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Looking Up: IIM-B alumnus Karan Bajaj on his new book Johnny Gone Down
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Posted by : thedesk   Apr 12 2010
Chat with bestselling author Karan Bajaj on his latest book Johnny Gone Down.
Not long ago Karan Bajaj had burst into the scene with his funny, ironic and engaging portrayal of an Indian -American who leaves his plum job as an investment banker on Wall Street and flies down to Bangalore to study at the IIM. His book Keep off the Grass became an instant bestseller and the tone of the book invoked comparisons with Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English August, set in another era.

Karan’s second book Johnny Gone Down is soon to hit the stands. Its about this person who was once an Ivy League scholar with a promising future at NASA, but now at forty, he is homeless and has gone through an epic journey that sees him become a genocide survivor, then a Buddhist monk, a drug lord, a homeless accountant, a software mogul and a deadly game fighter.

6bridges caught up with the young writer, also an alumnus of IIM-B, as he keenly awaits the release of Johnny Gone Down across multiple locations in the country.

I see Johnny Gone Down as a deeper, darker Forrest Gump-ish journey which relates the bizarre, almost surreal series of events - Karan Bajaj

6bridges: What inspired Johnny Gone Down? Any particular triggers?
Karan: I usually start with a big theme in mind and allow the story to work itself in my head for a while before I put pen to paper. The theme I was playing around with for Johnny Gone Down was around success and whether a stable, even-keeled life is better than a rich, interesting life with towering ups and abysmal lows.
During this time, I was also backpacking for a year between jobs and traveled to some pretty interesting places and ended up meeting quite an odd assortment of people on the road and in youth hostels. Somewhere in the middle of the trip, I began to realize that no matter where I went, whether Cambodia or Brazil or Mongolia or India, there seemed to be more similarities than dissimilarities in people, feelings and ideas. Hence this incredible intercontinental journey of the protagonist began to fuse with the original theme. The culmination of these ideas is Johnny Gone Down.

6bridges: What can readers expect in Johnny Gone Down?
Karan: I think they can expect the ride of a lifetime! I see Johnny Gone Down as a deeper, darker Forrest Gump-ish journey which relates the bizarre, almost surreal series of events that transform a pretty ordinary NASA scientist into first a genocide survivor, then a Buddhist monk, a drug lord, a homeless accountant, a software mogul and a deadly game fighter over a period of twenty years.

In the words of Ben Rekhi, International award winning director of Waterborne, who read an advance copy, the novel is a stunning adventure of the human will laugh, you will cry, you will feel the absolute wonder of a life fully lived. One of the most exciting voices in Indian literature in years.

6bridges: From the time you wrote your first book, readership in India has picked up, and you also have a larger pool of readers now. What are your expectations from Johnny Gone Down, given its larger canvas?
Karan: In purely utilitarian terms, Harper Collins, the publisher is coming up with a record first print run of 100,000 copies for Johnny Gone Down which is reflective of the large pool of readers they hope will read the novel. In contrast, just two years ago, the first print run of Keep off the Grass, was just 5000 copies (though it went on to sell a somewhat unexpected 50,000 copies after several re-prints)
In more philosophical terms, I’m excited less by the number of copies/print run etc. but more by the publisher’s thinking that readers in India are now ready for different and perhaps, bigger stories. The assumption that huge best-sellers in contemporary India need to be dumbed-down campus literature or urban angst tales of clichéd adolescent love and loss is being openly challenged. Just a couple of years earlier, it would have been unthinkable for an Indian publisher to print so many copies of a book like Johnny Gone Down which has only a portion of it set in India. At its core, the book is about the protagonist’s incredible journey from the US to Cambodia to Thailand to Brazil to the Silicon Valley back to India, and the fact that the publisher is so confident of its success is less a reflection on the quality of my writing but more on their faith in changing India.

6bridges: Readers of Keep off the Grass enjoyed reliving the unsympathetic angst of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English August in a different India and period. Many people did see bits of themselves in the characters that the plot threw up. What is the message for readers of Johnny Gone Down, in that sense?
Karan: I think Johnny Gone Down is a fundamentally different novel than Keep off the Grass as in it doesn’t deal at all with urban angst, the divine discontent of poor little rich kids or about the BOYZ n GRLZ JUST H’NGIN out DER! The fundamental conflict is more man against his very bizarre destiny vs. man against himself in this novel.

For the main message, I quote from the synopsis: “Is there any greater win than living a life that knows no limits, a world that has seen no boundaries?” It summarizes the main thought of the novel, I think. Maybe Johnny hasn’t really gone down after all!

6bridges: How do you look at the two books now, especially after Johnny Gone Down? Which one did you enjoy working upon more?
Karan: I guess the correct answer would be to say that I like both equally as a mother loves both of her children or something. But I will be honest and say that I have a stronger affection for Johnny Gone Down. I was young and immature when I wrote Keep off the Grass, both in terms of age and experiences. I think I’ve grown up since and Johnny Gone Down is a deeper, darker, more heart-felt novel with a more intricate plot.

6bridges: How long did it take you to write the book?
Karan: The story was playing around in my head for almost a year while I was traveling, but the actual act of writing took four or five months. I began when I was back in a job and had an apartment and a writing desk and a computer to myself once again.

6bridges: We remember you telling us that you were planning on a hiking trip to South America after your first book. How do you balance your hiking passions with the demands of being a prolific novelist now?
Karan: I think one feeds the other versus being distinct from each other. For non-classically trained, non literary novice writers like me, we rely a lot on the experiences we get from the world outside vs. the dark recesses of our own minds. In that context, my passion for traveling and hiking are my single greatest writing inspirations.

If I don’t get either the silence or the new experiences that are inherent in a road journey, I don’t think I will be able to nurture the substance within. Resultant, I will probably end up recycling the same ideas in a different story.

6bridges: 2 Years. 2 Books. What do you plan next?
Karan: I’m getting very interested in mysticism, black magic and occult sciences as also in the importance of charity and giving back so I’m probably going to write a 3rd novel which is a combination of these ideas. But as I said, I think I need some silence and experiences before I put pen to paper.

6bridges: A few of your contemporary novelists with day jobs have turned to becoming full-time writers. Is that something you would consider too, sometime in the future?
Karan: Very unlikely. For one, I don’t think my corporate career is coming between me and the Nobel Prize for Literature! The lack of skill and ideas limit me more than a lack of time. I’m lucky that I’m in a very fulfilling line of work which actually infuses my life with energy versus sap it out of me. I work in Brand Management, which requires a lot of leadership, teamwork and creativity and you work with a lot of diverse, interesting folks-advertising agencies, design agencies and such-which always keeps things interesting.

I also feel that having a steady career makes me a better writer. I can choose to write what I want to and compose from the heart because I don’t have to cater to the latest publishing trends or specialize in the genre I’ve written in before or lobby for author awards or worry about networking for film deals. I don’t really need the money from writing, nor is writing my only source of self-worth.

Readers can visit Karan Bajaj's website or for details about the novel, launch events and pre-orders (all online retailers are selling the book at very deep discounts).