Tête-à-tête with author Uday Singh about his debut novel ‘Pokhran’ and his philosophy behind it
GN Bureau | July 28, 2020
Did India’s nuclear tests in Pokhran in 1974 affect the local population? That is the starting point for a new novel, Uday Singh's 'Pokhran' (published by Srishti). It expertly blends real-life with fiction to deliver a thrilling journey of revenge and courage.
The debutant author is an economist and an engineer “with keen interest in philosophy and a firm belief in the progressive march of humanity towards a better and brighter future”. Singh, who lives in Princeton, New Jersey and works in New York, is a Columbia University Alumnus, ex-strategy consultant with McKinsey & Co. and an investment banker who writes on economy, philosophy, and fiction. He took time off to reply to a few questions from Governance Now about his new novel and about his vision:
Pokhran reads like a heady page-turner, but it is surely more than that. It does not easily fit into a genre. What was the reason to choose this form?
Thank you for this nuanced question. Being a first-time author, I did not have a target genre in mind. It was a story that organically coalesced in my head, without any active impetus on my part. It was a combination of a few core themes or ideas that were brewing in my mind at that time, and they all fused together in a moment of clarity. Those ideas included nuclear tests and their associated radioactive fallout, the unsung inhabitants of Pokhran, the amazing diversity of people in India, the Syrian treatment of Yazidis, and the desire to improve on our current-day free-market democracies. The story wove itself around the various characters that are/ were part of my life at one point or the other.
When I began penning down the story, which was already quite well formed in my mind, I didn't filter anything out. My real contribution was to narrate the story in the same flow as I visualized it, and in doing so I didn't restrict myself to any one genre. By the time I completed writing the novel and took a step back to look at it from an objective perspective, I realized that it cuts across multiple genres. At its heart, it is a thriller that is woven around the undying love and loyalty of the protagonist, who decides to build an eternal monument for his loved one.
Maybe as the dust settles and I get a better feel for how the novel is received by the readers, I will gain a deeper understanding for this form of genre-blending story-telling. Regardless of the reception of the novel, I genuinely believe that one can only tell the story (or lead one's life) in the way one conceptualizes in one's head. Any attempts to tailor make the story to suit the needs of its readers (or live life to satisfy others' expectations of you) will result in a novel (or life) that will be devoid of passion. And I, for one, will always write (or live life) with all my passion and heart in it and hope that there will always be some readers who might find my writing interesting.
You have woven with fiction a novel concept. You have explained ‘Paracracy’ in your note at the end. Why did you choose the form of fiction – and a thriller – to introduce this principle?
Wow! Glad to note that you've gone through the ‘Note from the Author’ at the back of the book. That is my raison d'etre and my motivation for writing the novel. I would like to take a moment here to capture the central ideal behind 'Paracracy', so that it is available to your readers who may not have yet read the novel. Free-market democracy, developed in Athens, has been around for almost 2,500 years. It has been central to unlocking human potential, by releasing power and capital that would otherwise be concentrated with the monarchs. Although things are much better now, life's playing field is not level for everyone as they start out in life. This uneven playing field is the result of the different levels of wealth inherited by the new generation (from their parents or family). 'Paracracy' is an upgrade to the free-market democracy that eliminates inheritance and everyone (no matter what their familial wealth) starts their life at 21 years with zero assets. This will ensure that the wealth gap between haves and havenots is reset every generation, which will be a step change in further unlocking human potential.
As to why fiction and not some other means, for example like a white paper, to introduce the concept of 'Paracracy' – I have given it considerable thought before embarking on the fiction route. My intent in relaying this principle through fiction is to bury it under several layers inside the story line, with the hope that it will be discovered by some charismatic politician who might internalize it as a concept that their mind conjured up and subsequently decide to adopt it as his/ her own political platform. There is enough detail in it to provide the broad guidelines for such a society, while leaving the actual implementation to be uniquely defined by that individual.
Additionally, fiction lends itself readily for translation into other media like a movie or a video series. It is likely that very few of the target politicians will ever pick up a book. Hence relaying this in fiction format ensures that it can be made available to the widest audience, maximizing adoption not only by some charismatic politician but all by other progressive thinkers who in turn might build on it. At least that is my hope.
The novel plays close to real life. Tell us more about your ground research about the factual aspects of it.
There are several aspects of the story that are factual, starting with the details about the 'Smiling Buddha' nuclear test. That test was conducted in total secrecy without any of the other countries getting to know of it – which is no ordinary feat, not only because it had to be done in physical secrecy especially avoiding detection by recon satellites in space but also because it required a large team of scientists and military professionals to keep a secret for more than two years (this level of keep things away from the public eyes and ears is unheard of in India).
Details about the impact of the nuclear test blast in and around the blast site. I have been in Rajasthan and been to Pokhran multiple times, and spent time interacting with families there. My intent in spending time there was not necessarily to research for the book (as I did not anticipate at that time that I would be writing my novel based on that place), but rather it was those interactions, my affinity to the desert, and the barren surroundings of the nuclear test site, that formed the core motivation for me to write the story. Also, stories of and conversations with the folks from Pokhran are integral to the plot line of the novel, and they contributed to the fact base for the story.
My interactions with the Yazidi community, details of the Syrian conflict and the treatment meted out to the Yazidis during the conflict are all real events slightly fictionalized to mask the real identities as well as to provide some level of dramatic flair. The lives of the dacoits and even genesis of their lifestyle being rooted in the nationalization of wealth driven by Nehru at the onset of India's independence. Although nationalization and redistribution of wealth is an amazing idea, its flaw lies in its implementation. That is, those that were in charge of redistribution ended up with so much power that it was inevitable that they ended up lining their own pockets. This was planted there to set the stage for eventual denouement of 'Paracracy', which as discussed in the earlier question, will ensure that no wealth (no matter how ill gotten) will ever be transferred over to the same families across generations.
The belief system of the Charvakas, the Yazidi religion, and the Yazidi marriage rituals are all factual and derived from conversations with various individuals as well as books and online resources.
You wear multiple hats: engineer, economist, philosopher, and novelist. Tell us more about yourself!
This is probably the toughest question for me to answer. Regardless of how I may come across in person or in printed words, I perceive myself as a conduit or a messenger or an observer. I am a lot more comfortable delving into ideas, debating various concepts, understanding how the universe or the world or the economy works, than focusing on myself.
With that said, I also appreciate the fact that maybe a small fraction of the readers of my novel might want to get to know me a bit better so that they can connect the dots in their head between the story and its writer. That is motivation enough for me to talk a bit more about myself than I am comfortable doing. Engineer, economist, philosopher, and now novelist, are all labels to capture topics that interest me. If I were to capture myself in a nutshell, I regard myself as a perpetual learner that is willing to let go of the status quo and unlearn and relearn things. Just because I have done a thing in a certain way is reason enough for me not to do the same thing the same way again.
There is one story that has always come to my rescue whenever I have felt like I am stuck in a rut. Out in the desert, the guide stops the bus full of tourists, to point at an elderly man walking alongside his donkey loaded with dirt digging equipment. “He is a tourist attraction hereabouts because he wakes up every day in the morning and goes out to dig for gold in the mountain, and he has been doing so for the past 25 years,” the guide's voice came loudly through the speakers in the bus. One of the tourists asked, “How much gold has he found thus far?” To that the guide said, “None, he hasn't found any thus far.” “In that case, why is he still looking for gold even now? Why does he not give it up?” another tourist asked. The guide paused for a moment and replied, “Maybe because it is less painful for him to continue to dig for gold rather than to stop now and face the fact that he has wasted 25 years unsuccessfully looking for gold.”
Which authors and books are among your favourites?
There are so many authors that I am thankful for, and my top favorites have changed over the course of my life. I will try capture some of the authors and also share my rationale as to why I liked them:
a) Daniel Dennett (in "Breaking the Spell") - for his ability to layout an unambiguous and logical argument in a very nebulous topic, like why do we believe one religion vs another
b) Paulo Coelho (in "Alchemist") - for his ability to create magic through words, and make me fall in love with desert. I loved Alchemist so much that the only tattoo I have is based on the symbol for copper (or electricity) in Alchemy
c) Richard Dawkins (in "Selfish Gene") - for his ability to look back into life as it started (or might have started) through the evolution of chemicals which started out as amino acids to DNA to larger chemical structures; in essence he was able to revise or upgrade Darwin's "Origin of Species" by formulating a theory for "Origin of life" (although he didn't call it that)
d) Richard Bach (in "Illusions") - for his ability to effectively narrate small stories within a larger story, and imparting deep insights through very simple anecdotes
e) Herodotus (in "History of the World") - for spending his time traveling and capturing the various cultures of the world about 2,300 years back, preserving a priceless snapshot from that time that provides insights into the nature of humanity and how our current day challenges/ stresses/ happiness are not that different from those that lived those many centuries back. That may come across as an obvious statement, but for me it was like finding an invaluable treasure trove.
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