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Author Interview with Piyush Srivastava
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Author Interview with Piyush Srivastava

interviewed on Jun 20, 2021 Lucknow
Q. How would you describe yourself?
I am a post-graduate in English Literature from the University of Allahabad. A journalist by training and practice, I was born in Bihar, but consider Allahabad as my home because I found the best people there.

I was briefly a part of the team of Yann Arthus Bertrand, unarguably the greatest documentary maker and learnt that hard work is the only route to satisfy myself .
Q. Tell us something about the books that you have written and the story behind them.
It is a political fiction with Ramayan Prasad, a journalist, as the protagonist. He is like any other honest reporter who believes his stories would change the world. He roams across the country for stories and interacts with rich, powerful as well as with the common man. He is assigned to write follow up stories after an incident of gang rape and murder in New Delhi. The country is burning as protests are going on across. The ruling dispensation wants the family members of the victim to remain silent and accept the benefits extended to them. But the family grows fast and they start demanding more "benefits" greedily. They are victims of the system but change overnight into victors. They quickly feel at home in the league of the rich and powerful and start hating those who used to live in their neighbourhood in Laxmi Nagar area of New Delhi. Ramayan Prasad wants the movement against the incident to grow so that a solution comes out and no such incident takes place in future. However, the family of the victim uses the protesters to blackmail the governments.
Q. You've been a practicing journalist all your life and now are a published author as well. How would you describe this journey?
Every journalist wants to be an author and they all can be while following certain discipline in their lives. Usually, it happens that we loose ourselves in the proximity of power- which is actually an illusion. The politicians love me not because I am a journalist, they love me because I mention them in my reports. We realise the reality of our surroundings after wasting lots of our time and energy. I made a rule for myself after a few years in the profession that I wouldn't waste my time on politicians and bureaucrats till it is inevitable to complete an assignment. In any case, they are not going to loose you just because you don't waste your time on them.

Further, a journalist is privy to lots of classified information, which can't be a part of any report. Those information would make a wonderful book if you have an urge not to kill them.
While working for most of the important newspapers of the country, I felt this urge more often than expected.

I had been discussing my idea for a fiction with many people including legendary graphic writer Joe Sacco and Indian journalist Pratap Somwanshi. Joe was keen to know how I develop the story of The Centipedes. Pratap would call me every week and ask about the progress of the book. I am in touch with such beautiful people just because I am a journalist.

My journey from a practicing journalist to an author should have been accomplished many years ago had I realised in the beginning of my career that writing a book is painfully a beautiful process. In my case, I had certain information that I didn't want to omit from the fiction but I was feeling every moment that including them would be breach of trust at some level. Finally, I dropped them and that was a very painful job. As the book is out now, I must say that I am out of a huge dilemma and feeling relaxed after many years.
Q. Who all have inspired or encouraged you to tread on the path of writing?
The first name that comes to my mind is of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. He was my professor of poetry at the University of Allahabad. I rarely attended his classes and he took the class only occasionally. Still, I developed a bond with him because I loved modern poetry. I would love reading his poems and look for an opportunity to interact with him. Gradually he opened his doors for me and I realised that even five minutes of interaction with him was enlightening. Manas Mukul Das, who was my HoD in English Department of the University trusted me and made me part of many of his wonderful projects- literary and journalistic. He trusted me and welcomed me even when I knocked at his door at 2 AM and cried before him for certain reasons.

Sanjoy Dutta-Roy, my another professor of literature, asked me those days to start writing as that was something I shouldn't miss.
Q. When did you start writing, and what was the first piece of writing that you published anywhere?
I read an article of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra in The Illustrated Weekly of India in 1990. He had said he was writing because he felt good doing so. I sent a hand-written article to the magazine against my professor's view and it appeared next week. Then I sent an article on Hindutva and Ram temple to Nikhil Chakravartty for Mainstream magazine and it appeared there.
Q. How has your work experience influenced the story in your book, "The Centipedes" which was published this year?
I could write The Centipedes because I have been working as a journalist and know closely very influential people, who I believe, are harmful for the society. I wanted to alert the people against them. This fiction is product of a pure journalist. Let me confess that The Centipedes is result of my more than 20 years of journalism.
Q. Why did you opt to write a post-truth fiction?
If you are sensitive, you will be insignificant in the given time in conventional sense. The trend of the time is vulture-ism. A true human has turned into a micro-persona in this situation.

A micro-person has zeal to deal with the hardships of life. He is not born in a hammock- his birth was not planned. Optimism of his or her life is often targeted by the preservers of post-truth- that is the ugly material lust and looks attractive on the surface. It is actually a gutter and the micro-person knows this. He or she doesn’t get attracted to the momentary or borrowed or imitated glitters.

My friend Ramesh Sharma, an IPS officer in past, used to say that life is a narrow lane. There are walls on both sides. Either you cross it by shrinking your shoulders, bending your body or carry a hammer and margin trowel to keep cutting the wall. The first option is truth and the second option is post-truth. You have tools to distort the wall and the lane. One who twists, bends his body and passes through the lane is lover of the art that is life-journey. One who breaks the wall is a follower of cancel culture.

I believe in struggles and stand against the cancel culture that promotes post-truth.
Q. "The Centipedes" shares an account of the dilemma faced by a reporter while chasing a story of a crime that was committed in the national capital. What prompted you to write a fiction on an incident of gang rape in New Delhi?
I have covered many stories of gang-rape but never saw such meticulously designed follow ups of incidents of a gang-rape by a system like one that is there in the fiction. I knew that a section of humans would be the worst animals on the earth but I saw them closely as a journalist and the boiling point was my meeting with the family of one particular gang rape victim.
Q. Ramayan Prasad, the protagonist, loves drinking; he stays in luxury hotels, yet he behaves as if he is holier than others. He dislikes whosoever he meets. He finds faults in the gang rape victim’s father. He doesn’t like the father expecting benefits from the government. The fact is that this is how things work here. Why still Ramayan Prasad, a seasoned journalist, is disillusioned?
The brutality of the crime is such that Rayaman Prasad wants an end of such kind of animalism from the society. He believes that it is the primary job of the family of the gang-raped and killed girl to support the nationwide agitation physically. The protagonist wants the family to join the candle marches and refuse to accept the benefits from those who are not doing anything on the ground for a permanent solution of the problem.

Badreshwar, father of the brutalised soul, says at one place that it is better to be silent. He supports wastage of public resources because a Chief Minister is arriving to give him a few lakh of rupees. He knows that the tormenters of his daughter would be punished anyway. But he and his wife and his sons have no concern for those who will meet the same fate in future because the political class doesn't have an end of gang-rape as their priority.

Ramayan Prasad drinks often and stays in luxury hotels because he can afford it without accepting any external benefit. He tells a small time politician at one place that his company takes good care of him.

The protagonist is honest to the core and there is nothing wrong in expecting from others to be honest. He gets disillusioned to see that the father, the brother, the lover, the mother of the victim are using the opportunity to make easy money at the cost of killing a mass movement.
Q. How does the story unfold after Ramayan Prasad becomes disenchanted, as he finds himself trapped in a vicious circle of cunning and artful dealings around him?
He behaves like a common man and runs away from the situation. Someone asked me why Ramayan Prasad is an escapist? I don't agree that running away from a situation is escapism. He is certainly trapped in a vicious circle and finds an easy way out. But may be he has something more constructive to do thereafter?

The job of a writer is to leave the readers with some questions and let them search for the answers. The author will loose the plot if he starts looking for solutions.
The protagonist finds that the government is suspending officers because they fail to extort money from others to give them to the victim's family. He is not ready to accept such a situation.
Q. How closely are the story and the situations in your book related to your real life experiences, even if you've tried to portray them as fiction?
The real life experience is there in every page of the book. There are shadows of real people. In fact the shadows are more real in the fiction than the people themselves. The fiction tells about the characters of some people, who are successfully hiding or have hidden their realities even from their wives, children, friends and themselves.
Q. Is the story a shadow of some real incident? If yes, would you like to share more about it?
Yes, it has a shadow of some real incident. There was a real case of gang-rape and murder that agitated entire world. The students of the universities across were organising movements in the Country. They were emotional people and didn't know that a particular political class was behind it to create bigger space for themselves against the ruling dispensation. The family of the victim knew this very well but they were enjoying the benefits from both sides and looking for more windows of gain.
Q. What was your thought process when you started writing "The Centipedes" and how did you structure its content?
I was continuously angry with the family members of the victim. I blame them for similar incidents in future. However, I didn't structure the content carefully. I allowed the characters to move forward. This is the reason Badreshwar got enough space in the fiction but the victim is hardly there. I only decided not to manipulate the chapters for the sake of expanding the book. As a result, while I had 300 pages, it was reduced to the half before going to the press.
Q. What is the story behind coming up with a name like "The Centipedes", for your book?
I was covering the speech of a Hindutva leader in Allahabad for The Times of India in late 1990s. He said his organisation was like the centipedes, which move even if some of its legs are broken. I decided to tell him that it could be killed if its head was crushed. I met the politician and instantly told myself after coming out of his room that I have got the name of my book.
Q. What do you see from modernism to post-truth in literature?
Modernism was the period between the World Wars. John Grass calls it “the high summer of modernism.” It ended with Ezra Pound and James Joyce. The subjectivism of post-modernism, which was very important in the 20th Century, doesn’t appeal to the critics now.
All the writers of the time had something to do with the hardships of lives.

I belong to a generation where every movement- political or literary has become meaningless. It is a majoritarian time. The majority will stand by the wrong. After carrying the corpse of truth on their shoulder unwillingly for a few decades, they have recently culminated at post-truth, where they have the opportunity to throw the corpse in the Ganga or anywhere for that matter and move on. My fiction is post-truth and I personally don’t have anything to boast about it. All I have are some facts before the readers without ornamenting them.
Q. What is the proudest moment you've had related to your book till now?
My elder brother Vijay Srivastava was recovering from COVID-19. As he was in his room, someone sent me his video in which he is narrating to someone else the story of The Centipedes. That was unarguably the proudest moment for me.
Q. Why do you write, and what kind of genres interest you the most?
It is not important what I want to write, what is important is what made me to pick up the pen and paper. That means you have a story to share with the world. In my case, I had a story that I couldn’t stop myself from writing. It was not to expose the selected a few, it was to alert the emotional people of the entire world; to tell the world that what they heard till date about things and issues were wrapped into something attractive. You scratch it a bit and what you will see beneath is a rotten stuff, ugly and foul smelling.

Market forces- that includes the systems, the systems of government, politics, profit-mongers, particular kinds of NGOs, professional agitation inducers, paid flag holders and tear-jerks- capture our minds and movements. We start believing that what we are thinking is based on our judgment. It is the biggest illusion of our time. The Centipedes is a small step towards alerting the emotional people against such a market force so that they can form independent opinion, without being taken over by the artificial designs.
I write for the people. While my first book is a fiction, my last book must be a non-fiction.
Q. What all forms of writing do you pursue, and where do you publish them?
The Centipedes is my first fiction. It will take years to write the next book. Otherwise, I am a full-time journalist and work for a newspaper.
Q. Tell us about some interesting or memorable incidents from your life and career.
I have briefly worked for Yann Arthus Bertrand, a French filmmaker. Before that, I didn't know that I can work for 20 hours a day. His genuineness and commitment for art is amazing and worth learning. I had made a documentary for him on the Musahar castemen of Kushinagar. That was a wonderful experience.

One day, while going from Raipur to Jagdalpur, I was stopped by some armed people on the road. They took me inside the forest and offered me tea. They discussed politics with me and allowed to continue my journey at 5 AM in the morning. They were harmless and full of emotions.
Q. What role has your family played in your writing career?
My wife Sunita and son Kaustubh understand that I have my own private corner. My son has introduced me to some very good books on Batman and The Flash. Most recently, he has given me series of movies titled "Attack on Titan." He is also reading Attack on Titan-1 and I will read it thereafter. He has his own beautiful world and I often enter into it to learn from him.
Q. Talk to us about your growing years and your home. Did it influence your writing?
I was born in Bihar but my learning started in the University of Allahabad. I have studied upto Class 6 in rural school without any infrastructure or good teachers. More or less same was the situation till Class 12. It took my graduation years to learn to live in a city. I settled mentally in the first year of post-graduation and started thinking and writing on political and literary issues thereafter.
Q. Tell us about your upcoming projects, plans and their progress.
I have a real city in mind, which is dark and damp. I used to think in past what made Washington Irving to nickname New York as Gotham, a real village in Nottinghamshire in England. The world mostly knows about it though folklores. I have also read somewhere that the imaginary hometown of Batman is a mix of New York and Chicago- two symbols of modernity and crime or brightness and darkness.

I am privy to some exclusive stories in a city that is located near Nepal border. I want to create in fiction a city that is culturally and otherwise different from Gotham but has supernatural heroes and villains. However, developing the story is a long process, as I need years for researches and then simplifying them for the common readers.
It took me 20 years to write a fiction. Obviously, it will take many years to compile details before I start writing the new book. Presently I am supposed to focus on my job because general elections are nearing.
Q. Any crazy or unusual book review that you would like to share with us.
Bismay Kumar Samal, a reader reviewed my book. I share it here:

"The Centipedes appeared to me as a strong novel. I recommend it to those readers who have a strong and liberated heart and mind. The author is clearly full of interesting and heart-rending real stories but he restrains himself from going overboard and baring them all beyond all limits of privacy.

I thought after reading the initial pages that Piyush Srivastava is going to narrate the life of a freak in the guise of a reporter. As it progressed, I realised that he is over-burdened with certain experiences and sharing them with his readers to release himself from the shackles of alarming information, which have imprisoned him or captured him completely, giving him the only liberty to translate them in words.

At occasions, in the course of reading the novel, I felt as if I am sitting in a huge library with very old, old, new and very-new books and reading the flagged pages from it.

The IIT professor’s brief story, amidst the essential narration with regard to the gang-rape and murder in a cab in New Delhi, reveals how even the most reputed scientific institutions have been hijacked by the fanatics, who have been openly manufacturing “anti-nationals” in the garb of “nationalists”.

It also mentions in minimum words how a band of rioters or demolishers are produced without their knowing that they are mere instruments, blunted eventually not to understand their sensory warnings against the good or the bad.

The hangover of the British people for their prince and princess is described with the help of a beautiful incident. It reminded me to certain extent A Passage to India of EM Forster. I don’t want to play spoiler and so cannot reveal the stories within the story. After all, a writer should have the privilege to be read first hand.

I must appreciate the name the author has chosen for the protagonist- Ramayan Prasad. And I am sure there must be a purpose behind it. May be the author would explain it in some future interviews.

However, I don’t agree with the submission of the author/protagonist that most of the reporters write with the belief that they would change the world. There are many who join the profession with the sole aim to further corrupt an already rotten system of journalism.

This is the reason that nobody comes to Ramayan Prasad’s rescue when he is paying for his uprightness. Those who have only appreciations for him also look at him as strangers.

A reader will enjoy reading The Centipedes if he or she has the habit of reading good fiction or even non-fiction. But it is not for those fashionable readers who read a book in months or years. As the time passes, I am sure this fiction will grow in the general mind and prove a milestone in the story telling style- its speed, its micro-stories and the culmination into something that left me in Kafkaesque sadness."
Q. Tell us about your publishing journey and how did you choose your publisher?
Initially, I had sent the manuscript to an agent. She read the first three chapters and asked for entire manuscript. Then she refused to take it forward. Then I sent it to another agent. He also asked me to send him entire manuscript. Later, he asked me to drop a lewd slogan and a song, which I couldn't do. Then one day I received a mail from a friend to send it to the publisher where it was finally published after several rounds of editing.
Q. One advice that you would like to give to people willing to create their world of fiction just like you did.
Keep looking for a theme, a story and start writing as soon as you get it. Don't bother about its beginning or end as the characters mostly make their ways themselves, leaving little for the author to do. It is important to know which theme is worth a book.

An author shouldn't trust majoritarianism, he should be a true democrat, a liberal, who dares to challenge the lunatic fringe. Remember that written words don't die.
Q. What place does writing hold in your life, how has been your writing journey so far?
In fact, I started writing The Centipedes in 1999 in Allahabad. I was working for The Times of India at that time. Pankaj Mishra, famous writer, was there to write something for New York Review of Books. We together visited many places. Then one day he suggested me to create my own world in fiction. I came home in the evening and wrote the first page. That part is there in The Centipedes, where a politician is describing how his organisation has many legs like a centipede. He says the centipede keeps moving even if some of its legs are broken. Since then, I kept writing while being in Nagpur, Mumbai, Raipur, Bastar, Bhopal and New Delhi.
Q. What is your writing process, a typical writing day routine?
I didn't write regularly. I wrote when I felt like. This was the reason it took me over 20 years to finish it.
Q. What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?
I didn't market it. My publisher is selling it through Oxford and Crossword Bookstores. There are some of my friends in India, UK and USA who are asking their friends to buy and read it. My sister Sushma Saxena, a well-read critic is also promoting my book...she liked it a lot. Last week, it sold well in UK and I felt good about it. I am expecting some harsh criticism in the coming days.
Q. What do you think makes a book sell, or makes a reader buy it?
We are competing with smartphones and televisions. People prefer social media including WhatsApp. Reading habit has declined sharply also because of growing struggles in our lives and shortage of time. Although I would have loved writing a classical fiction in the conventional sense, the readers were always there in my mind when I was writing The Centipedes. I wanted the reader to finish it in two or three sittings. That is why the story is moving very fast in the fiction. I also spent one year to break the sentences into small so that the Hindi speaking readers grasp it easily. I kept the book concise and didn't over-burden the readers with thoughts of the protagonist. It seems to have worked as the book is selling fairly well across.
Q. What's the most moving or affecting thing a reader has said to you?
Well, someone called me from Ahmedabad and said Ramayan Prasad should have fought to the end instead of falling in love with the dead girl and withdrawing from his assignment. I liked it. But the fact remains that Ramayan Prasad was not in my control. He was doing whatever he wanted to do. I as an author was a puppet in his and other characters' hands.
Q. What are your favourite three books, and why?
I love Pablo Neruda's Memoirs because it is extremely an honest voice. I also like Joe Sacco's graphic reportage Footnotes in Gaza. He is a visionary as what he created in 2009 is more relevant after recent strife there. Ulysses of James Joyce is also very close to me as it is a real work of art.
Q. Who are your favourite three authors and what do you like the most about them?
Besides Neruda, Sacco and Joyce, I like Pankaj Mishra. Although many people will not agree to me but still believe that his "Butter Chicken in Ludhiana" is one of the best travelogues. Honesty is something that fascinates me in writing. This is why I like all these authors. I know Joe Sacco and Pankaj Mishra. They are extremely hard working authors and they take their readers very seriously. I have to learn a lot from them.
Q. Tell us about the books that you are currently writing and their progress.
Well, I am not writing anything at the moment...only doing my job. However, I have an idea to create a Gotham City like world in India and develop a supernatural fiction around it. Being a political journalist, this fiction would also have enough political elements and it would be more that 400 pages.
Q. What challenges do you think are faced by writers, what's the worst thing about the book industry according to you?
As I said earlier, reading habit is gone, it is the responsibility of the writer to think about it instead of blaming the readers. We need to catch the narrative of Ramacharitmanas, which is arguably the most read fiction. We cannot dish out our mind before the readers, we have to give what they like. We need to think of subjects and styles that pulls them back from WhatsApp jokes.
I understand the profit motive of the publishers as they would publish me only when they are confirmed of good response.
We know many houses where bookshelves have been removed. We need to give them something to read that they like so that they start collecting books again.
Every industry is facing challenges and so the book industry.
Q. Apart from writing, what goals do you want to achieve in life?
I want to be considered as a serious and honest writer. I am trying to make some people read The Centipedes and think about making a movie on it.
Q. At, we are trying to bring authors and readers under the same roof, to connect, discuss and socialize over books. What's your take on this?
It is a good initiative at this juncture as authors and readers both need a platform to explore further. This platform is a hub of knowledge.
Q. What message do you want to share with budding writers?
I would say write only when you feel that you have something very strong to say. Till then keep reading.

Comments (5)

  • Never before read such honest replies. He looks like a brave writer who is challenging to himself not to the readers. Struggles of life are truly a big reason behind the lack of real readers. This crisis can be solved if the authors start thinking from the reader's side.
    I had read The Centipedes last month and found it very fast. If you are truly a fiction reader then you will finish it within two days. I want to say that such a fiction is not for slogan and pamphlet readers. Reading this fiction is a serious business. Those who love buying a book, reading three-four pages and then decorating them in their shelves shouldn't try this book.
    It may spoil the mood of those for whom everything is rosy in a book. The Mills & Boon generation should also stay away from this fiction. The social media mongers who believe they read a lot in their mobile phones would also be disappointed if you don't know that writing is a serious business, particularly for those who have a strong story that touches the heart instantly.
    The writer's confession that he was a puppet in the hands of his characters reminded me of Thomas Hardy, the fatalist, who never controlled his characters. At places, the fiction reminded of Albert Camus, who existentialism reflects in The Centipedes.
    All I can say that this author appears very serious in his work. It is a less common quality of this age than we believe. While searching, I found the book is available on all online market platforms including in Australia. I wish that the reading habit grows with such kind of writings.

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  • Reading this interview and The Centipedes before, gives an impression at many places that writing may also be painful. The author's journey along with the protagonist appeared to me as if the creator of the story didn't want to go that far. Clearly, the author was compelled to write this story in the genre of fiction.
    There are certain things that I didn't like in the book but that is overshadowed quickly by the innocent memoirs of Ramayan who dwindles in the past very often. That may be a style to explain something that author doesn't want him or Ramayan to narrate.
    The narrative style is new and fresh and the author is full of stories. His characters, if allowed to grow, have the potential to become successful feature films. Mostly, the writers have dearth of stories but they have a marketing strategy to succeed. The author of The Centipedes seems to have no marketing strategy but he has very powerful and revealing story/stories to tell to the world. I don't think he could hold back such stories. I congratulate Piyush Srivastava for being so genuine.
    The cover page is also very powerful. Mukesh Sah, the designer of the page has succeeded in presenting the essence of fiction.
    The interview of the sounds like a movie itself n which the protagonist knows nothing but truth-harsh truth that becomes post truth after awhile.
    The Centipedes is a bold fiction and the interview is equally bold and beautiful.

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  • In the interview, the author has expressed his views, intent and concerns in a transparent manner, which is congruent with the spirit of the novel. Honesty, from which great things emerge, characterises the writer's being.

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  • Honest by core of heart, which reflects not only in his interview but writing also. Great human being and fearless journalist.

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  • Great interview, I loved the name of your book! Its unique and thoughtful...
    Hope you come up with more books like this...

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