What do you call your book? How do you find the right balance between seducing the reader and honestly indicating what’s between the covers? You need the promise, the soul, the everything of a few years’ work reduced to a few words. A bloody good name.
This question arrived while wrapping up my first book. What defines it? The two protagonists — Rustom and the Storyteller — or is there someone or something else that needs to be acknowledged in the title? Perhaps it is what makes the people in the story who they are, or is it what changes them?
I remember that moment: the deep breath, the dramatic glance at the gently rolling hill outside my writing desk in Pune. And breaking into a small smile when my home reluctantly gave up an answer.
Pune is the city I have come to call home, even though I occasionally try sounding exotic by whispering Amboli when asked where I am from. It is a question I get a lot since my Marathi is poor, in spite of having an excellent, high-scoring Marathi name. It is a question I cannot answer well since, like all nomadic Army brats, my childhood involved the mandatory dozen school tour of duty from Port Blair to Shimla.
Where are you from? You speak in tongues, drop Solan Whisky references in teetotaller Navsari, and indulge in Kolkata-styled debates on Goa’s sandy beaches. Where are you from?
Pune changes you. No matter how stubborn you are, it takes you in, breaks you down in unnoticeable ways and then reshapes you into another version. Unlike the large factory that is Mumbai, where you go in one moment and come out years later: mass produced to last, to survive, and to either succeed or die trying, Pune is that makeshift workshop assembling people, so they can change again. Like everything changes every few years in Shivajinagar and in Kothrud.
A liminal city difficult to pin down, claiming the charm of an old cantonment town but decking up like a drunk modern metropolis. A place where, if not careful, you will step into a college campus teeming with Che Guevara t-shirts. And yet, a city sluggishly starting each day with ageing pensioners on their morning walks in the University, reminding you of every single zombie apocalypse movie ever made.
One moment it is high culture, with all the peths and ancient temples seeped in sepia-toned history and the next it is a traffic jam of chrome and diesel manufactured in the vehicle factories of Pimpri and Chinchwad. Poona one moment, Pune the next.
A city where MBA-advised franchises open store after store, praying to attract crowds from Vohuman, Vaishali and a dozen other world-famous-in-Pune kattas. While these iconic hangouts stick their tongues out, stubbornly refusing to expand and proudly displaying the ‘We have no other branches’ boards like a medal. Pune where a traditional dhol tasha player has to wear a Manchester United or Arsenal t-shirt underneath his or her kurta, because he or she has to.
A city yet to make up its mind.
A homegrown mixer grinder, not the giant gold-tinted melting pot that large cities become. Pune is the maker of a consistent mixture of men and women from every clichéd national integration poster. The place that the north Indian neighbours say is as south as they can possibly go. The place that friends from down South find to be the last line of defense from the loud North. Middle earth.
At the risk of making this sound like an ‘Invest in Pune’ brochure, its greatest victory is to be everything to everyone. Pune is that above-average student who comfortably clears the exam and does not bother to make a run for first place. An IT hub but not quite Bengaluru, spiritual but no Varanasi, a cultural capital – but not the capital. A Western city that hosts the Southern Command of the Indian Army. There and thereabouts. A chameleon that keeps growing and adding new colours. And as it changes, on a long enough timeline, Pune makes every Punekar become the spicy misal available in its ancient alleys. Every ingredient crushed fine enough to be indistinguishable from the other, but retaining its own taste.
So yes, Pune reluctantly gave up the answer. And so I understood that day, looking at the hill outside, thinking of an apt name for my book. It’s not only the people around us who make us who we are or the experiences that we go through, but also the places that host our little dramas in life. Even if some are as reluctant as Pune to create a finished product.
Where am I from? A man from Pune, a man from everywhere. Who not long ago was a boy from nowhere.
I understood. Rustom, whom I created, was himself because of Mumbai. And who he became was as much due to the ancient, beer-guzzling Storyteller as it was due to the Himalayas. Naturally, I had to come with a name that was a tribute to the mountains.
That, and the fact that the missus is from Almora. Trust me, it’s not the worst idea in the world to write a book with your wife’s hometown in the name.