One of the most exciting new voices on the young adult literature scene, Siddhartha Sarma is a former investigative journalist who has made waves with his very first book. His debut novel, The Grasshopper's Run, and a non-fiction, 103 Journeys, Voyages, Trips and Stuff were both shortlisted for the 2009 Vodafone-Crossword Book Award in the children's literature category. The novel received this award. It also recieved the Sahitya Akdemi Bal Sahitya Puraskar in English. His latest title, East of the Sun, is a non-fiction about his travels in the North-east and Myanmar.
Set in 1944 when the Japanese Army, undefeated in the Asian mainland, invades British India through the east, The Grasshopper's Run is the story of Gojen Rajkhowa whose best friend Uti, the grandson of an Ao Naga chief has been killed by the Japanese when they massacre a village. Burning for revenge, Gojen travels to Kohima where the battle for “The Stalingard of the East” has just begun. Here he makes many discoveries among them that, “There was a lot of pain in the world, but there was a lot of good as well.” And that rules don’t always work.
In this brilliant debut novel, Siddhartha Sarma brings a little known slice of history to vivid life.
Here Siddhartha talks about his work, his sources of inspiration and his future plans with Sunita Baveja.
Sunita Baveja: First, let me congratulate you, Siddhartha, on behalf of all our readers on becoming the first recipient (in 2009) of the prestigious Vodaphone Crossword Award in the Children’s Literature Category for your book The Grasshopper’s Run. How does it feel to receive such an important honour for your very first novel and what, in your opinion, are the reasons why your book received such a tremendous response?
Siddhartha Sarma: Thank you so much. I feel happy to have won the first edition of this award, and for my debut novel. In the citation, the judges have mentioned that the novel keeps the attention of a capricious mind, as young adults have, and yet does not talk down to them, so I guess these were among the reasons why it worked.
Sunita Baveja: Tell us something about your early life, those so important formative school and college years. Where did you receive your education? And what and who have been the major influences and sources of inspiration in your life?
Siddhartha Sarma: I was born and grew up in Guwahati, Assam, where I stayed till my 12th. I did my graduation from MS University in Baroda and my masters in journalism from St Xavier’s college in Mumbai. What makes me who I eventually became is a combination of the places and people I was exposed to. I grew up in the Guwahati University Campus, a very green and growing place, full of trees, hills and ponds. There was much to do and explore for children, and we spent most of our time out of doors on bicycles, with our pets (I had a dog). It was not all games though, for at the university library we had access to the biggest collection of books in the North-east.
In short, the place I grew up in was a bit like the Shire in Tolkien’s works. I knew several very learned and wise people while growing up, and was particularly close to my grandfather, who represented, for me, a very special generation.
About inspiration—I do not believe it is necessary that any book should inspire someone. One should take what one can from it, but only alter one’s views on the world after reflecting on it. I have several favourite authors, but I can’t say any of them have inspired me. I just like their stories.
Sunita Baveja: The Grasshopper’s Run is set against a backdrop of international politics, war, battles and weapons, a rather unusual subject for young adult literature, when compared with the more common themes of fantasy, suspense, teenage issues and so on. Why did you break the mould and choose this theme and did you have any misgivings about it?
Siddhartha Sarma: I wanted to write a historical young adult novel, set during the Second World War. Once I had made that decision, it had to cover politics, war, battles and weapons. I have been and in my heart will always be a reporter, so using factual and realistic elements in my writing comes easier to me than, say, fantasy. I did not have any misgivings then.
Sunita Baveja: The book is rather gory in places with a detailed description of the brutalities of war and does not pamper its reader with soft words. Weren’t you worried that it might turn away youngsters who had not been exposed to such scenes and language in books?
Siddhartha Sarma: I was concerned that some readers might be upset, but I believed, and still do, that one can’t sugar-coat the world for any reader, young or old. One has to report on the world as accurately as one can. I call it ‘to look the devil in the eye and not blink.’
Sunita Baveja: The Grasshopper’s Run carries plenty of detailed descriptions of weaponry that display an in-depth knowledge of the subject. How do you know so much about guns and ammunition?
Siddhartha Sarma: I have hunted with bolt-action rifles and shotguns when I was young, so I was reasonably acquainted with them. Afterwards, as a journalist, I did a short course provided by the armed forces on weapons and tactics. I was not acquainted with the particular gun featured in the book, however, so I had to get it and practise with it, which I did in Myanmar. Other discussions on bullet types and trajectories and calculations I did on my own or on a website where writers on guns and army and the Special Forces’ snipers sometimes share information. I’m deeply indebted to professionals who gave me their time for this.
Sunita Baveja: Why the sudden unexpected twist in the tale at the end? Gojen is driven by a fiery desire to avenge his friend Uti’s death, yet when he comes face to face with the killer, he lets him go. Is there a special message you intend to send to your readers through this?
Siddhartha Sarma: It works like this—the killer is to be executed by Meren, who as torch-bearer to Uti’s grandfather, was specifically assigned this task. If Gojen killed the bad guy, it would be a breach of protocol. So I never intended Gojen to do the killing. I just wanted the reader to see Gojen meeting the killer and finding out that there is no special difference in behaviour between good and evil men. There is good and there is evil, but explaining them, that’s difficult. Gojen does not get any answer to why people kill. That was my message, if you can call it that. There is no need to believe in a supernatural source of evil, it is all here on earth. What isn’t easily found is a rationale.
Sunita Baveja: The juxtaposition of the ancient Naga legend about the grasshopper with the modern scene of World War II is simply fascinating. Was your book inspired by the legend or did you hit upon it much later?
Siddhartha Sarma: It was definitely inspired by the legend. When I re-read the story during my research I told myself “Good God! The water from the west was… and the fire from the east was… so the Grasshopper had to be a sniper.”
Sunita Baveja: You have been very fortunate to get tremendous accolades with your very first novel. What would you say to budding young writers who are struggling to get noticed?
Siddhartha Sarma: Yes, I have been tremendously lucky. To young writers, well, I’m still practising, so I doubt I can hand out advice any time soon, but here’s what I can say—put your head down and practise. Write a lot. Become a storyteller who uses the written medium. Observe the world and people in it. Try to be invisible so you can see without being seen, know without being known and understand how things work. Some day you will get noticed if you are good enough.
Sunita Baveja: Two of your other books 103 Journeys, Voyages, Trips and Stuff (also shortlisted for the 2009 Vodafone Crossword Award) and East of the Sun are based on your travel adventures and experiences. You are obviously an insatiable traveller. What comes first among your passions—travel or writing?
Siddhartha Sarma: Writing. However, to class them as passions would not be very accurate. I write because I have to and I travel because it makes me feel good. I’m passionate about the objects I collect, like movies, car models and swords and comic books.
Sunita Baveja: I understand that you currently work as Deputy Copy Editor for Outlook Money and prior to that you were with the Indian Express and The Sentinel in Assam, where you covered insurgency, crime and law. Is journalism still your first love or do you see yourself making a career shift in the next few years?
Siddhartha Sarma: I will be shifting out of journalism sometime in the near future. I am done with it.
Sunita Baveja: What other work do you have in the pipeline and when can we expect the next book on the shelves?
Siddhartha Sarma: My next book will be a historical fiction novel set in the 11th century. It should be out by 2013.
Sunita Baveja: Thank you so much Siddhartha, for sharing so much about yourself and your writing. Best wishes from all our readers for your continued success and we hope to read many more of your books in the coming years!