"Sir, if you are with me for six months, I'll make you a pickpocket. But it needs a lot of discipline, and there will be classes every day." We may all have got interesting job offers at one point or the other, but this offer might be hard to beat. Despite the indisputable attractions of becoming a professional pickpocket, Aroon Raman chose to pass up the opportunity outlined by his jailmate in Tihar, where he spent a few days - the price of being an active member of the Free Thinkers party in Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University in the 1980s. Charles Sobharaj was a barrackmate and they ate rotis made from flour that had been mixed with sand. Instead, Raman completed his degree in economics from JNU, followed by another from Wharton, and joined Raman Boards, the family enterprise in Mysore . In the past couple of years though, the Bangalore-based entrepreneur is attempting a less staid role, albeit vicariously, by turning a thriller writer. Raman's first book, The Shadow Throne, was a bestseller, having sold 20,000 copies (in India, books selling over 5,000 copies are considered bestsellers). His latest, The Treasure of Kafur, released last month.
"I always had a fondness for stories. I grew up listening to them and creating my own in my head," says the 53-year-old while discussing his foray into writing in his office in Koramangala in south Bangalore. The picture of the childhood he sketches is idyllic - shorn of the modern-day distractions like television and computers, one played simple games, listened to stories or read them. "But the interests we have while growing up tend to take a backseat when we begin working, and have different priorities," he says. He finally got the chance to pursue his passion once he sold the business his father started to ABB in 2007. "I was at a crossroads but my wife pointed out that the sale would give me the opportunity to rejig my priorities and revive my other interests," he says.
Raman - whose favourite authors include Wiliam Dalrymple, Arthur Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard, a pioneer of the "lost world" genre, - sees himself as a writer who is breaking new ground, since there aren't too many Indians writing thrillers and adventure novels. The genre is just beginning to develop, agrees Kapish Mehra, managing director of Rupa Publications, but it is nowhere in the same league as the popular mythology-based books. Rupa has published thriller writers like Piyush Jha. and average sales have been in the 20,000 range, but the genre needs to develop in India, feels Mehra. (Raman was published by Pan Macmillan)
* * *
While The Shadow Throne, Raman's debut novel, involved the intelligence agencies of India and Pakistan that unite to avoid a nuclear disaster, his latest release takes you back to 16th-century India and Akbar's reign. Incidentally, Raman had written The Treasure of Kafur first but it ended up getting published only now. The book recounts the attempts of 20-year-old Dattatreya to save his grandmother and his kingdom from falling prey to the tyrannical Aif Baig and his allies, for which he seeks the help of Akbar. The book also has elements of fantasy with birds and animals who talk, black magic, and mind readers.
The Shadow Throne belies my initial scepticism and flows smoothly. It did not draw me in sufficiently, to keep me hooked till the last page. Raman says that unlike his other book, which people were able to finish in a single stretch, this was something which readers told him they like to savour.
But he is very clear who he is writing for. I ask him about his comment in a previous interview, where he had said he would not over-emphasise language skills in success. "Let me put it to you this way," he says, before a long pause. "Today's reader wants something he can read on a train or flight, which does not tax the mind too much. I'm not saying dumb it down, but in India, we're struggling to come to terms with the English language. So you have to be careful not to make it too complex," he says. Thus, while Raman personally admires Joseph Conrad's works, he is certain those books would not be bestsellers today. "I also have to be aware of whom I'm writing for. I want my reader to enjoy the book, and not to keep having to refer to a dictionary. It's a fine line that a thriller or adventure story writer treads, compared to an author of literary fiction, who is intrinsically aiming at a slightly more sophisticated audience."
* * *
Though he is now donning the hat of a thriller writer, Raman has not given up his entrepreneurial role entirely. He still heads Raman FibreScience, the research and development arm of his previous company, focusing on materials science. Surprisingly for an R&D unit, nearly 100 per cent of his workforce are not graduates, and come from surrounding villages. This was a practice started by his father at Raman Boards, when he noticed one of his carpenters had a natural aptitude for spatial reasoning. His father began teaching him engineering drawing, which he picked up easily, and Krishnachari, the former carpenter, today heads a components division in ABB, says Raman. His current team, all of whom have learnt science only up to Class X and Class XII, has produced a battery separator that "pretty big guys have not been able to," and is now being used by clients like Exide. "The question we go back to is that great inventors like Bell and Edison were not university educated. They became great inventors simply by doing."
The successful experiment attracted the attention of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professors Abhijit V Banerjee and Esther Duflo, who used Raman Boards as a case study to demonstrate the deep capabilities in people who come from very poor backgrounds in their award-winning Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Ways to Fight Global Poverty. Raman says employing locals is a win-win situation, since it reduces the risk of attrition and brings down costs as well. The company is currently exploring setting up a plant in West Asia.
Raman's other interests include trekking, a passion he now has time to indulge in, and he tries to do at least one trek a year. His last trek was to Langtang Valley, to the north east of Kathmandu, while another was to the Everest base camp in winter. Future plans include sequels to his books and talks are on to make them into films as well. But for now, Raman says he is enjoying the moment.