Rajnish Sharma's debut novel Flickering Flames, with Lucknow as its backdrop, reflects what it is - easy on the eyes and mind, unhurried in presentation, humorous in parts, at times intense, not a romantic potboiler in the sense that we normally understand it to be, but leaving the reader with a feeling that romance can also be understated, blooming at one point, ebbing away the next and suggestions of pulsating again at the end.
Its 40 chapters compressed into 144 pages certainly create a buzz, and has many layers to it. At times, it meanders.
Chapters three and four of the novel bring the "City of Nawabs", Lucknow, alive. Prominent locations such as the Charbagh Railway Station, Coffee House, Kashmir Fruit Mart, Sahu Theatre, Royal Caf and Ram Advani Booksellers, the Gomti River and its bridges take you back in time to enjoy the city when living in it was agreeably laid back, not rushed.
Using the medium of the main protagonist Aditya, the author revealing says: "Change maybe the only constant, but it sure feels divine when you discover that some things in life have stayed just the way you carried them in your memory all these years."
The novel is interesting in another sense in that, it uses the newspaper industry, or more specifically the news room, to bring alive its' over 15 characters, all of whom have unique identities and idiosyncrasies.
There is "GKB" (G.K. Bose), the editor, described as an "overgrown teddy bear with podgy hands, a journalist's editor with a hands on approach, but fighting a losing battle with the management of the daily "News Times" to retain editorial control in the face a demand for market/business driven news; Rameez, one time Chief of Bureau, promoted to Deputy Editor, an old hand frustratingly reduced to a nobody; Siddh (Sid) Shukla, a "scrawny and frizzy haired" friend of main protagonist Aditya, who starts out as a star correspondent at the paper after quitting a multinational job, is shifted to the features desk for getting on the wrong side of the management, and ultimately finds himself confined to being a Page 3 correspondent, much to his chagrin.
Then, there are Tariq, the chief reporter, Nilofar Razdan, the features editor, who quits after the management refuses to give her leave to pursue a course in creative writing, and ends up being a well known writer highlighting the plight of the deprived Kashmiri Pandit community; Bayhooda, the bootlicker, who "knows Hindi as I know Portuguese"; Kamal, the chief photographer; the Misras - P.K. and R.K - who look after the paper's district page, and described through Adiyta as "just plain daft" and disliked by Editor GKB.
There is Reeta, the features reporter, who is ribbed by Sid for yawning excessively. Sid saying: "I think you are suffering from Yawn Rog (sexual malfunction)" after she yawns non-stop after a sleepless night, leaves in you in splits.
(Continued from Part-1)The unspoken hint of a blooming romance between a sensitive, cynical and reticent Aditya and the enigmatic Shenaz Zaidi, a young liberal woman (born and brought up in Europe) married into an orthodox Muslim family starts of when they meet for the first time. His first impression - "Her freshness, innocence, non-journalistic background, Mary Poppins demeanor, exuberance, and accent" is appealing.
In dealing with Aditya and Shenaz's curious relationship or their colleagues Siddh and Rameez's bizarre interactions, the novel throws light on Hindu-Muslim relations in Lucknow, and how, despite the palpable tensions, arbiters always manage to prevail over rabble rousers.
Take the case of Rameez, who the author describes as an individual "with a Machiavellian axe to grind. He left no stone unturned to make life hell for GKB (the Editor)". According to Sid, Rameez loves wearing his poverty on his sleeve and has an ultra conventional mindset.
The famed Lakhnavi andaz (way of expression) comes out in one incident involving Rameez and Sid, when the former cynically asks in the loo "Ye meri tareef me kasheedye kaun padh raha hai (who's singing hosannas in my praise).
The novel also talks about the changing scenario in the print media, the in-house inter-departmental machinations, a changing India and of an old city experiencing throes of transition.
It conflict between tradition and change comes out on pages 37, 38 and 41 - "People from non-journalistic backgrounds, lured by the charms of journalism, have little idea that they will end up doing something far far removed from what they set out to do", or "Though TV channels have impacted the way we file our (news) reports, some still have to be filed the old way of 4 Ws and one H (What, Where, When, Why and How).
Romantic feelings bloom pretty late in the book, with Aditya expressing his for Shehnaz for the first time in the 11th and 12th chapters. Shenaz only expresses her feelings for him in Chapter 21), but as already mentioned, in an understated sort of way.
Instead of taking the romance forward as one would expect, the next chapter deviates to the pressure of launching a Lucknow edition of the "News Times". The news room resembles a war zone, an atmosphere of frenzied activity, interspersed with the introduction of other characters such as Varghese and Venkat.
Varghese is described as hooked nose individual, slimy, argumentative, and averse to taking orders from seniors and piling off other people's lunches. Venkat is the affable systems engineer.
Pages 50 through 54 reveal the gradual demise of editorial freedom with the entry of private enterprise, which has its own promises and perils.
Reality from a journalist's perspective hits home in the comment: "The newspaper is just another product like soap. Journalists are now no more than paid labourers. It's all about the art of survival, shedding of intellectual pretensions and falling in line with the company's business interests".
The marketing strategy at the paper of "greed over need" evolves as you progress through the novel.
Lucknow also changes from an erstwhile "City of Nawabs and Mausoleums", turning into a city of malls, horse racing at the race course eclipsing traditional Ekka tongas, or kulfi replaced by Kool Cafes, or Lakhnavi chikan replaced by western and ethnic chic.
(Continued from Part-2) Humor comes into play in the form of news headline in the Hindi edition of the paper that reads: "Hardoi (a town in Uttar Pradesh) me bamon ki varsha" instead of "Hanoi (Vietnam capital) me bamon ki varsha" causing a palpitating Collector of Hardoi to demand an explanation and justification from a blissfully unaware, yet preening news editor.
Half way through the novel, Nilofar Razdan prophecies that good times (in the newspaper world) don't last more than a year, one that comes true at the end of the book.
Another fact hits home - that journalism is not a well paying profession, and even if it pays well, retention is always an issue.
The most hilarious event in the book involves the Misras and their interaction with newly appointed "ruddy-faced" Hyderabadi intern Samaira Sheikh. The otherwise deadpan Misras appear fascinated by an intelligent but reserved Samaira, pulling out all stops to leave an impression on her.
They refer to her dress as "nice threads", but their professed new found love for American-English proves fatal.
Gifted with a key ring with a toy donkey, Samaira finds it missing one day and frantically looks around for it. The Misras' step in, and the following verbal delight is dished out:
"Looking for your ass, eh, don't worry we know where it is. We saw Rambaalak (the peon) take your ass this morning."
A red-faced Samaira is just too shocked to react. The next day, see her parents having a chat with GKB. The Misras are summoned and come out non-plussed, and say: "We tried to help her locate her ass and she goes and complains against us. And the editor has now threatened that he'll take our ass when we don't have any. We have only rabbits." This reaction leaves the news room in splits.
The novel holds one's attention owing to its short chapters (each one restricted to two or three pages). There isn't a dull moment.
Says Sharma, "My novel draws largely from the people I came across over the years, but the inspiration was the feature I feel is unique to the city-communal harmony. I believe, in no other part of the world could there be such peaceful coexistence."
Chapters 28 through 40 reveal the angst among journos, as circulation figures dip from a high of 25,000 to a low of 10,000. How mood, behavior, opinion and reaction change in an atmosphere of uncertainty and crisis. How young, enthusiastic and energetic individuals responsible for the paper's initial glory, are thinking of ways to move to greener pastures, or simply resigning themselves to perfecting the art of survival.
The editorial is described as the weakest link because performance can't be quantified or measured the way other target oriented departments can be. The activist journalist is jettisoned; PR stories take priority as revenues need to be shored up to keep the paper running. The newspaper management goes on a hiring spree.
A journalist's view that: "working with passion is fine, but you must draw a line. Always remember that we are just employees, not the owners", hits hard.
Sadness creeps in when in Chapter 36; GKB is asked to leave, but not summarily because of his seniority. The management builds up a case against him, to leave him with no choice but to exit. Doing your master's bidding can deliver lucrative benefit, as can be seen with Varghese becoming the paper's business correspondent in Shanghai.
The title Flickering Flames surprisingly finds mention just once in the book. Chapters 37 and 38 dwells on the exit of Shenaz and Nilofar from the News Times, as also the sad incident of Deputy Editor Rameez being left broken hearted by his US-headed highly qualified son, who tells him that he should have lived in the moment, spent his money when his family needed it, rather than saving it to facilitate the latter's education.
Aditya's return to Delhi and him getting a call for a meeting with the group editor of Express India to take up an offer to edit a magazine in Mauritius with "Joint Editor" Shenaz Zaidi is an unexpected anti-climax. Also, at the end, there is a hint that their romantic feelings for each other could take off again.
The novel, published by Narendra Kumar of Har-Anand Publications, New Delhi, will be formally launched by him in Lucknow on December 4. Kumar, the grand old man of Indian publishing industry, has worked virtually with all top authors.
His biggest claim to fame is publishing the largest selling cult book in the country - Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins' Freedom at Midnight.
Rajnish Sharma is currently the editor of Orbit, an educational magazine. Sharma has worked in all the top newspapers of the country, including The Times of India, Hindustan Times and Business Standard. His pioneering report on undivided Bihar's economy is still quoted as a benchmark. He has done write-ups on finance, cuisine, politics, sports, history, environment, heritage, cinema, the Indian diaspora and even light comic pieces.
Flickering Flames is unique in that has a blend of humour, an understated depth of emotion, besides a sharp insight into the socio-economic changes taking place. By Ashok Dixit (ANI)