An ex-customs officer, a distinguished intelligence officer, a film producer ('Khosla ka Ghosla' and 'A Wednesday'), a novelist - all rolled in one. Yes, this is B.L.Gautam. After having experimented with poetry in Hindi and Urdu, he came up with Andy Leelu (reviewed here). It is a pleasure having conducted an e-interview with him and I am glad to be sharing it here with the readers of Literary Sojourn.
1. You seem to be having both sides of your brain extremely well developed. The logical and analytical left side, and thoughtful and intuitive right side. How do you handle both of them which I am sure must have contradicted on several occasions?
It’s a compliment, but let me be a little candid here. I strongly believe that we humans are a huge pool of wasted talent. Everyone of us comes with an immense potential. We are ‘chosen ones’ of the nature. It’s the parentage, environment , and the education that makes most of us the ‘foot-soldiers of creativity’, for the mediocrity to thrive. In my innocent belief I was a special child as most of us are, but truly speaking I was not. It was my ‘fool’s promise’ to myself that has driven me through the thick and thin of life. You may call it the ‘mantra of life’ that is engrained into one’s thinking at very early age. You can’t break the promise you make to yourself. The much revered ‘true love’ is nothing but one’s promise to oneself.
Brain has two side, no doubt, and most of us have one lesser developed. I was lucky to have some amount of both, but believe me I had neither to the level that makes one a genius. So to say ‘handle both of them’ will be vain, it was in fact a ‘struggle’. The struggle I have now fallen in love with.
If you can’t contradict yourself you’re just a depository of other’s knowledge at the best. I was taught to be one in my school. I was considered exceptionally intelligent when I would read a page just once and narrate it verbatim. A time came I found such ‘photographic memory’ completely useless. Now I hardly remember anything of what I read. My mind just takes the essence and moves on. ‘Forgetting’ is what has made me a thinker and a writer. My mind is a clean slate when I set to think about something. For example, a minute back I had no clue what I am going to write in answer to your question.
2. How has the experience been for you as well as for your family in the high risk job as customs officer ? Was moving on a calculated decision? Do you miss the thrill of that job?
Allow me to begin with the last part of your question. I miss it like a first love. It has, in fact , become a parallel life in my thoughts. Insuppressibly, I would write a radical article catalyzed by the disturbing events taking place on global as well as domestic front. There are times I wrote strong letters to the power that would be fit to jolt up the system. I doubt somebody reads them. The portent at times was so awfully close to the events to come, I am sure our agencies would have hounded me had they read all that. For example, a piece I wrote on msn.com a couple of months before the serial train blast happened in Mumbai wouldn’t have escaped the hawks’ eye, if we really have a half decent monitoring system; the title itself was a loud cry-‘ Do you hear the tick Mr. Prime Minister?’ Surprisingly, the article was recently blocked. More recently when my curiosity got me to attend a disquieting dinner hosted by the masqueraded media to propel a sitting General into public life, I was flabbergasted. I wrote a letter to the then Home minister which now reads like an augury. It was ‘cognitive intelligence’, that came to me with years of experience. And I would say “once gone to ‘intelligence’ never comes back.”
Exposure to risk in a preventive job comes with some rewards. More so, once you have taken the plunge there’s no looking back. It’s by choice because these guys are hand-picked; unwilling and inefficient will either wriggle out or will be chucked out by the system. You have to know your ‘lakshman rekha’ which has its flexibility and sanctity left up to you to decide since the system has imposed an unflinching trust in you. The risk is calculated or I would say mitigated to an extent, if you do your job with a high level of integrity. The world of smuggling thrives on the idea of quick money, and if they find someone who is infallible, and treats money as if it was nothing more than an evidence of crime; the person becomes a demi-god to the community of offenders. The second thing is the way you handle the power and respect that come with the package; if you get carried way you are doomed. We saw it happening with many of our officers of Customs and Police. Their dishonoring stories are in public now. It could see it coming.
In spite of the fact that you may put your best foot forward all the time, there is an invisible risk, always. You little know how the dices are being played on the other side of the fence. In my case, after years of it had stealthily come and gone, I had the revelation that a frustrated smuggler and lynchpin named Irfan Goga had decided to knock me off. And it was another infamous don Anees Ibrahim in Dubai who was so enamored of my honesty and simplicity that he threatened Goga of his life if he touched me. The spat went to sow the seed of permanent enmity between the two sworn partners to the extent that one was finally eliminated by the other. I was stoned for a moment when I came to know of the full script. Isn’t it spine-chilling? (laugh)
To not be perturbed of such eventualities every other day, I adopted a philosophy. I started taking myself a man who was dead yet alive. And I believed I have nothing more to lose. It’s easy to say it in words, but a very tough call when it comes to reality.
3. Why cinema and media after a long service in customs? Is it to satisfy the urge to be in some form of spotlight all the time?
My decision was not impulsive nor it was triggered by one single factor. In spite of having a hidden streak of rebellion I was always an obedient son, a loving husband and a zealously protective father, and would think many time before taking any career decision. I had a creative person in me that would prompt me to dabble with theatre and literature, but duty was always first and foremost. I would be lying if I say that I had no desire for recognition. Recognition in my mind was always different than 15 second fame or a picture on page 3. I always dreamt to be famous in a world that would be here after I am gone. A Kabir fascinates me more than a celebrity politician or a film star. After more than 500 years Kabir is a household name, and he’s so relevant even today.
The thought that you get to live only once pushes me do so many things in one life. You will be amused to know that I have been making a serious attempt for last thirty five years to decipher the truth of universe. I have an adequate grasp on Quantum Mechanics and Classical Physics to keep my quest meaningfully on. I have added the dimensions of Vedic science to it. When a new finding in theoretical physics vindicates my postulates of Mest Theory, I feel reassured.
To put it straight I love cinema as a creative expression, but at the same time I hate the devious power of marketing. Media today abounds unethical practices. Lesser said the better.
4. You are the producer of two critically acclaimed and thought provoking films - 'Khosla ka Ghonsla' and 'A Wednesday'. Do share your intuitive feeling that led you to get actively involved in these films?
Yes, it was pure intuition. The scripts caught me by my collar. It was worth risking my comfortable job, both the times. I was very confident of their commercial success, and that’s what made me to stick my neck out in spite of a terrible resistance from the management. A few would know that I made Khosla Ka Ghosla when I was with Zee. Everyone around in the organization thought I should, and I would draw a flak. Contrary to their expectation, the film shaped up well, and behold, the top-brass decided to junk it, unceremoniously. Corporate envy is Machiavellian, I realized. Those were painful days of my life. It set me to rethink whether my decision to come to media was right. I had to pass through an ordeal to see the film released. To the extent, that the savior, in an unsavory way, wanted his name to appear as the producer. Imagine, it was after three years of the film was made. I had no inclination to put my name as producer after I had dared to lock-horns with Zee on matters of ethics. But it was a nightmare convincing other stake holders for such an unreasonable demand. I had set my eyes only on the release of this film. That I did, and rest is history as they say.
As if it was not enough, fate had one more round of agony in store for me that came with A Wednesday. I had to recede from my declared position of Producer to Executive Producer, when my boss realized that it was a wonderful film. He had agreed to commission it with an obvious spite, to say the least.
To bring these two films to light, I not only lost my peace of years but a few friends too, if I still believe they were once my friends. In a struggle for success, nobody’s nobody’s friend. Media is a lesson in this. Cynical may it sound.
5. How did Andy Leelu start taking shape in your mind and how long did it take to come out with the final product? Are you satisfied with your first book and readers' response to it?
The genesis of Andy Leelu lies in the cynicism, or solitude, I came by thanks to my new job. The choice was either I play the game and be at the helms of affairs or I hang up my boots, and sit in a corner. I was not ready to accept either of the two. And I decided to prove my worth by doing something that would need no one as a partner or an associate. I wanted to go on a lone journey. Writing was the only option. As luck would have it, my job took to me to ( it was alienation to be frank) Mauritius. The serenity of this island was a right match to my melancholy. I had company, sarcasm unintended. I fathomed my life, and what came in revelation was a treasure of stories. It was overwhelming. I had written poems and articles, but never a novel. Writing a novel was intimidating. It was like cruising a vast terrain with unknown contours. The invitation had a deadly yet alluring challenge.
I began with my wonder years. Not only the most vivid segment of my memory, it was a momentous period of our history. I got a hazy outline of the story in my mind. I said, here you go, buddy!
I poured myself out. The experience was cathartic. In around 8 months I had the first draft in hand. Getting it published would be a mountainous hurdle, I had not realized by then. There were trepidations and travesties, but there was also determination to overcome. It took 4 years for Andy Leelu to hit the stands.
6. What were the challenges that you faced in the literary field while entering in it as an amateur writer? Did your experience in other fields help you in any way?
The constituency in India is very small. It’s very unfortunate that we are one of the biggest country in the world with a huge literary inheritance, yet we have a pint-sized publication industry. In comparison to the western world, it’s almost nothing.
I had to come to India via USA, a country I have never been to, nor have much love for.
We are greedily busy making money, and the culture is left to the vultures. Just imagine when a person of my resources has to struggle so much for his book to get published where would a greenhorn go.
On other hand if you look at what is being written here, it’s far from inspiring. Publishing and reading go hand in hand. We are happy aping China while US and Europe, and even Latin America is spending enormous resources to shape up the thoughts of the world. They will be the pioneers of the new era and we are happy to be the workforce.
7. Out of all the roles that you have donned so far, which has given you the most pleasure?
It’s difficult to come out with a straight, and for that matter, an honest reply. If have to, then I will choose the role of an intelligence officer, of course, with a rider. The rider is- only If I could have my way to deal with the situations. And if not so, then a writer, because here no one can stop me have my way. (laugh)
8. You have written some verses in Hindi and Urdu as well. Are you planning to publish them too? After having written prose and poetry both, which form of writing do you feel is more gratifying?
I think I am a poet first. I started with Hindi poetry. Gazal caught my fancy after I read great shayars like Ghalib and Faiz, and of course Dushyant Kumar if I have to name one from Hindi side. I learnt basic Urdu when I was 35. And yes like Dushyant, I will publish just one collection of my Gazals. In shayari, if you write more you repeat yourself. I am now more of a story teller. I have found my last refuge there. (laugh)
9. How do you want to be remembered as?
I take myself a part of this organic universe. To me, independent existence is a fallacy. So would like to be remembered as a person who lived and died for humanity. My pains and pleasures are universal in a sense.