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Fiction, not fictional history...

He gave up IIT to become a creative writer and ended up as an IRS officer in 1973. He penned his first novel at the age of 10, yet produced his maiden book in print only in 1996. SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY speaks to writer-bureaucrat Mandeep Rai whoreveals something about his book and literary plans... .

Mandeep Rai: War in verse.

WHEN IT comes to Cold War novels, it has hardly been an Indian writer's mainstay. But, this 53-year-old Indian Revenue Service officer "feels at home completely" with the subject, so much so that he has not only come out recently with a book in print encircling Cold War diplomacy but is also scheduling one more roll-out on a similar topic.

Calling his latest book - No Friends, No Enemies - "a fruit of painstaking deep research of authentic sources", Delhi-based Mandeep Rai here attempts to portray the complexities and contradictions of the early `60s through interactions and confrontations between the historical characters like Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, American Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F Kennedy and French Premier Minister Charles de Gaulle. The narrative, however, comes with a cautionary line from the author that a historical novel has to be read as historical fiction and not as fictional history.

Rai employs only one fictional character, Allen Walker in his book "to bring in what could have happened if what happened had not happened".

"The fictional character was brought in to show the missed opportunities of history. I look at things as known half and unknown half. Walker is in the novel to portray the unknown half," says this IIT Mumbai dropout. In over 400 pages, the writer establishes that the Cold War would have ended in 1960 had not the Paris Conference of the Big Four been "so cleverly disrupted by the Americans".

"When you read documents of Cold War era, you realise that de Gaulle wanted to have a reappraisal of the policy towards the Russians and wanted a working relationship with them. There were communist presence in France too, so de Gaulle never wanted to crush communism totally. But, it was the U.S. which sabotaged it," says the author of "In the Shadow of Pines". He, however, does not want to term his book anti-American. "I showed what I gathered from my research. I showed how Kennedy emerged finally as a strong character in the entire scenario," he adds. Driving home the point about "American sabotage of the Paris Conference", Rai dubs the so-called present-day Islamic fundamentalism as a "fall-out of the death of communism".

"Communism never supported any religion, any god. Its main philosophy was parity in the society. So, by crushing communism, Americans did no good," he opines. In simple language, Rai's book, published by UBSPD, progresses from page to page to institute his thoughts about the `60s war of political ideologies, but, on second thoughts, it is recommended only to those having a good idea about the background on which his tale rests.

Deeply interested in history, Rai once nearly settled with the idea of writing a novel based on Hitler's life. "But, I gave up the idea as I was not emotionally comfortable with the Holocaust. To write, you need to prepare your inner self for an intense and passionate narrative which I could not have done with the particular episode", says this product of YPS, Patiala. His maiden venture "In the Shadow of Pines... ", which came out in 1996, revolves around a British Governor-General who dreamt of an undivided India. Set in Shimla, the book, covering the period between 1845 and 1857, is termed by Rai as "romantic and thought provoking".

But, it was not in 1996 that he completed his first book. "I wrote my first novel when I was merely 10! My father, said, this is India, it will take you 20 years to publish your first book. It took me 30 years," says Rai, beaming with a smile. While studying Chemical Engineering at IIT, Mumbai, he had the urge to become a creative writer and quit his course, but ended up being an IRS officer. "In those days, writing for a living was not a viable idea as it is today," adds this Income Tax Commissioner.

But, all his life, he has been a careful collector of thoughts. "If a thought comes to my mind even at the dead of the night, I get up and jot it down. An idea once lost, is lost forever," he says.

Rai is planning to roll out yet another book on Cold War, this time focussing on the "dangerous `80s". However, keeping in mind the fact that his latest book took him five years to complete and his maiden novel six years, you have time to grin and graze.

Photo S. Subramanium

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