Saturday, 19 April 2014

Writing about something you like, for someone else

It’s not easy writing about a book you love, especially when you are writing on commission. If you want to write for yourself, it’s a different kind of challenge. What you end up being is a cross between squeeing like a teenage fangirl – or disembowelling it with inexpert tools, like a sixth standard schoolboy doing a book review. But the other kind, the kind where you write about it for money, with fixed rules and predefined comparison points, is even more fucked.
Case in point. I was asked to do a George RR Martin story to coincide with the broadcast premiere of season four of Game of Thrones in India. I jumped at it, because it had been a complete shit week for me, workwise – to put it mildly – and I was wallowing in self-disgust. But there was a catch – since the audience is Indian, there had to be an Indian hook to it. OK, I thought. That’s not too difficult – I was able to get an idea of the number of Facebook ‘likes’ that came from India, the number of Indian IPs that had torrented the first couple of episodes of season four, the number of seeders from India and stuff like that. Plus, there were also the merchandise sellers who were stocking increasing amounts of expensive GoT merchandise, and I could get quotes from them. So far, so good.
But then, the story was also supposed to show that Indians loved GoT episodes/ASOIAF novels because of their similarity to Indian myth and history. That was harder. Not because you can’t show parallels between two long dramas with powerfully-drawn characters competing for a throne. But because it seems so artificial. Who really reads A Game of Thrones or A Storm of Swords and thinks that Ned Stark is like Bhishma or Robb Stark like Abhimanyu? It’s stuff that belongs to a Comparative Literature class, if there. It’s like a stoner version of the fucking glass bead game, with ass-pulls taking the place of analysis.
I submitted something which I thought wasn’t too bad. /* insert obligatory Dunning-Kroger reference here */ A few hours later, I get a mail asking me to make some changes – removing an introductory paragraph that I rather liked -  and add more comparisons. OK. It hurt to remove those opening paragraphs, but “kill your darlings” and all that, so I did. And I did it again. And again. Until there was so little of what I wanted to say left.
I know “it isn’t what I wanted to say” smacks of self-indulgence. But that’s the point. If I was writing about something I cared less about, then it wouldn’t matter. I’m happy to pull out comparisons and criticisms, drawn from authoritative sources like Wikipedia and Tumblr. But when it is about GRRM, whose books I've loved for more than a decade (and no, that's not a hipster statement. I started around the time A Storm of Swords was published, which makes me very late as far as the fandom is concerned), it just feels ... terrible

Original copy (and now, in retrospect, it seems pretty bad, but I think the rant helped)

In 1981, an American tourist visited Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland. It was his first time outside the United States. It was sunset by the time he got there, and the tour buses were leaving. The man stood on top of the wall and looked northwards as the dusk set in, trying to imagine the thoughts and feelings of a Roman soldier on patrol, guarding the edge of the world. The image would stay with him for a long time.
The tourist was a minor science fiction writer named George RR Martin, and a decade later, inspired in part by the historical fiction of people like Bernard Cromwell and by the real-life War of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster (sounds familiar?), he decided to write a three-book series of fantasy novels, the first of which was titled A Game of Thrones. It was to be followed by A Dance with Dragons and The Winds of Winter. It was a “story about the people guarding the end of the world”.
Two weeks ago, the fourth season of Game of Thrones, HBO’s adaptation of Martin’s novels aired. The demand was so great that HBO Go, the channel’s online streaming service crashed. The demand for the first episode broke piracy records as well, when over a million users downloaded copies within six hours of the show being aired, and over 3,00,000 users were actively sharing their copies. A study by the torrent tracking site showed that Indians accounted for 4.2% of these downloads, seventh in the world. On Facebook, Indians were the seventh biggest fans of Game of Thrones, making up 2.9 lakhs of the 1.03 crore people who ‘liked’ the series. ”I would say Game of Thrones, being a period drama, and the love Indians have for mythology, makes it a fit and there is a connect,” says Monica Tata, MD, HBO South Asia in an interview with Indiatimes. ”Indians generally love drama and we see that on a much larger scale in the Hindi GEC space,”
The walls of The Entertainment Store in Bangalore are covered with posters. Posters from Game of Thrones dominate. Tyrion Lannister, his face half-shadowed, looks at you from behind the words “A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge.” Daenerys Targaryen sits in profile, a newly-hatched dragon on her shoulder, swearing that she will take what is hers, with fire and blood. “There’s a lot of demand for Game of Thrones merchandise, even though its more expensive than other properties” says Sunil Tekchandani, who runs the store with his brother Satish. “We ordered a dozen replicas of the Iron Throne – at Rs 6,000 apiece, and they sold out in a matter of weeks” he says. Even the Amul ad, one of the most reliable indicators of popular conversation, has paid homage to the series and its most detestable character, the privileged prince Joffrey Baratheon.
Multiple point-of-view, non-linear narratives and sudden detours into history and backstory make the saga closer to our epics than western narratives like Harry Potter or Star Wars. ”Western fantasy narrative is usually linear, based on the hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell,” says Eika Chaturvedi Banerjee, one of the organizers of Aakhyaan, a festival where participants discuss and interpret mythology. “Indian myth is much more pluralistic. If you take the Mahabaratha, you will find characters like Bhishma, whose adherence to the idea of honour has devastating consequences. Or take the tale of Shakuni, imprisoned with his 100 brothers. The prisoners were given one grain of rice a day to feed themselves. Shakuni’s brothers starved to death, so that at least one of them could survive, and Shakuni, the sole survivor, swore that he would have his revenge on the Kuru dynasty. If you look at the Kurukshetra, it was Krishna, the avatar of Lord Vishnu himself, who broke several of the rules of war. The characters are not purely good or evil. The Kauravas, even though they are ostensibly the villains of the story, end up in heaven ahead of the Pandavas. It is a similar kind of non-linearity that gives GoT its appeal” she says.
Martin’s storylines are notoriously complex. His characters are multi-layered, with shifting motivations and loyalties. The person who seems like a villain in the first book or season becomes a fan favourite by the third, and could easily flip back again. Arranged marriages have a better chance of working out, and love is dangerous. It’s also about clan, family and honour, subjects that are familiar to everyone who watches any of the numerous soaps that grace our airwaves.
Martin is sparing in his use of fantasy elements. There is magic in the world, but it’s not the Dungeons and Dragons kind of magic where wizards cast fireballs and lightning bolts. Here, there are dragons, but at this point, they are just dangerous pets that have the potential to be weapons of mass destruction – if they survive. And no one in Martin’s world is safe. There are giants and wights and shadows and the promise of an apocalyptic battle, but it’s all just background for a group of incredibly human people jockeying for power – or just fighting for survival in a cold world.
Nilanjana Roy, the critic and writer, counts herself a fan of Martin’s work. “It's tempting to look for resonances between India's tradition of fantasy and epic and the Ice and Fire books, but I’d suggest that sometimes, it's really the great storytelling that counts, whether you're looking at Narnia or Middle Earth or Westeros, or whether it's the equally culturally distant but compelling worlds of Garcia Marquez's Macondo, Alice Munro's Vancouver, Annie Proulx's Wyoming. Good storytelling has a way of travelling across national boundaries, and it's been such a pleasure to be a reader in the time of Rowling, Martin, Proulx, Munro, Morrison, Marquez, to have the privilege of seeing those books come out as you move through your own lifespan,” she says.