By Murali Kamma

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The cyclist at Church Square didn’t attract much attention initially, even though he was just going around in circles. Back then, in the era before cellphones and the internet, Church Square was an unsupervised, if not a seedy, public square — a sprawling, unevenly grassy open island where it wasn’t unusual to see gossiping idlers, walkers, yoga practitioners, and teenagers playing cricket or flying kites. Occasionally, people gathered there for a raucous political rally. A cyclist was perhaps less common, but even in the case of Rama—or Cycle Rama, as he became known—it was only after a few hours that he started drawing a crowd. And the reason for that was the amazing tricks he’d begun to perform on his black Hero bicycle.

At first, when he stopped pedaling and raised his legs without losing balance, while the bike continued to move steadily, it was unclear why he was doing it. But soon, there were murmurs of excitement when the onlookers realized he was a performer, an entertainer.

The growing interest didn’t faze Cycle Rama and he barely looked at anybody. Between his acts, he continued to pedal, going around in rough circles—and then, without a warning, he built up his momentum and became a stuntman again. There were whoops from the swelling crowd, but his poker face remained unchanged. As the news spread, a cricket match on the other side of Church Square broke up and Cycle Rama became the only draw in the area. The routines he performed were varied and he did them without stopping the bike or slowing it down drastically. On that first day, his ride ended only after it became dark and the crowd dispersed.

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Cover illustration for the London edition of Miguel Cervantes Don Quixote

In 1981, Salman Rushdie’s second novel, Midnight’s Children, with its focus on Partition won a Booker Prize. And now, more than four decades later, his new novel Quichotte, due for release this September, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2019. But this time, his book is a take-off on Don Quixote, immortalised by sixteenth century Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes and often labelled as “the first modern novel”.

Midnight’s Children was given not just a Booker Prize but also a “Booker of the Bookers” Prize (1993) with its story set around the Partition of India and steeped in magical realism. His fourth book Satanic Verses (1988) was  a finalist for the Booker Prize. However, a  ‘fatwa’ was issued against his book calling for Salman Rushdie’s death by no less than Ayatollah Khomeini  one year after it was published. India had banned the book as “hate speech” against a particular religious group.

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie

In the pantheon of literature, the best novels manage to feel timeless even as they capture a snapshot of history, from Jane Austen examining Regency-era social mores in Pride and Prejudice to John Steinbeck depicting the Great Depression in The Grapes of Wrath. But writing about the present is a delicate balance — include too many gadgets, apps and cultural reference points and your story quickly feels irrelevant.

By Aminah Sheikh

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Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I write because I have stories to tell. Because I want to tell these stories in a particular way. Some characters, and a vague, blurry indication of their predicament just pop up inside my head and I have no idea how they got there. Together, my characters and I, we embark on this journey to find out. This entire process – unpleasant at times but mostly exciting – provides me with the rush of air that keeps me going.

Sometimes though, I meet my characters in the real world. I may have heard about them from someone, so I go and meet them and find out their stories. I am talking about my non-fiction and reportage work here.

Basically, I am quiet, introverted and a loner. There’s silence all around me. Writing helps me to survive because I can’t talk much. I like to dwell in my own world in the company of my books, very few people I can relate to, and, the only way I am able to give vent to what’s buzzing inside my head is through the written words – whether it is published or what remains in the closet.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My recent book, Out of War (non-fiction), published by Speaking Tiger Books, is about the narratives of surrendered CPI (Maoist) cadres. I spent two years travelling through different parts of India – Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. I located them, talked to them for hours, and I’ve remained in touch with many for four years now. I tried to understand their lives and stories. In my book, I look at the Maoist movement, its successes and failures, the passions and sacrifices, through the struggles of individuals – their individual needs, personal longings, sufferings and self-respect.

How do these foot-soldiers themselves view the Maoist movement? Is the movement free from hierarchies and compromise? Are the soldiers free to visit their parents, partners, children? What about those that trust the police with the promise of a safe life and opt out? I visited their homes, heard their stories – stories of abuse, poverty, suffering, hurt, deceit, joy, love…

I worked hard to get these stories. The research was also emotionally taxing for me. It wrung out all my energy. These people and their stories deeply influenced me. Now I know why people turn to the Maoists for support, I know why they become Maoist cadres.

Professionally, I’ve achieved only that much – I’ve written the book, pouring my heart into it.

But personally, I’ve achieved much more. Without expecting to. It was incidental. There was a time when I worked full-time with a reputed newspaper, earned a fairly decent salary and felt happy about certain material comforts. I quit my job to write this book, but the cravings for material things had remained. Bit by bit, in the last four years that I worked on this book, the attachment to material things has gone, and I hope for good.