Reading Piyush Jha's bestseller Mumbaistan is a lot like riding a high speed roller coaster up a mountain. Well, three small peaks actually because Mumbaistan is a collection of three crime shorts.
Piyush draws you into each of his stories by making a simple beginning that evokes wonder before ratcheting up the stakes and the pace. A lot of the fiction is hard boiled and some of it is police procedural. Piyush revels in sliding the carpet out from under your feet and often uses an inverted detective structure to throw you off. (You can almost sense him smiling as you stumble on each twist)
There are a lot of authors in India who are enthusiastic and committed to creating complex plots (as opposed to say, stories of introspection). Piyush's stories stand out because of his terrific writing - it is crisp, consistent and vivid, especially when giving his characters a voice. Mumbai features prominently in all the stories - not just as a city - but as a series of locations with unique characteristics that intertwine with the story.
Sikandar), immensely likable and kind enough to stop by and answer a few questions about his work.
Hi Piyush, congratulations on the success of Mumbaistan. I'd like to say I enjoyed it immensely. Any idea what kind of people have been loving this book and why do you think they connected with it?
Piyush: I've received raves from people as diverse as an 84 year old retired Army-man, a 15 year old schoolgirl and a housewife who bakes muffins while reading the book! So, I guess the appeal of Mumbaistan is universal.
I wanted to talk a little bit about your process. How do you get your ideas and how do you create your characters?
Piyush: I sit and stare in nothingness and let my mind float over all that I've ever read, seen, and experienced otherwise, and soon a story begins to form in my head. The characters are an amalgam of all those that I've interacted with over the years.
Your stories have such an urgent flow to them. Do you do a lot of rewrites or does this stuff just come tumbling out and stay as-is once its written?
Piyush: I’m by nature a person who wants to do everything NOW. I re-write very little. Of course, I do tweak things to fit together better, and do submit to the editing process. But most of it is stuff that tumbles out the first time.
You've mentioned Fredrick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum as inspirations. When I read your book I felt like I was reading James Hadley Chase again, only much better. Is your goal to be the most read author in planes, trains and automobiles?
Piyush: Well, I suppose Chase too has influenced me, subconsciously, in a way that my writing has a very strong love/deception streak in it. But, you might notice the economy with which I write scenes is influenced by Forsyth and [my] complexity of plot [is influenced] by Ludlum. I've of course developed my own style…hopefully!
And yes, I've always wanted to be known as the number one in ‘Airport Fiction’, in India’s case it is ‘Railway Fiction’. The results are there to see - Mumbaistan sells widely at airports and train stations.
I have to say your descriptions of Mumbai were so vivid that I felt it became a character in the book. Even for someone from Mumbai, this requires a lot of pavement pounding. Are you just a wanderer by nature?
Piyush: Yes. I guess I am. But, I want my viewers and readers to experience my travels with me. My last film, Sikandar, was set in Kashmir. People who have seen it always say that they've never seen Kashmir the way I showed it in my film. In Mumbaistan, I wanted to show Mumbai, as I know it- from the inside. I've grown up here and literally pounded the pavements through its length and breadth. I wanted the reader to experience the sights and sounds that I know intimately. Thankfully, from the response that I've got, I feel that I've been able to do so.
Without giving much away, I'll say that you position women in an interesting way in your stories. Are you trying to make a larger social comment here?
Piyush: If you notice the backbone of my writing is the American/French ‘Noir’ genre. And I’m just following the dictates of the genre where more often than not the lead woman protagonist is a Femme Fatale. So really, I’m not doing anything different, but following in the best traditions of the Noir writers.
You are also a filmmaker - that's a tough world to work in. Which one is rougher - the streets of Mumbaistan or the world of Indian films?
Piyush: I must say that both have their charms and their pitfalls, pun not intended. Both reward you with bounties if success should smile at you, and will forget you in a flash if you take a step in the wrong direction.
Piyush: All of them inspired me by their upright nature. Of course, Deepak Rao helped me with getting police procedure right.
Since your stories are crime thrillers, I'll ask you the following two questions:
(1) Which is the worst crime being committed in Indian films today?
(2) What is the most thrilling Indian movie you've seen recently?
Piyush, your book is a bestseller, Ekta Kapoor described it as "entertainment, entertainment, entertainment", you danced with Amitabh at his 70th birthday bash, Chitrangada Singh launched your book in Delhi, Mumbaistan was shortlisted for awards, your picture was in every newspaper in town, Sunday Mid-day called you "the Sikandar of crime" (in a good way!). What was the best thing that has happened to you since you wrote the book?
Piyush: When I walk into a bookstore, I see my book on the shelves, and the bookstore employees call me ‘Author’!
There has been talk about turning these stories into a movie. I think if you could write a common thread to bring these stories together you'd have a Rs 100 crore blockbuster on your hands! Any particular actors you'd like to see in this film?
Piyush: Thanks for your vote of confidence. I’ll work with any actor who will have me as their Director.
Mumbaistan on Facebook
Piyush also writes "30 second thriller" shorts on his IBN Live blog Mumbaistan