Sunday, December 30, 2012

We The People: An Open Letter to Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh

An Open Letter to Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh

Dear Dr. Singh,

You do not know me, and perhaps we will never meet each other; yet I am taking the liberty of addressing this letter to you. Partly that is because I am one of the 1.2 billion Indians who look up to you to rule this nation of ours in our name- an ordinary, anonymous citizen reaching out to his elected leader. Partly it is because, as a writer, I can think of no better way to give vent to the sense of outrage I feel at the recent rape and murder of a 23 year old woman in Delhi than to put my thoughts down in words. However, it is also because, among all your peers in our government, I hold out hope that you will have the integrity and courage to bring about some real change. Unlike many of your peers, you do not owe your position to the family name you carry or to favours traded in political and business deals. So I hope that with your conscience unburdened by these, you can demonstrate the courage that we the people demand of you. As an undergraduate student of Economics, I watched with admiration as you removed the shackles that tied down the Indian economy and set it on a path of acceleration and development that it had never seen before. That took real vision and courage but the challenge you face now will require perhaps even more courage. However, the payoff will be much bigger because we will truly be on the path to development not because of GDP growth numbers but when half our population can live their daily lives in safety and security, without having to worry about being thrown to the mercy of rabid animals like the six men who brutalized the young woman in the Delhi bus.

What could you do? Here are three thoughts for you:

 1.     Understand ground reality and how deep the rot really lies. You lead a rarified existence, as befits your status. However, there is no shame in getting one’s hands dirty and understanding what is actually happening in the nation you govern. Great rulers of our past like Akbar and Ashoka often ventured out in disguise to understand what was on their peoples’ minds. Today, with social networking and media, you don’t need to do that, but you do need to be in touch with what we the people are feeling. If you had been, you would not have waited so many days after the incident for your poorly edited and produced telecast to the nation. If you had been, you would know that it is not just one ghastly incident that defines the nature of the problem we face. Almost every ordinary woman will have tales of catcalls, groping and harassment in buses and public places by men who do it not just because they are barely civilized Neanderthals, but because they believe they can get away with it. Even the six rapists in the Delhi case cleaned up the bus and went on with life as usual, thinking they would never be brought to task. When people talk of bringing about change, they talk of changing attitudes and mindsets. I believe that will take time and whatever we try by way of education and sensitization, there will always be brutes like Ram Singh and his friends in any society. I believe that the cure will start when they no longer feel they can get away with it. However to act on it, you first need to understand just how deep the rot is and how strongly we the people are starting to feel about it- with this young woman’s trauma acting as the catalyst.
2.     Put your own house in order. Even before you start trying to bring about change in society, have the courage to change the very government you lead for change, like charity, begins at home. Two of our Members of Parliament and six legislators face rape charges, and a staggering 162 MPs (28% of the total) have criminal charges against them. We the people refuse to be led by rapists and criminals. Fast track these cases, and if found guilty, put them in prison where they belong, not in the hallways of power ruling in our name. Make an example of cretins like the legislator who made snide, sexist remarks about `dented, painted women’ and women who go to discos not having the right to protest. Yes, his command of the English language rivals his poor leadership skills, but he has no business being in your government. Your party asks us to `forgive and forget’ his comments, but we the people refuse to forgive or forget any more. 
3.     Take decisive action. The six beasts who killed the young woman on the bus should be tried and punished as fast as possible- let us not again have the pathetic sight of the Indian judiciary taking years to process cases. For all I care, these bastards can hang from the nearest streetlight- through their actions they have lost the right to live in any civilized society. However, it cannot and must not end there. What we need is for you, for those who rule in our name, to take pro-active action. What we need is for exemplary punishment to be doled out to rapists and molesters. What we need is for you to showcase that nobody is above the law- not even government officials and legislators like the ones who killed a serving police officer in Punjab when he objected to their molesting his daughter. What we need is the fear of God to be put in the hearts and minds of these brutes- for them to know that they will not get away with it any more. Aamir Khan had an interesting idea- of `pre-emptive’ action- of using plainclothes cops including women to ferret out these molesters and rapists and to remove them from the streets. The softer side of things, the education, the sensitization, the change in mindsets is needed, and will follow, but in the short term, our system needs a shock. A shock to make people realize that it is no longer business as usual.

The window for you to act is narrow. Not just because you and your government will lose all respect if you do not, but because if we the people realize that our elected leaders cannot protect us, we will have to do it ourselves. Today, young people are protesting peacefully, demanding action. Tomorrow, they will start taking action themselves. We all know how that script goes- the police turned against the very citizens they are sworn to protect, faith crumbling in the regime, chaos and vigilantism. It’s played out in many countries, most recently in the so-called Arab Spring. I would never wish that upon my country. India, for all its faults, is a nation I love- because it is still a nation where people can speak their mind and not worry about the midnight knock for their words, where ordinary people can improve their lot in life based on their talent and hard work, and where faith in democracy still runs strong. That’s what makes me believe in India- and makes me scoff at comparisons to other so-called Asian giants where growth numbers are high, but fundamental freedoms low. Please don’t shake that faith. Please don’t make us question the basic premise on which Indian democracy works, the premise that puts you in power to rule in our name. If not for altruistic notions or motives, please at least make your peers act for fear of self-preservation, something our politicians seem to be good at. As Thomas Jefferson said, “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty”.

We the people await your action.

Warm regards
Mainak Dhar

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Girl Called Alice

There are two things every writer yearns to do. First, to connect with readers through his or her work in a way that books cease being simply the product of the writer’s imagination, but something that readers help shape and create through their feedback and interest. Second, to work on books which seem to write themselves, where coming up with ideas and writing, far from being a drudgery, is such a delight that it feels like the book is writing itself- and the writer merely provides a means to do so.

I count myself fortunate to have experienced both through my Alice in Deadland books. Sometime in mid 2011, I began writing Alice in Deadland, set in a post-apocalyptic Delhi known simply as the Deadland, where human survivors struggle for survival against hordes of undead creatures called Biters and mercenaries unleashed by a tyrannical Central Committee seeking to enslave all remaining humans. I tried to weave a tale about a young girl coping with the discovery of her destiny in a post-apocalyptic land and through her adventures, understand the true nature of the evil that threatens our freedom. In a nod to a favourite author of mine, I tried to build in some elements of Lewis Carroll’s work. So Alice follows a bunny eared Biter down a hole in the ground, triggering off her epic adventure and her quest to discover what really brought about The Rising- the catastrophic events that destroyed human civilization as we know it.

When I uploaded the Kindle version of Alice in Deadland to Amazon, I was blown away by the reception. More than 50,000 readers bought the book in the first three months, and Alice in Deadland went on to become the #1 Horror and Sci-Fi bestseller on Amazon. More than the sales, what was amazing was the extent to which it connected with readers. In those first three months, I received more than two hundred reader emails, appreciating my work, describing how it struck a chord given the times we live in, and finally, telling me to continue the story. I had never planned to make a series of it, but as more and more readers wrote in, asking what happened next to Alice, asking what the back story of some of the key characters was, I got to work on the series. Through The Killing Glass (Book II) and Off With Their Heads (a prequel) were next, and I have just finished Book III, titled Hunting the Snark. The mere fact that the book has spawned a series that currently stands at four books is to a large extent due to the encouragement I got from readers to continue the series, but the role readers played in it goes much deeper.

 Some six months after uploading Alice in Deadland, I started a Facebook group, and over the last year or so, one of my most cherished achievements as a writer has been the direct interaction with readers this group has enabled. Through this group, I have got readers to help me on names (the title Off With their Heads came from a reader), suggest what they would like to happen next and also take that interaction into the `real’ world (one reader baked `Biter biscuits’ for a book club reading where she shared Alice in Deadland). I haven’t met any of these readers in the `real’ world, but now they feel not like distant readers who are statistics on a sales or royalty report, but individuals I know, who are friends and partners in my writing process, and our relationship goes beyond just the books I write. When my father fell ill and passed away in May 2012, many of the readers kindly wrote in to give me strength and to share in my grief.

This is what writing should be- a writer creating his work not in a vacuum, but with the constant interaction, interplay and feedback from readers in real time. Where readers and writers interact on a one on one basis to create work that delights both of them, and writing, far from being a drudgery, is something one wakes up each morning charged up to do. Now having written four books in the series, Alice is more than a character in a book I once created- she feels like a real friend, someone I have a long history with, and someone who has introduced me to some amazing people (my readers).

I consider myself lucky to have experienced this, and no matter what I go on to write in the future, or what lies in store for my writing career, Alice in Deadland will always have a very special place in my heart for enabling this. As a small tribute to my readers, in Hunting the Snark most of the key characters who join Alice on her new quest are modeled on readers from this Facebook group. These readers helped give me the strength and encouragement to breathe life into a girl called Alice, and now they get a chance to join her on her latest adventure.

Along the way, Alice also helped me get closer to one of my all time favourite authors. I had built in references to some of Lewis Carroll's work in my Alice books, and now, Alice in Deadland is featured in the official website of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.

What’s exciting is that Alice’s story is far from fully told. She is set to help me meet many more new readers. In January 2013, the Turkish translation will be released by Elf Yayinlari and Alice goes back to the country where the story was set with the release of the Indian paperback edition by Duckbill. I look forward to Alice introducing me to many new readers and to us continuing to breathe life together into this girl called Alice and her adventures.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Doomsday Clock

Yesterday several things happened that made me write this blog. First, I got a request to write about the supposedly impending Doomsday by, then my mother in law of all people asked me if the world would indeed end on December the 21st. Perhaps, having now written five novels about the end of the world as we know it, they felt I had something to contribute to the hoopla about December 21, 2012. But then something happened that made me think about how they’re so mistaken about the true nature of the Doomsday Clock humanity faces. A 20-year old man shot dead twenty-seven people in the US, including twenty kids at their school. As the father of a school-going child no older than many of the victims, the incident really struck home for me.

What this incident teaches us is that the Doomsday Clock that we face is not something that runs according to some ancient Mayan calendar, which itself I suspect has been magnified by Hollywood, media hype and self-serving prophets of doom.

It’s within each of us.

The battle for survival we face is not against an impending zombie apocalypse, arrival of aliens or meteors from space, but a battle to contain the evil that lurks within the heart of each man. This battle will not be waged on a media-hyped December 21st, but is waged, and won every single day. Humanity will triumph over its Doomsday Clock when each of us can discover the good and the love we are capable of, and keep the evil and hate that have been our undoing throughout our history at bay. Doing that is a tougher battle than contending with any horde of fictional zombies or aliens.

Today, Doomsday came true for twenty innocent children, and with them, we all lost a little bit in our battle against our collective Doomsday Clock. To the editor who wanted the article (and to my mother in law), let’s focus on that inner battle and forget about the hype of December 21.