Vani Kaushal makes a mark with debut novel
New Delhi, March 8, 2015
On a bright and cheerful Saturday morning, I am headed to Connaught Place, the heart of Delhi, to meet Vani Kaushal, so far known to me as the author of a book with the intriguing title, The Recession Groom.
I have been fortunate enough to read the book -- Vani's first, and I am looking forward to the meeting. The book portrays a Punjabi boy, Parshuraman Joshi, living the enviable NRI life as an IT consultant in Canada, at the ripe-for-marriage age of 27 years.
As is with any Indian boy ready to get married, he has a posse of relatives, in both Chandigarh as well as San Francisco, all eager to pitch in with their best in the enjoyable task of getting their beloved boy married off. Ranging from the protective elder sister and youthful-minded grandmother to the self-assured and loud aunt, each of them has several ideas on the ideal bride and wedding. Meanwhile, Parshuraman tries to keep up with their grandiose plans as he juggles his extremely busy work schedule with the demands imposed upon him by the family.
Then, suddenly, all plans are in total disarray when Parshuraman loses his job in the recession of 2008. The job having been the only thing that kept attracting the "right" sort of brides, he goes in a flash from being the hot bachelor on the Indian marriage market to the man to whom no father wants his daughter to be married. It doesn't get easier when his colleague, the white-therefore-off-limits Jennifer, confesses her undying love for him.
Resorting to any job available to him, irrespective of the respectability it offers an Indian boy, Parshuraman matures almost overnight into the man who stands up for what is right for himself. After a series of incidents, hilarious and serious both, Parshuraman discovers himself and what he needs and wants in life, and seeks them out with little fear. The book offers an unusual yet happy ending, leaving the reader unsettled with a looming uncertainty.
The novel has me intrigued thoroughly. A refreshing change from the stories flooding the popular Indian fiction market, it has me questioning the choices Vani made while writing the story.
I walk into Oxford Bookstore, in the Outer Circle of Connaught Place. Having been in touch with her over the telephone for a week and also having read about her, I have made acquaintance with a friendly sounding and pretty looking Vani. I find her in the innermost room of the bookstore, a space set aside by the good folks at Oxford for book launches and readings, poring over a few papers with another lady. At first glance, I see a smartly dressed woman sitting with an easy elegance, chatting professionally with the lady. Must be the business journalist in her, I think to myself. I make my presence known to her, and I'm rewarded with a warm greeting and a request to make acquaintance with her friend while she wraps up the task at hand.
A few minutes later, Vani approaches and settles herself next to me, and a friendly chat ensues. Her younger brother, Rahul, approaches and we are introduced. He assumes the responsibility of her event manager with little difficulty. Clearly, Vani has her family support throughout the endeavour - it is a collective front, as is expected from the author of a family-oriented novel.
A little while into the chat, I bring the conversation to her growing up years. Brought up in Chandigarh, Vani, like most Indian children, was faced with the daunting dilemma of choosing a career. A dilemma, since the conventional routes of medicine and engineering were of no interest to her, which found her leaning towards humanities. She pursued Economics at both undergraduate and post-graduate levels while studying journalism on the side. A student of Bhavan Vidyalaya and Panjab University, Vani excelled academically, going on to top the university and winning a gold medal.
Having studied journalism as well as Economics, it became a natural choice to make a career in business journalism. Vani went on to work with Financial Express, Chandigarh and the Times of India, Delhi, till she felt a calling to write more than the compact articles she was turning out for the paper.
"Journalism became the point where I began to gravitate towards writing more. I wanted to write better stories; I could do better than a 500-word article," she said.
A novel felt like the obvious progression, and she began writing drafts of a chick-lit story. Unhappy with the results and lack of energy in the story to make it last a full-length novel, she changed track and pursued an MBA at Kingston University, London. Expecting several dreamy job offers on completing her MBA, Vani was, however, faced with a brutal reality as she graduated around the time of the global recession of 2008. With several companies on a hiring freeze, she taught at a college in London with the MBA department, as well as in Mohali.
Driven to write about the recession making a huge difference to one Indian family, out of the millions affected across the world, Vani began weaving and writing her story as she taught. "I could see my friends around me taking up jobs they would rather not do at all, and buying groceries of lower quality than they were used to consuming under normal circumstances. I wanted to write about this, from a perspective of an Indian. I wanted to write about the macro changes in the big world affecting the little world, where the Indian family sees their child in a plush international job and cannot wait for him or her to settle down. The job makes the person much more valuable to prospective grooms and brides, so what happens when this job is suddenly taken away?"
Catching the knowing look in my eyes, she reaffirms that this is a story that is sure to resonate with millions of Indians across the world, and equally fascinate the rest who are privy to this side of the Indian family for the first time.
Writing out her first book took as long as two years, after which she was introduced to yet another new - getting published. Upon receiving several rejections, she enlisted the assistance of international editors and writers to shape her piece to be better suited for the tastes and sensibilities of the English reader across the world. Finally, she submitted a much revised draft to various publishers. This time, she was presented with an offer within a week of submitting - Leadstart Publishing had decided to publish her book.
For Vani, the responsibility of getting the book published did not end there. She continued to revise various passages, especially the ending.
She was also presented with a completely unfamiliar task of publicity - she had to go out there and create an image and presence in the terrifyingly large world of new authors. "Around 100,000 books are published every year in India alone. It was a daunting task to make myself visible amongst them," she said.
As a comfortable loner, this was probably the harder part of publishing her book. However, attesting to her stereotypical Punjabi nature, she accomplished the task and made her presence known with little difficulty.
Sipping on masala chai, we allow our conversation to take us away from the book altogether, and I find her an easy conversationalist.
Asked whether it was a conscious decision to write in the style of the popular Indian romantic comedy fiction, Vani hesitates slightly before saying that, though she would have loved to write fantasy and crime fiction, her maiden book is based on what she knows and is comfortable with - something that is a jumpstart for any first-time novelist.
However, she does intend to write fantasy and crime next. "I have my phone on my person all the time. I keep getting ideas of what to write next, and I keep saving it as little notes on my phone as and when they come to me. I already have an idea for the sequels - two of them - to the Recession Groom, as well as for a crime fiction novel."
She brings up her digital column on the Huffington Post, where she writes regularly on the mistakes one should avoid while writing. True to her nature of collecting ideas, she dispelled skepticism from friends about being able to find 100 mistakes while writing - the column is set for a series of 100 notes on the mistakes of writing - and collected close to 80 mistakes she was aware of within the first night of brainstorming.
Though desirous of writing beyond a singular genre, she also states that while she does adore authors such as George R. R. Martin, she would not want to emulate him or anyone else in writing stories that are unfamiliar to her own life.
"I would rather inject a comfortable note of what I know in a healthy mix of said genre, and make a completely new storyline, than stick to what fantasy has always been written like," she says as she laughs at the thought of a Punjabi protagonist in a fantasy novel. "As a writer, at the end of the day, I want to be known for my own kind of writing, not for adopting someone else's writing. It should be as imaginative as theirs, but fresh and from my own perspective."
Speaking about the creation of her worlds in her stories, "It is a process of stepping out of my comfort zone, and figuring out individual characters from within their shoes. I run it past several people known and unknown to me to understand if I have truly captured the sense of the character I am aiming for - whether they are believable people, and whether they are situated in believable places. However, in doing so, I was aware of not completely fulfilling this criterion in the Recession Groom since I became more mindful of making the book suited for international tastes and appeal, apart from cutting down on descriptive notes in order to stick with the word limits."
Moving to a subject that plagues all first-time writers, I ask her how much she criticized her own words and whether she ended up trashing her work more than going forward?
She agreed that this is an issue that affected her.
"It is hard today to make a mark in this industry, unless you have the right promotions and your story and writing are absolutely wonderful. While writing my first book, I felt my first draft was ready to be published. It was only after I faced a few rejections from publishing houses that I began to critically look at my work and rewrite. I sought the help of international editors as well. Each dialogue has been worked on for at least two days, and finally after two years and many drafts later, I felt I was bringing out the perfect script," she said.
The Recession Groom faced multiple revisions even after it was accepted for a publishing contract, and Vani felt the ending deserved a less-than-cinematic and more intriguing finish to what she began to view as the first to a series of books.
So, at what point was she satisfied with her book, and when did she leave the draft to its final words? "I had difficulty in accepting the draft was perfect, and felt a compulsion to rework the writing over and over again. It becomes easier with the second book onwards, as you begin to write with a critical eye, always assuming what the reader is going to see when they read what you write, and progressing positively - as opposed to tearing down something you've written out completely and then editing that to pieces. I have become a little more independent in this respect, not constantly requiring the need of an outsider perspective. The first time my draft was sent for analysis, the editor trashed more than half of what I'd written, citing that as nonsense. I cried and felt she was a horrible person. Now, I'm a far more evolved writer than when I began, for knowing better what is good and internationally saleable writing."
As a first-time writer, did she ever feel that her writing should have a particular serious literature style to it, or did she aim for what the readers would connect with popularly? "Neither. I have always wanted to write the way I feel and think, and that is exactly what I have done. I feel like I am an entertaining person, and I want to write entertaining books. People have enough seriousness going on in their lives. I would rather be true to who I am, and write in a lighter vein."
Carrying forward this discussion in the subsequent Talk with the Author session at the bookstore, Vani maintains an image that appears true to herself. Effortlessly moving from a personal conversation to a public chat, Vani might be the shy girl from Chandigarh, but she has definitely made her mark as a likeable and popular debutante author.
From penning down her penchant for entertainment for contemporary readers of Indian fiction, she has gone on to create a niche for herself and we will hopefully read many more delightful books from her.
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