Rishi Vohra is the author of ‘Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai’. He recently relocated back to Mumbai after completing a Green MBA from San Francisco State University and a Masters Diploma in Environmental Law, prior to which he had a successful career in the Indian Entertainment Industry. After featuring as a guest columnist for various newspapers in India, he currently writes for delWine and is a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW). ‘Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai’ is his first novel.
First of all, thank you for the interview.
Autism and schizophrenia aren’t popular themes among Indian authors. Esp. not the ones who write for the masses. How did you come up with the idea of Babloo, an autistic hero for your story and what was the inspiration behind your story?
The idea of Babloo’s character germinated from the conversation with a friend of mine. He is much older and has the similar mental disorders as Babloo’s character. He is very intelligent and used to follow newspaper headlines, and report the same to me. One day, he was irked by a headline about a particular railway crime and said that he wished he could do something about it. That got me thinking – what if he could do something about it? How would he do it?
This friend of mine is in India. A year later, I moved to the U.S. for graduate business school. When I sat down to write, this conversation with him came to mind. I created the character of Babloo and wanted to give him a life on paper. At the time, all I had was Babloo. The story unfolded with each page.
Sapna, I wouldn’t call Babloo an autistic hero. He is a hero who happens to have autism. The difference is that he is prompted by his disorders rather than a sense of reasoning. This helps him create an alternate reality for himself.
Even though Babloo is just a character in the book, for me he became a real person. So to answer your question, my inspiration was to give Babloo a life and help him find normalcy in his world which had ostracized him all along.
Did you face any challenges while writing the novel?
The biggest challenge was getting into Babloo’s head. Because of his disorders, he lacked a sense of reasoning typical of normal adults. Though I had researched about his disorders, it didn’t seem enough to understand him or his thought process.
At the time, I was just about to start my MBA program at San Francisco State University (SFSU). SFSU has a renowned Psychology department. I met with one of the faculty and spoke to him at length, trying to get an understanding of these disorders. Please understand that at this point, I had no idea that I was going to write a novel to be later pushed for publication. It was just a story I wanted to get on paper, and was actually looking to write it as a screenplay. Anyway, this faculty member put me in touch with people with such disorders, on the condition that I would talk to them normally, and not try to learn about their disorders from them. So, over a duration of time, I spent time with these people who soon became friends. Our interactions helped me shape up Babloo’s character.
That is a commendable effort. Your friend must be proud of you. Now that you have mentioned you didn’t have an idea of publishing your work. What prompted you to publish the story and what were the challenges publishing as a first time author?
Once I wrote the book, I kept it on the shelf and dived into the MBA program. I was also working full-time, so didn’t really have time to think about the book. However, I did give it to my wife and some other friends to read and they loved if for the story and “easy style of writing.” They were the ones who encouraged me to push it for publication. So I started writing to literary agents in the U.S., and received only rejection letters. I asked the last agent for her feedback and as to why no one wanted to pick up my work. She told me that the book didn’t cater to Western sensibilities and so it would be difficult to find takers in the Western market. Coincidently, she was aware of the rising mass fiction market in India and advised me to push it for publication in India. So, I rewrote the entire book and started writing to publishers in India.
As a first-time Author, my main challenge was publicity. I realized that an author has to do a large amount of marketing and publicity on his/her own, which makes it challenging for someone without the financial resources. People should hear about a book before they see it in a bookstore, otherwise they are hardly likely to pick it up. A similar comparison, Sapna, would be when you go to a multiplex to watch a film. If you have no particular film in mind, you are more likely to watch a film, the promos of which you have already seen and liked. Even if you see a film hoarding at the theatre with big stars, but which you have heard and know nothing about, you are less likely to choose that film over ones that have repeatedly caught your attention.
Our country is diverse, and getting the attention of a Pan India audience is a huge effort and can prove very expensive. For authors who enter the market with backup financial resources, they are able to get a good publicist on board and push press to the doorsteps of their audiences in both cities and the inner areas. For other authors, first-time or otherwise, they have to hope that word-of-mouth gets their book to readers.
In my case, I was fortunate enough to get press so far without a publicist. But I still feel that the book hasn’t completely reached it’s audience and hope that the positive reviews that the book has garnered so far, goes further through word-of-mouth. On another note, Mr. Prahlad Kakar and Mr. Kabir Bedi were kind enough to read the book and lend their comments to the front and back cover of the book respectively. They both are celebrities adored by mass audiences, and their endorsements add further credibility to that of the positive print and online press so far.
Which authors or books have influenced your writing the most? And what genre do you like reading the best?
Well Sapna, I have been reading various authors right since school so it would be tough for me to pinpoint as to which authors or books have influenced me the most. My writing is more influenced by films as I have worked in the Hindi Film Industry for many years. But, two of my favourite Indian Authors are S. Hussain Zaidi and Vikram Chandra. In their books, they have given Mumbai a unique voice and captured the true essence of the city and its people.
I like reading mostly fiction. I do read non-fiction but only when it’s based on crime, an inspiring person, or a unique philosophy.
Are you working on any other book currently or do you plan to bring out another book anytime soon? And what genre would that be?
I have finished my second book, but haven’t placed it for publication yet. Now that ‘Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai’ has received an encouraging response, I’m going to go further in the process with my second book. It’s set in the Hindi Film Industry, and is laced with all the humour and drama of a fun, fast-paced read.
Anything you’d like to say to aspiring authors.
Keep writing! Getting published is very difficult, but not impossible. And it requires a huge effort from the writer’s side. You may get rejection letters, but if you have a good book, you will definitely find a publisher. You just have to keep trying.
In India, nonfiction sells more than fiction. So if you’re writing nonfiction, you need to be somewhat of an expert on the subject (proven through your credentials) and you shouldn’t have a problem in finding a publisher.
There are a lot of fiction writers out there. And just because you’re a good writer, doesn’t necessarily make you a good story-teller. So write a fiction, only when you have a story to tell. That will make it much easier and make you more appealing as a writer. Of course, don’t hide your book as the next ‘masterpiece’ and let it collect dust on the shelf! Share it with close ones who you can trust with honest feedback. These are the people who are going to buy your book so their opinions matter! The criticism might hurt in the beginning, but it will steer you in the right direction!
Thanks Rishi. All the Best for your future ventures!