Author Usha Narayanan’s debut novel launched recently in the city keeps readers guessing till the very end

Debut author Usha Narayanan seems to be a late bloomer when it comes to commercial fiction — the kind that has been storming our bookstores ever since Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi and their ilk opened the floodgates to corporate high-fliers turned successful authors. However, unlike them, Usha has a background in Literature, with a gold medal in English Literature from the University of Madras and a writing course from Hawaii to boot. Thanks to her stints as an English teacher, a creative director in an ad agency and radio station, as well as her corporate communication and e-publishing jobs, she developed a keen sense of the type of stories people like to read. A glutton for all genres of books, she finally decided it was time to write one herself.

The Madras Mangler, her debut novel, is just the sort of fare that critics are likely to term “unputdownable”. Five pretty college girls: Kat, or Kathyayani, Minx or Minaxi, Lolita or Lalitha, Moti or Siya Motwani, and Deepika are stalked by a serial killer and the only man who can seemingly stop him is a U.S.-returned criminologist Vir Pradyumna. Usha says she spent five months writing a chick lit novel about these girls but then turned to Stephen King for inspiration. Like he says, she looked for a “what if” scenario to improve her book and hit upon her idea: what if a serial killer was introduced into the mix?

Usha carried out exhaustive research, as she had to root the novel in reality. She went to locations like Marina beach or Broken Bridge to get the details right and watched Vadivelu’s films to describe the attire of her college bully character. Usha also immersed herself in the milieu and pop cultural references of youngsters today. So expect to see references to Edward Cullen from the Twilight novels or popstars Rihanna and Taylor Swift, so much so, that the novel often reads like the latest episode of Pretty Little Liars peppered with Tamil and Hindi words and set in Chennai.

Thriller all the way

“The novel is constantly asking who will be killed next and who the bad guy is,” says Usha. She realised how different and difficult writing is compared to reading, while working on this aspect of the thriller. She has always loved potboilers more than literary classics or romances but, now, she had to learn everything from scratch, be it how many words to write, how to write a plot outline, how to introduce and develop a character or when to insert chapter breaks. Thankfully, though, she found takers in publishers Leadstart and the book is now out in the bookstores.

At the book launch in Starmark bookstore, this week, chief guests, renowned actor-activist Suhasini Mani Ratnam and Rudra Krishna, author of the Onus of Karma, were both generous in their praise of the book. Suhasini demurred that English was not her first language as she had studied in Tamil medium schools and she was at an age where she was unable to read with or without glasses and yet, the book brought out the child in her and brought back the habit of reading. The book focusses on violence against women, and portrays the news stories, a new side of Chennai and “the harsh reality of everyday life that we may not wish to see or have missed. And all this is done in a nonchalant manner in writing that’s from the heart and gut.”

Breath of fresh air

Rudra added that the book captured the spirit of today’s generation in a way that someone like him who is closer to it in age could not have. He described it as a breath of fresh air, a socially relevant, fast paced read, where it passes the ultimate litmus test of a thriller because you can’t figure out who the bad guy is till the very end.

Narrating an anecdote, Suhasini Mani Ratnam said when her husband Mani first came to see her as part of the arranged marriage process, he was intrigued by the gramophone record of the band America and the copy of Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro in her room but little did he know that inside the America cover was a Boney M record and inside the Kurosawa movie was the ABBA movie. She said, literature need not always be about the Pulitzer and Booker prizes, the best kind is the book you can’t put down and Usha’s unpretentious book falls into this category.

Usha says she may next work on a corporate intrigue or a mythological story. But if The Madras Mangler hits 50,000 copies, she would be happy to indulge her readers with a sequel where one of the girls themselves turns into the lead investigator!