floating in the temple pond, or both, was difficult to say.”

It’s been 10 years since your first novel If God Was a Banker came out. What are some of the key highlights of your journey? And what advice would you give your younger self?
The last ten years in publishing as a writer have been fabulous. They have had their ups and downs, but I have been lucky. In the final analysis it has been more up than down. It has got me new friends – friends I would never have known had I stayed cocooned in the world of banking. It has taught me to stay humble. Your corporate success does not mean anything to the reader.

It taught me to learn to respect feedback. You don’t need to act on every bit of feedback you get, but if someone has written to you with inputs, it only means that person feels strongly about it. At the least, respond to it respectfully. You are there because someone paid money and bought your book to read. Respect that person and the money he or she paid.

One big revelation, which I had over the years, is that writing is one field where you don’t need to step on another person’s grave to go up in life. If you want to make someone read your book, write a good book. Market it well. Unlike the pyramidal corporate world where you go up the ladder at the cost of your colleagues, in publishing, an Amish need not sell fewer copies for a Ravi Subramanian to sell more. That’s the way readers are. That’s the way this industry is. Collaborate rather than compete. If you have to compete, compete with yourself and try to improve with every book.

As an author I have started experimenting with plots now and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I would recommend that every author try something out of their comfort zone. If I were to relive my journey as an author, I would possibly have written In The Name Of God much earlier in my writing career.

Your daughter is also a published author now – any anecdotes you can share about the “family business”, as it were?
I am so proud of Anushka’s journey as an author. She writes much better than I do. I love plotting and she loves developing characters. We are very, very different writers. At times we frustrate my wife with our discussions on writing. So much so that we have even thought of the title of the book she would write if she gets down to it – Imbalance: The Life of a Non-writer in a Writer Family. The cover will have the image of a weighing scale with me and my daughter on one side and my wife on the other side. And no points for guessing which will be the heavier side.

You’ve written very openly about how writers don’t make money in India. But that changes when you’re a commercial fiction writer, doesn’t it? What’s the magic number of copies to hit the sweet spot?

Look, it is actually not about India. It is true the world over. Only the bestselling authors make money. No one else does. An average book in India, if you leave out the bestsellers, doesn’t even sell out its first print run of 2000-3000 copies. At an average MRP of Rs 200 and a reasonably high royalty level of 10% of the MRP, a writer stands to make Rs 30,000-50,000 per book. Which is hardly anything for the effort involved in writing it.

That is why I keep saying that one must not get into writing for money. There are better ways to make the kind of money that writing can give you. If you want to be a long-term writer, write for the right reasons. Write not to pay your bills, but write when your bills are paid. That should be the mantra.

Barely 1% of writers in India cross the 20,000 copy mark. At that level one ends up making Rs 3-4 lakh as the gross royalty. Remember, this is the gross revenue. You need to net off expenses involved in promotion, travel and incidentals from this. The figure drops even further. Yes, there are other means of revenue generation for authors – talks, sale of movie/adaptation rights, etc. But even so, not many have hit the jackpot.

Don’t get swayed by the glamour that a few writers seem to possess. That said, writing is huge fun, if you have your finances covered in some other way. Despite making reasonable amounts of money in writing, I will never give up my day job and take up writing full-time. I know that the day I do that, writing will become my job and lose all the fun. I can’t afford for that to happen.

And finally, what next for you as a novelist?
I will continue experimenting and trying my hand at multiple themes. Wait for a couple of months. All I can assure you is that there is a twist in the tale, and my next one is going to be very different from anything that I have written thus far.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.