When it comes to writing, author Stephen Alter brings all five senses to the table
In thrillers appearances are often deceptive. At Zing in Metropolitan Hotel, the writer of a thriller faced an identity quandary. Raised and living in Mussoorie, we know author Stephen Alter as a Chutney guy, but the hotel, probably going by his American credentials, offered to host him at Zing where he could have burger! Well, Alter has just returned from the US and should not be complaining. “If I am stranded on an island, the only food that I will demand is daal-chawal,” he quickly quells all hopes. But like the characters of his latest novel, “The Rataban Betrayal” (Penguin), Alter doesn’t betray his true colours and quietly orders a tenderloin burger. His silver hair and moustache add to the imagery and the server offers him Coke but Alter prefers the effervescence of fresh lime soda, salted.
As the fizz settles, Alter says he always enjoyed reading espionage novels. “I always wanted to write a thriller. But I was not able to figure out the setting. Then I thought why not set it in Mussoorie. There is lot of espionage going on in Mussoorie!” “Not serious espionage,” he quickly clarifies, “but Mussoorie is a place of secrets, where the surface is very quiet but a lot is happening underneath. Everybody has a story and the fog and foliage helps in creating the mood. A lot of people are there in Mussoorie whose stay is questionable. Who is this guy, where is he coming from, he has a different purpose…such observations are common.” On the way to his home in Landour falls The Institute of Technology Management (ITM) of Defence Research and Development Organization. Perhaps, Alter’s imagination has turned it into Himalayan Research Institute, a front for the activities of R&AW in his novel. Alter calls it purely his imagination but he does add, “Anytime anybody puts up a sign that the entry to this place is prohibited, you want to know what is behind this wall. I mean they ask for it.” From the undercover operatives of R&AW to spies of CIA, Alter has weaved in many layers of truth in his storyline where, unlike American page turners, no organisation has been given a clean chit.
A Fulbright fellow, Alter has spent several years teaching creative writing in Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at American University in Cairo. Can word play be taught? “What you can teach is a sense of discipline as a writer,” says the writer of almost a dozen works of fiction and non fiction. “More than writing there is a need to teach the process of rewriting. How do you rewrite something that you have written yourself? What kind of questions you should ask yourself while you are writing? That you can definitely teach,” he emphasises. But isn’t individuality crucial as a writer? “True, but most students come to writing without having written much. In many cases they start from a blank page. They, hopefully, have read a lot. What you try to do is take the ideas they have and help shape them and direct them. Eventually, what you try is to help each student find his voice.”
Does food figure somewhere in his teaching of writing. “One of the lessons is observation. What many writers forget to do is to use all five senses. They just go for visual scrutiny. Whereas smell and taste are equally important if you want to convey the atmosphere of a place. For instance, if you have a scene of dinner and you don’t describe the food that is being served you lose the opportunity to add one more layer to the story. And what the character orders is very important. Like if I have ordered lime soda salted, it tells something about me, if you like it sweet it says something about you and if somebody orders dono, then it says something else,” Alter ends with a good laugh. He has given a neat description of Chinese food parlours in Nehru Place in the novel. The experience reminds him of a food joint in Defence Colony. “It had on its menu something called gharwali daal. Being slightly dyslexic, I used to read it as Garhwali daal. I ordered it three-four times before realising that it is not home food.” “The hotel where the infamous Tandoor murder case happened is not far from this place,” he starts with another one. “That kind of reference is sure to evoke a visceral response from the reader of a thriller,” he notes.
During his college days in the US, Alter learnt cooking and considers himself an excellent cook. “But I am essentially a dal-sabzi guy who swears by his tinda. My wife considers that I am better than her when it comes to cooking rice dishes. She tends to burn them. But we can’t cook together!” he says with a twinkle in his eyes.
Alter believes in the elasticity of fiction. Perhaps that’s why the unconfirmed story of CIA planting a radioactive surveillance device on the Nandadevi mountain to keep a check on China has crept into his novel. “The story has been reported in the media. Seasoned mountaineer M.S. Kohli has spoken about it. We have sort of gotten over that Cold War mentality of hiding everything as a national secret. There was a time when a foreigner living in India was not expected to write something like this. Now I don’t thing that kind of paranoia exists,” says Alter trying some French fries.
Still, thrillers are usually considered as a dumber form of literature. “I don’t agree. Graham Greene used to call his thrillers, entertainments. But his entertainments were as literary as his other novels. I think this kind of snobbish approach towards thrillers may be okay in University but in real world this doesn’t work.” In real world the publishers usually print them in paperbacks and label them as something like Metro Reads. “Thrillers are underestimated but you cannot write a thriller unless you take it seriously. I can joke about it but I spent a year-and-a half writing it. You have to believe in it.” The way Alter has put together the story, it seems like a readymade screenplay for a Bollywood thriller and Vishal Bhardwaj’s recommendation on the cover makes Alter’s intentions all the more clear. “To me there is no contradiction between a film and a novel. Your story gets a whole new readership.” Having been on the film sets while writing “Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief”, he suggests if Vishal doesn’t find time he may try his hand at direction. For Noya he has Kalki in mind and for Karan he is contemplating on Shahid Kapoor. And for Afridi? “Amitabh Bachchan, may be,” the scale is getting bigger.
As he munches on the burger, the presence of an HMT watch on his right wrist catches one’s attention. A few years back, Alter and his wife were attacked by four men in their Mussoorie home in the early hours. Alter says he has recovered from the horrific experience but the scar on the left hand ensured the time piece shifted to his right wrist. “This is the only watch that I ever owned. I bought it from Connaught Place when I got a teaching job. Till then I used to consider it as an unnecessary distraction. It shows days in Devanagari.” Meanwhile, he is putting together a memoir on the attack that left him shaken.