This interview with Aditya Sudarshan, a multiple gold medallist from N.L.S.I.U., was first published in March 2009, a month after his first novel, A Nice Quiet Holiday, hit the stores.
In 2007, Aditya Sudarshan did something pretty unusual for a graduating multiple gold medallist from N.L.S.I.U. He decided to give up the fancy salaries that come with joining some of the top law firms in India and the U.K. and even the option of getting a Masters degree from some the finest Universities in the United Kingdom or the United States. Instead, Aditya took up criminal trial litigation in New Delhi – shuttling between the Tees Hazari and Patiala House courts. Nine months later, he was to make an even more unusual decision – to quit the practice of law to become an author. His first novel, A Nice Quiet Holiday, published by Westland Books, was released last month and is now available at leading bookstores.
A traditional murder mystery, the story follows Justice Harish Shinde who is on holiday in Bhairavgarh – a tranquil little Himalayan town, with his law clerk Anant, and living at the house of Shikhar Pant. Within a few days of their arrival, the tranquillity of the setting is disturbed by violent opposition to the alleged obscenity in a report on AIDS – authored by the Mittals, who are also guests at the same house. Things take a turn for the worse when Pant’s cousin – a noted writer and defender of the report, is found stabbed to death. Anant soon finds himself in the unusual position of being counsel to the Mittals in an obscenity trial, and assistant sleuth to Justice Shinde, as the novel moves towards its startling conclusion.
Aditya Sudarshan has participated in book-readings in New Delhi and Bengaluru. Between figuring out the publication of his second novel and working on his third work – a collection of short stories, he spoke with Rainmaker. On the shift from legal practice to writing, he says the only thing he did consciously was to keep his options open. “As a litigating lawyer, you’re always coming across two fundamental elements of fiction – characters, in the form of your clients, and plots, in the form of their troubles. So your raw material is the same – human drama.”
Rainmaker: Most of our readers belong to the Indian legal community. I am sure they would be interested in knowing how a multiple gold-medallist from India’s top institution for legal education decided to take up writing fiction.
Aditya: Yes I guess it is quite a shift. But then there’s no set path to getting into fiction writing anyway. When I was in college, like many people I used to write fiction pieces on the side. At that stage I didn’t think about whether I’d ever be doing it full-time. It was somewhere at the back of my mind, but what I was really considering was a career in litigation. Later I finished this novel, got a contract for it and an idea for another novel, and by then I’d also had nine months experience of litigation. So I was in a position to know which profession suited me better, and that’s when I made the shift. But the whole process was gradual; no single moment of epiphany. The only thing I did do consciously was to keep my options open, and to give myself time to make a decision.
Rainmaker: Was that rare in law school – to keep one’s options open?
Aditya: I actually think it was rare. What usually happens is, for the first three, three-and-a-half years; everyone says they’re keeping their options open. And they are, but it’s easy then, because decision-time is still a while away. As you start to get to the business end of law school and there are recruitment opportunities and jobs and offers flying around, that’s when the pressure to make a quick decision mounts. I think at this stage many people who need more time don’t take it. Not to say that if they’re undecided about their career they should turn down all opportunities, but I think whatever they do take up, it should be very clearly in the spirit of ‘testing the waters’. That takes away some of the pressure of the decision and gives them more space to make a real commitment.
Rainmaker: The narrator of your novel, Anant, is law clerk to another major character, Justice Harish Shinde – a New Delhi trial court judge. To me, the relationship between judge and clerk was a very interesting aspect of your novel. Can you tell us about your own experiences as a judicial clerk, and its influence on the relationship between Anant and Justice Shinde.
Aditya: Well the clerkship I did was just a month-and-a-half with a Supreme Court judge, so it was obviously very different from the one described in the book. But the general relationship between the clerk and the judge did strike me as interesting. As a clerk you’re spending most of your day, often including Sundays, at the judge’s office – which is also in the judge’s house – you’re working on his speeches and opinions, brain-storming with him, sometimes you might have a meal with him. And yet in formal terms, the gulf between the two of you is massive – you’re a total novice and he’s a judge. With a hierarchy like that, you can hardly be ‘friends’ or even ‘colleagues’. And yet, given how much one-on-one time you’re spending together, he is likely to become something more personal than just a ‘boss.’ Maybe he starts to feel like a mentor – but maybe the clerk doesn’t want a mentor. So it’s an interesting relationship, because it isn’t clear-cut. It has potential for both conflicts and sympathies. (Which is good material for fiction.)
Rainmaker: The book is structured like the traditional detective novel, when in fact it deals with much more – small-town morality and politics, to begin with. Is there a reason why you chose this structure?
Aditya: Yes, because a detective story naturally involves thinking through a problem, analysing characters and their motivations, and the secrets they might be concealing. It allows a writer to do these things in an open and overt way, which is what I wanted to do. So the way I look at it, it isn’t as though I’m using the structure of a murder mystery as a facade, while really making points about serious issues. The murder mystery itself entails those issues, and hence in the natural course of tackling the mystery I have to tackle them.
Rainmaker: So does this mean that we will see more of the Anant-Justice Shinde team?
Aditya: I hope so. Perhaps not in a novel, but I’d definitely like to write a collection of short mystery stories involving these two.
Rainmaker: Someone once told me that there is a frustrated writer inside every lawyer.
Aditya: I definitely think there’s a connection somewhere. I don’t know if this is true, but my guess is that there’s a disproportionate number of lawyers who have taken up writing, whether full time or part time, as compared to other professionals. There’s Grisham, and there’s Scott Turow who studied at Harvard, and there was John Mortimer of England, who wrote the Rumpole stories. And let’s remember that the young Charles Dickens worked in a lawyer’s office too, wanted at one time to be a barrister, and also put a lot of law into many of his books.
So there’s got to be a connection. It’s not that hard to see it either. At least as a litigating lawyer, you’re always coming across two fundamental elements of fiction- characters, in the form of your clients, and plots, in the form of their troubles. So your raw material is the same – human drama. (Then, of course, the way you treat that material is very different.)
Rainmaker: Did legal education and your brief stint in litigation prepare you for your first novel?
Aditya: In one very minor sense yes, because my novel involves some legal details that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. But more fundamentally, I think legal education probably did help prepare me. Legal education does train you to think in structured terms about human emotions, and you need to be able to do that to plan out a novel. And it’s not as though every course lets you do this. Science and mathematics might encourage incisive thought and the ability to theorise, but they don’t have a human element. The humanities subjects are full of the human element, but I think usually at a more abstract level. Only the law seems to really get down to the level of individual people and their relationships and emotions. Obviously it isn’t direct training for fiction writing- but then what is?
I don’t think my stint in litigation helped so much. I know I just said that litigation exposes you to characters and plots and that’s true, but as you get into the grind of it, it doesn’t give you the luxury to think of them that way. You can’t afford to think through the deeper motivations of your client, because that’s not why he hired you. You have to try and get him his relief.
The other thing about litigation is that its conventions demand that you write in a certain ‘formal’ way and I think that’s often just bad, painful writing. As a fiction writer, you have to take care of your talent. (Maybe that’s why the writer inside the lawyer slowly gets frustrated!)
Rainmaker: So do you see a lot of Indian writing in English to come out of Indian law schools?
Aditya: I do. There is plenty of fiction writing that happens in the law schools. The stumbling block is that law is a professional course and if you follow the natural course of it strictly all the way through, it takes you away from fiction. But if you’re keen enough on writing, then the likelihood is that sooner or later you’re going to do it. I personally know of law school graduates who are writing fiction, or at least actively considering it. And the law schools themselves are still quite young. If I were a betting man I’d bet on this happening.