Monday, October 1, 2012

Cymbal #45:: Solenoid

In the field behind the home I grew up in, in that green and fragrant field, there stood a tower. It was a tower, not of stone, not of bricks, not of mud and tile, but a tower of wire. Wires coiled into springs; springs coiled around some hidden core. The springs were the width of a hand, and there was no gap between them, no way to look in. We tried, and neither our hands nor our tools could separate the coils.

At its base the tower was the size of a large house and it tapered to nothing a hundred feet above the ground. More than halfway up, its otherwise regular surface was broken by an extrusion, a small half bubble, a cup with a shadow of darkness above it. For years as we played below, and rode our bicycles, we wondered if anyone lived in that hemisphere of darkness and why it existed.

Alexander 'Skip' Spence - Broken Heart - 1969

Nobody know who had built the tower, and it was too far from the world of grown ups to ask. The older kids had graffitied its base, and the metal wires were covered in obscenities and the tags of artists, who now were lawyers and accountants and chefs.

The tower had the ephemeral feeling of a thin pencil lines drawn on plain paper, to help an unsteady hand write in cursive with a pen. Once the page was dry, the pencil lines would be erased away, but there was no hiding the crutch – hold it up to the light and the lines are clear. So I imagined that the coils of the wire were filed with some eldritch electricity, blue particles speeding godlike to the top and that the electricity in turn generated, in the direction of a thumb pointing upwards, a magnetic field drawing to it the children of the neighborhood.

Thirty years later, life brought me full circle to that same field. In the centre of the field, shimmered again the same tower unrusted, and that same demitasse of darkness. Now, too old and too frequently robbed to not take what I want, I decided to climb the tower.

The Smashing Pumpkins - The Celestials - 2012

The next day, in the field, a morning which in a past life I would have spent riding my bicycle around the tower after school, I looked up its length. Then I kicked my crampons into it, gripped my ice axes firm in both hands and started upwards. The hum and crash of the axes biting into the metal filled me with a violative joy, as if what I was digging into was not the gaps in springs, but the very substance of my life.

Then, I hooked my leg into the balcony, and finally, I stood in the mystery.  The sun shown down into the room, a small room, only one room. In the centre was a velvet chair, a homely throne, and on it sat a little boy. On his head sat a tinsel crown.

When I looked upon his face, I knew it. I knew it a thousand times, knew what it would become, knew what would line it, knew where it would scar. But to him, I came as a stranger.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Hindu Review

I've always been a big fan of The Hindu. I consider it the best paper in India - erudite, restrained, encyclopaedic in scope.

However, I can't say I was overjoyed when I read its review of The Angel's Share. 'Mildly entertaining' stings. It may be the hyper-sensitive ears of the author but even the praise sounds a little backhanded - 'there are bits that are really funny' sounds desperately like the reviewer is casting about for something pleasant to say.

The one real bone that the reviewer had to pick with the book seems to be that Zorawar Chauhan is a cad. Of course he's a cad. That's a bit like slating Moby Dick because Captain Ahab 'has a bit of a one track mind'. Must all first-person narrators be likeable? 

Ah well. The silver lining is that the reviewer opens with 'the cover is simply gorgeous'. I've been hearing this from quite a few sources. All credit goes to Nikolai Linares, a brilliant young Danish photojournalist, and Shuka Jain at Harper.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Review by The Mint

A very kind review of The Angel's Share in The Mint:

"Satyajit Sarna’s maiden book, The Angel’s Share, gives voice to a generation desperate to be heard...The Angel’s Share is about self-discovery. It is about an individual coming to know himself, a generation coming to know itself. It is a story not about overnight changes, but complicated becomings."


When I wrote The Angel's Share, I found myself wishing I could do more to bring a reader into the world I was describing, and creating. I wanted the reader to hear with my ears, smell through my nose, to associate with each passing moment, each plot point a set of sensations, a hidden library of senses.

In fact Library was the concept I was looking for, like a library in C++, a set of definitions, a context to borrow and insert by reference. I wanted to point to a song or a painting, and say, this is what I mean. It is with the colour, the heft, the tone of this song that I want you to read these words. And so - the chapter names in The Angel's Share. To make it easier for readers, here's a link to a YouTube playlist which plays the songs in the order they are listed.

Of course, there is a kind of person who responds to music, and to the kinds of songs I had included. I realize that a majority of people would just like to read the book through and not be bothered by a lot of songs. But if you do like music, and you like this kind of music, please do let me know if the experiment works for you.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Angel's Share at #2

So I opened the paper this morning and promptly spilled my coffee all over it.

Naturally, 50 Shades of Grey will be right at the top. It's the publishing phenomenon of the millennium so far.

But my small mournful book about loss and self-discovery? At No. 2? Frankly, I'm in shock.

Thank you to all of you who bought The Angel's Share and read it or are reading it. Please do give me feedback in the comments section.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

From Bar & Bench

Working Title: The Lawyer and the Writer

As children, some of us are given books, and some of us are given to books. I was one of the latter, bespectacled from an early age, full of second-hand learning, the sort of kid who rushes home so that he can read face-down on his bed, with a head full of lurid fantasy and science fiction. It’s probably an indication that something either about me or about formal education is very screwed up that I used to skip class to read books; if I hadn’t liked to read so much, I’d likely have done a lot better in school and in college.

When I graduated from NLS Bangalore in 2008, I was following what I thought was my dream of being a corporate lawyer. I joined S&R Associates in Delhi - which is a great firm. I spent a year there, learning the ropes and working on amazing deals. But, much as I liked my bosses, the friends I had made and all the perks of the corporate law firm lifestyle, I was fairly sure that securities law was not my future. And of course, on weekends, and at night, I was writing – fragments, scenes, scraps.

I took some time off between working at S&R Associates and joining the chambers of Mr. Neeraj Kishan Kaul, Senior Advocate, where I would learn about litigation. In those three months, I sat myself down pieced together the first draft of what would become The Angel’s Share.  Over the next year, that draft grew and changed shape and mood drastically.

Writing a book is not easy. Sure, there are days when the words come flooding out of you, and even as you’re writing them down, you know that they convey what you want to say exactly, and that is a great moment. But there are many days when nothing at all comes to you. Sometimes you have to stick it out and keep putting words on paper or on your screen till they start making sense. At other times, there is no force on earth which will get words out of you and you are best served going for a run and trying again later. If muses exist, they are capricious and ungenerous creatures and need to be dragged kicking and screaming from their caves.

Working on a book while holding down a day-job is a challenge. When you’re tired after a long day in the office or in court, you can’t just come home and watch TV and go to sleep. My trick is to go plonk myself down in a coffeeshop and under the impersonal gaze of strangers, open up my laptop and try to get something done. I motivate myself like runners do – just one more mile and you can stop – just one more paragraph and you can get another cup of coffee.

But why would anyone do this? Writing doesn’t pay much, except to a handful of people I can only hope to join if I work at it very hard for years. It brings you negligible fame or exposure – how many of the writers you like would you be able to recognize on the street? At best, it gives you something to tell girls, but I’m sorry to disappoint you – that kind of girl is in short supply.

At the end of it, when your book is actually out and people are reading it, you have to deal with expectations and insecurity. There are critics who will tell you that your work is crap. You will have close friends and family who will read what you spent years on and shrug, because it’s not their thing. You will let something which is part of you out into the world, and maybe the world will mistreat it, but you have to be okay with that.

You write not because you want to, but because you have to, because there is something within you that needs to be let out. Slowly it builds on itself. All those nights after work when you sat in a coffeeshop and pulled two laborious paragraphs out of yourself, and all the days when you had blinding breakthroughs about what two scenes belonged together – all of those add up to something which stands on its own two legs and starts to take faltering unsteady steps. That moment when all those words add up and become a thing, discrete and alive, that moment is what you live for as a writer.

Your little Frankenstein then trundles off to a publishing house and knocks on its door. It gets politely (or impolitely) told to try its luck elsewhere. Maybe then somebody sees in it the germ of an actual book. Then starts the process of rewriting, enhancing and editing the book, which takes a long time and involves a good deal of back and forth with an editor. That process took a full year for me, from acceptance to publication, a year I spent at Amarchand Mangaldas learning to draft under an excellent litigation partner. My editor at Harper Collins India was Ajitha GS who was (and is) incredibly patient and kind. Ajitha and I worked together on taking The Angel’s Share through a number of edits and finally, last month, to the presses.

Being a lawyer by day and a writer by night is not the easiest thing in the world, but I am really thankful, because the law is a profession that offers you enviable flexibility and an incredibly nourishing level of interaction with the world. I have heard stranger stories in courtrooms than I have read in the wildest fiction. If the realm of literature is characters in conflict, then there are few better places to look for material than in the courts.

Was it worth it? Would it have been better for me if I had spent all that time focusing on my day job, fitness, or some more social hobby? It’s a moot question. I can’t help that I want to write. I’m working on my next book as I write this, which at this stage is another small heap of fragments, scenes and scraps. At a very human level, I hope to leave something behind, something that speaks for me, a grope at immortality, and until I know better – writing is how I can hope to do that.

Satyajit Sarna’s first book, The Angel’s Share has just been released by HarperCollins India. Satyajit is a lawyer based in New Delhi, and has worked at S&R Associates, the chambers of Mr. N.K. Kaul, Sr. Adv., and Amarchand Mangaldas. You can read his blog here.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Cymbal #44:: Amplified Heat

Hauz Khas Village, 3 PM. June in the hipster capital of South Asia. It’s hot like melted wax. It’s hot like there are poltergeists with spectral hairdryers aimed at the back of your neck, the back of your knees, the top of your head. The heat bakes everything. Stray dogs are evaporating before your eyes. People waver and flicker, narrower from the head down. The paving stones are radiating heat upwards. You can see it. The waves look like they do in physics textbooks.

In a café. They make cakes, crepes, pastries. Coffee, herbal tea.  Small things, small efforts. The waiter’s from Italy. He’s studying philosophy at JNU and playing football at Siri Fort. He has a full length sleeve tattoo and wears thick rimmed spectacles.

Mewithoutyou - In a Sweater Poorly Knit - 2006

The Meteorology Department says it’s 44 degrees. An unshaven man in yellow shoes assures me it’s much hotter. He confides that WHO guidelines mandate that an emergency must be declared any time the temperature crosses 46 degrees. The government would have to provide free water to millions and it would bankrupt them because it actually crosses 46 degrees thirty days a year.

You would probably not send back a cup of coffee served at 46 degrees. You wouldn’t be thrilled, but you’d grumble a bit and drink it.

The café is not so hip that they don’t have a fridge. The fridge apologizes for its inherent unhipness with postcards from the seventies randomly scattered across its face, half face up – Air France, A Beach, Surfers, Mountains, Air India; half face down – love, missing, kisses.

Cream - Pressed Rat and Warthog - 2005

I go to pay my tab. There is, as there was last week, besides the tip jar, a white lobster in a fishbowl. How’s Lubna, I ask the Italian philosopher, pleased that I remember the beast’s name.

‘Oh that’s not Lubna. That’s Frank. Lubna died.’

‘Yeah? That’s a pity.’

‘Too hot. Water got too hot.’

‘It’s really hot today. How is Frank taking it?’

‘Not too good,’ He pulls a pencil out from behind his ear and dips it in the tank, flips the lobster over. ‘Frank’s dead too.’

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Cymbal #43:: You Will Rise

Howard Carter widening a crack, pushing a light through it, blinded by gold – it is one of the authentic dreams of our age, that the earth is not dead, only sleeping. In wooden chairs, gilt and horsehair, rock hewn chambers, lives a dream of limitlessness, a seductive whispering of untold power. Wisdom in scrolls, wisdom in sand paintings, astral wisdom in colorful disguises, pulsing powerfully, it draws you in. For this, a man could leave his home, abandon his wife and children, commit crimes that thin him and dry up in the desert sun till he leaves only a husk like a beetle.

But remember what Carter found in the innermost chamber – the Verdant Osiris. Stone Osiris, lined with linen, filled with the soil of the Nile and sprinkled with seeds of grass. Pulsing life, waking in spring like grass -

- pulsing in green and yellow, like handsome Mondamin, the corn god, at Hiawatha’s door at sunset, commanding him to rise from his fast. Hiawatha complies. 

They wrestle and the warrior feels like life is pounding and laughing in him, flowing like a mighty river. The next day, Mondamin returns to Hiawatha who is wasting away, and again challenges him to wrestle. They lock as the sun goes down, a burning cinder, and again Hiawatha feels the river rise in him. Then, Mondamin tells him that he will come again the next day, and Hiawatha must kill him and then bury him, sweep the loose packed earth over his face, close his clear eyes.

Woods - Death Rattles - 2010

And Hiawatha waits, gaunt and wretched, bloodless. Mondamin comes. They wrestle in the pink and golden light, their muscles rounding, breath ragged and then the god is no more. Hiawatha pulls his green and yellow husks off him, pushes him into the loam, lets it roll across his body till he is gone from sight. He sprinkles the mound with water.

Nobody is gone long, it is only the means of return that concern us.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Jonah on The Literateur

It appears that The Literateur, that most excellent online journal, has published a poem I submitted a while back- 'Jonah'.

I wrote 'Jonah' in 2006, when I was a student in Bangalore.

Frankly, I'm stunned. This is just great luck.

Gone to Presses

Since HarperCollins are going to press today with my novel, I've set up a Facebook page for it:

It is: - The Angel's Share

Of course, cups and lips do that famous slipping thing, but hopefully it should be out on shelves by mid-June.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cymbal #42:: You Need to Buy A Helmet

Morning comes early- the summer is here. If you can no longer sleep, if there is no comfortable compromise brokered between the blanket and the A/C, if your eyes are not stinging, then rise and saddle up. Stretch quickly, throw your phone and wallet into your slingbag and push off.

Up the first meager slope your thighs groan and complain, they too are waking up. You pass all the sleeping cars, and one woman who is bleached so pale and tucked so heavily that she has no expression. She too could be asleep, with her eyes pinned open by some cunning surgeon.

The tennis players are up too. One stands at the baseline slinging leaden-footed forehands. His tutor stands patiently at halfcourt with a cart full of balls. You know half the balls are bad but they leave them in the cart anyway, from when you were a child, walloping dead balls into the net, and looking up like-I-swear-it’s-not-my-fault-I-bent-my-knees-and-everything, but no one buys it.

Around the corner, the school parking lot is filling up with cricketing. Don Bosco himself sits princely on his stone throne. Down the road, through the Alaknanda market, where there is only one person, an old man in a white topi doing breathing exercises. Past the cops at the chowki, where one holds his back and leans.

The Hotrats - Bike - 2010

Back up through the garbage strewn Gobindpuri back lanes, where stray dogs trot, patchwork dogs rummaging through rubbish heaps. Drop a gear, pedal faster. Around the corner to Kalkaji. There is a big modern concrete Church of the Holy Spirit, a plaster Jesus welcoming above the gate, the high concrete tower above the chancel breaking through the trees like an aircraft carrier. A metal staircase leads to it. Beside it is the Sri Balavenendu temple, with its multitude of gods on the nominal gopuram. You contemplate taking a picture, and then scold yourself for being a tourist.

School buses crowd up outside the apartment colonies of Alaknanda. Parents look at the windows which contain their squalling brats, an eternity of painfully early mornings, you think. You have to watch for school buses. Their drivers have no heart, it has been screeched out of existence by thousands of children. They will run a cyclist over and laugh, and all those children will laugh with them, because children are cruel like crows.

Up the hill, pump pump pump, and then down the hill, coast, to CR Park. The markets are empty. Even the famous fish-market is empty. A big dog sits on the table and yawns with equanimity. Millions of flies buzz around it and it is not bothered. Through the backlanes of CR Park, past the Kali temple, past the police station where you once came to reclaim your towed car. The small roads twist and turn, and you see small parks for children, morning walkers, determined. Boys everywhere wash cars. We too should use first-world terms for our city, you think. Why do we not call CR Park a quaint ethnic enclave? It is Chowdhury after Bhattacharya after Ganguly after Dutta after the delightfully spelt Mowdgal. One lady looks at you while she waters her plants and frowns – a young man on a bicycle joyriding on a weekday morning does not compute.

The Beatles - Good Morning, Good Morning -1967

At the corner back to GK-II, four older school-girls stand in wait for their bus. Three are reading magazines and one is putting her face on. Big shiny Punjabi GK-II – a beautiful woman learns how to pilot the Mercedes from her husband. In the balcony of the top floor of a new glass and marble three-story, a maid takes a break, her hip pressed against the railing, looking into the neighbour’s.

You pick up mangoes at the corner fruit-shop. Then you pedal home slowly, pick up your bike and take it in. Your heart is singing with the glory of the morning and you ring your bell – trangtrangtrang- joyously. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cymbal#41:: One Eye Up

'Glamis hath murder'd sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.'
-Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act II, Scene II

‘I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death.’
-Nas, N.Y. State of Mind, Illmatic

They come, Malcolm and Macduff, Ross and Siward, brewing medicine from the blood of babies.  Kid gangstas, young punks, packing heat. The hand moves across the sea. Your kingdom groans, the exchequer runs dry. It’s a poor year for grain. No one’s buying rock.

You cannot sleep, thane imperial, for the long knives move in the heather. Strange designs on banners, strange arms in holsters.  There are Uzis where you had Glocks. War will come to you behind your walls of intelligence. It will seize you by the throat. You’re not safe in your own walk-up, not safe on your couch, the projects buzz with threat. You cannot laugh a siege to scorn with one meatloaf and two loaves of Wonder Bread. And so you cannot sleep – you rest one eye up.

Sleep is your last drug, old man. In your sleep, your murders are multiplied. When you sleep, you are Gaddafi, you are Assad. When your eye drops, your heart quickens. Your grip on your sword tightens. Your mind is infected by demons; the nightmare rides your chest.

If that door opened and you knew not the hand on the knob, would you even care anymore? The leaves have turned again and good seasons and ill have visited you. No one survives you. You will not hold your fire, but when that door swings open, will there be a sickening fall, or a lifting in your throat?

Nas – N.Y. State of Mind - 1994

But only sleep will set you free. Only when your face slackens will you be noble again.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Cymbal#40:: Under A Blood Red Sun

Through the thick fields of grass they came to answer the siren call, on all fours, the puffs around their necks full of blood, suffused with what they knew not enough to call faith. The grass rustled around their bodies, their long heads pushing it through it. The knots of ganglions which constituted the brains set all the way down their spines tingled as if they smelled blood.

Roland saw them from the last watchtower on the plains. They moved in rows, all aligned in the same direction, and the red and grey of their bodies pulsed through the grass as far to the west as he could see. He lowered his field glasses and shouldered his plasma rifle. The device hummed awake in his hand as it recognized the signature of his body. He focused on one of the forerunners and fired. A mile away, one body stopped. It was as he suspected. The cooperative instinct of the tribe had broken down; each of the giant lizards ran forward in its own blind drive.

There was no hope for the rickety wooden tower. Roland turned and tied his sleeping bag into a precise roll and picked his leather saddlebags off the nail in the wall. He descended the wooden ladder to the stable below and removed the horse’s nosebag. Then he saddled and mounted it. In minutes, they would be upon him.

To the river, to the river, he thought. While there was no guarantee that water would in any way deter the lizards, the river lay parallel to the run of the horde and not in its path. He rode hard, digging his spurs into the thin side of the horse. He need not have. The smell of reptilian flesh so close behind them had terrified it. The sinews on its neck stood out with effort, crisscrossing the ropey muscles. A froth of fear dripped from its mouth.

Pallbearer - Devoid of Redemption - 2012

When he reached the river, the lizards were only thirty yards behind them. Roland could see their faces, their tongues flicking as they ran towards the smell of fresh meat.

He jumped off the horse, grabbed his bags and the rifle and waded into the river, keeping his arms carefully above the water. It came up to his ampits. Then it came up to his nose. He swam, uncaring that his possessions would get wet. If he ever had a chance to use them again, he would learn to deal with the discomfort.

The horse did not follow him. It neighed and pranced in panic, for its instinct did not permit it to enter the fast flowing river, a thing it had never seen before, but it could smell the rampaging horde, and it knew danger.

Roland crossed. When he turned back, he saw that the horse’s hesitation had cost it dearly. He could hear the snapping of bone and the tearing of flesh. The only thing which had saved him from the same fate was the twenty yards of river.

Squatting on his haunches, Roland wondered what had occasioned this carnivorous tide, flowing in the same direction, so relentless, onward to the red sun. He dismissed the thought. He did not have the luxury of asking himself questions he could not answer.

His path lay westwards, and now he had no horse.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


Look, I'm quoted in The Mint, thanks to Supriya Nair!

I sound like a total ass-hat.