Ever since the first of the Dork trilogy hit stands, Sidin Vadukut has become a popular figure like his protagonist Robin Einstein Varghese. Witty, rapacious and in-your-face, the books have explored the known-yet-unknown world of office culture and more. In a freewheeling chat, fellow-Irinjalakuda’ite Jinoy Jose P. catches up with journalist Vadukut, who is based in London now.
You hail from Irinjalakuda in Kerala’s Thrissur district, a place known for its witty accent and wry humour. Has this factor influenced your writing by any chance?
I think so. In fact, I think I have been influenced a lot by Kerala’s popular culture — especially the superb comedy films of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which were so absurd and yet so proud of it. There was this sense of heightened comical outrage acted out by people like Jagathy Sreekumar, which I think I have internalised completely. So many of these films were full of XXnon
sequiturs and irreverence for the establishment. As a child I think I lapped it all up.
When and where did the idea Dork first bite you?
In business school. Sometime in 2004. I had just given an exam on operations management and performed very badly in it. This, despite having actually worked in a factory before my MBA. I was enraged, especially, when I saw this feckless freshers acing exams based on bookish learning. So I began to wonder. How would these freshers cope when they had to go into the real world armed only with chutzpah and bookish wisdom?
I wrote a blog post about the diary entries of one such specimen. Which was quite popular then. And then I forgot all about it, till I decided to write a book some years later. I was thinking of ideas when this suddenly came up. So, I revisited the idea of an MBA’s diary entries.
How difficult was it to put the book together?
The books are hard to write. Very hard. Robin is not an easy character to turn into. I really need to become Robin when I sit down to write him. I need to get all hyper and excited and outraged. This is exhausting; especially when I have to write several hours at
a time. Being Robin is very hard. Wonder how he copes...
Three books into the series, do you think Robin ‘Einstein’ Varghese has a long way to go? How has the reception been so far?
The reception has been pretty good. I like the books, and I think I have got better in each book as a writer overall. Readers seem to like them and the books sell well. I am particularly proud of the third book. I think it is both very well written and very well
edited. And it feels much more well put together.
Right now, I think Robin Varghese has run his course. The trilogy has achieved everything I wanted it to. Right from the beginning, the idea was to cover his career from first job to CEO. I do have several notebooks full of Dork plots and scenarios. But they are meaningless without a credible storyline. So I think I am done. Unless I think of something substantial enough to resurrect him, he will remain where he is.
So, can we call Dork a corporate satire? Or do you hate such labels and want to take it beyond?
Initially, I did approach the books are kind of brutal takes on office culture. But I think readers have made me realise that the books have a much broader scope. People connect with them at several different levels. Many of them don’t enjoy the office shenanigans at all and, instead, enjoy him as a character. In the third book, there is very little office at all, if you ask me. So, yes, I have pushed the boundaries of my initial proposition a little bit. But the idea is to amuse people. Always.
Frankly, who’s Robin ‘Einstein’ Varghese inspired from?
Nobody in particular. He is really many people in one. I have basically taken all the insecurities I have seen in myself and in many other friends and acquaintances and injected that into one character. He is utterly fictional and impossible. I don’t think it is possible for one person to contain so many neuroses.
You recently said “If I had to sit and do nothing I would just sit and read and write about wars.” Why wars?
I find wars, especially the bigger ones, fascinating. They change the course of human history on a massive scale. I enjoy this historic, geo-political nature of wars. I also like, and this is somewhat clichéd, how wars really do bring out the extremes of our human tendencies. We are out our most brutal, most kind and most humane during wars. All these are fascinating. More recently, I have been fascinated by how the narratives about wars change over time. History may or may not be written by the victors, but it is always written with an agenda. It is great fun to peel back this agenda. Right now, I am reading Antony Beevor and Max Hastings. Beevor’s single volume history of World War 2 is exceptional.
You have also said you enjoy Malayalam literature, which produced quite a few satirists, from poet Chemmanam Chacko to cult figure VKN. Have you read them?
In bits and pieces. In fact, I have read something by everybody over the past decade or so. I wish I could read more. I read Malayalam slowly and this becomes a problem as my backlog of books build up. Perhaps, my New Year resolution for 2013 will be to catch up on this backlog. But not just the satirists. There is a strain of comic observation that permeates even our most serious literature. This tendency for irony and hypocrisy. I mean look at some of K. Satchidanandan’s poetry, or MT (Vasudevan Nair)’s prose. Irony is just there, hiding. Always.
Do you think humour gets best expressed in its native tongue?
Good question. I think there is a certain aspect of linguistic relativity about humour. A good joke in Malayalam is often impossible to translate well into Hindi or English. Even if Priyadarshan keeps trying. So I don’t think familiarity with language makes it any more easier to convey humour. There are so many humourless people who speak every language on the planet, no?
Let’s be serious for a sec; Dork also features loads of corruption, etc. How do you as an author look at the anti-corruption struggles currently on in the country?
Corruption is a problem. But our current approach to it is also a problem. We want to see a level of
propriety in public life that is hardly seen in private life. So, we are expecting our governance to change faster than our society wished to change itself. I don’t think this is realistic. True, sustainable change will come when the brutality, inhumanity and casual lawlessness goes out of our everyday lives. We need to wait. And be patient. This is what, I think, a lot of people can’t reconcile with. That we will not become America or Scandinavia in 15 years. It will take us a couple of generations. At best.
Tell us about your reading habits and what are you reading now?
I tend to read a lot more non-fiction than fiction. Overall, I tend to read in waves though. Three non-fiction books followed by a fiction book, and then three more non-fiction and so on. Most of it on a Kindle that I carry everywhere. Like I said, I love reading military history, science, economics and maths. In general, I am a pretty curious guy. And I find that the real world gives you so much more than the fictional one can ever make up. More recently I have started reading up a lot on the Indian Constitution for a podcast I am producing, called A New Republic. It is so interesting. Indian history is an untapped goldmine.
But in general, like many writers, I buy way more books and magazine than I can read. This comforts me. All these shelves at home are like friends and companions and shields. I could never write without reading or being in the company of books.
What’s your energy drink?
Black coffee. Earl grey tea. And the banana, honey, yoghurt, protein milk shake I make most mornings.
What's the hardest thing about being a writer?
Discipline. Staying focussed and soldiering away is very hard. Especially when there are so many distractions.
I want to dabble in every genre. But I am thinking of focussing on non-fiction for a while. So my next project is a couple of non- fiction books on Indian history for Rupa. and then maybe a world war 2 thriller novel. Or perhaps a ‘bromance’ set in London. I don’t know for sure. I really want to write everything possible. Some of it will work. Most of it won’t. But I will be happy.