It has always been an accepted fact in my family that when it comes to business sense, someone up there blundered majorly in the creation of yours truly. My father had probably sensed this even when I was five for ever since I can remember he would begin explaining some transaction to me and then stop halfway with the remark “Oh you will never understand.” His view as often said to my mother in what he assumed was a whisper was that I was no good in these matters and it was all my mother’s fault of course. The old man brightened considerably when Sarada came into the family and ever since then has entrusted all matters of treasons, stratagems and spoils to her. Not to forget torts, malfeasances, barratry and soccage in fief. She, coming from a long line of lawyers, District Judges and at least one Chief Justice, has taken to all this like a duck taking to water.
To me, my lack of sound commercial sense was first illustrated when KS Padmanabhan of East West Books (Madras) Pvt Limited (now Westland Tata) met me in 2003 with the idea that I should write a book on Carnatic Music. My first reaction was that no one would buy it and he would probably handing them out as Christmas gifts for years to come. But Paddu was made of sterner stuff, though you wouldn’t believe it looking at his peaceful exterior. “Write,” he said. “And leave the rest to us.” And so it began. I said that I would like to write about these 22 great exponents and he agreed. This was in August 2003. I had just stepped off the dais at Tag Centre after a greatly applauded speech on Papanasam Sivan. It was my first there and I still consider it to be my best.
Anyway, I began writing. And wrote, and wrote. Somewhere along the line, I got so engrossed in it that I completely overlooked a major software project that was in the process of being executed in Jeddah. And from January 2004 onwards, the shit, having hit the fan, was continuing to remain there and shower everyone. The client, represented by its Finance Manager, a Palghat man who could shout abuse in five languages, was getting hot under the collar and from February onwards, I had to make regular trips there. Carnatic Summer, not that it was so called then, was for all practical purposes aborted. I had managed Ariyakkudi and Musiri, and that was that. At the end of a trip to Jeddah in March I came down with chicken-pox and that pushed the whole thing further into the horizon. Then in May, I made my longest stay in Jeddah. I was there for six weeks. And somewhere along the line, the project began to behave itself. The client became positively civil, offered me coffee every time and beamed on me. And I realised that time was hanging heavy on my hands, for I had little to do beyond lending a benign presence at meetings, pouring oil over troubled waters, shaking hands, encouraging my team to do its best and generally behave like a Constitutional Governor or Monarch. It was then that I decided to resume work on the book.
Reference material by the tonne was air-shipped from Madras by good friend Janaki of Sruti. Everyday the client (the top-ranking Sheikh) would smile and say that some more books had come for me. And every evening I would email a page or two to Ravi and Sridhar of Tiruvannamalai. The next morning the pages would be back after a careful read, with errors marked and howlers identified. By the time I returned in June 2004, the book was 90% finished, barring the chapter on the Alathoor Brothers. That was done a week later after a meeting with Sivasubramania Iyer’s elder son.
The book was published and slated for release on December 12th. MS Subbulakshmi died the previous night and we began the release function with a recording of her Maitreem Bhajata being played. Many in the audience (and it was a record turnout) were seen wiping their eyes. The book was released by Justice Prabha Sridevan and the first copy received by Sanjay Subrahmanyan. Mentor KV Ramanathan spoke on the occasion. Among the first things I did after the release was to go to Mukthamma’s house, prostrate before her recumbent form and present her with a copy. She was past recognising anyone but was able to understand that the book had a section on her.
Within a week Paddu was back. We were having lunch and he smiled in his usual slow fashion, his heavy eyelids half closed. “We have to have a reprint next week,” he said. I almost fell of my chair. He just smiled. Since then the book has gone into six reprints and is still going strong. Not bad for a work on Carnatic Music eh? I took the above photo last week at the bookshop in the airport.
I have often wondered as to what made the book do so well. Many have told me that one advantage with the book was that you could pick it up at any time and read a chapter from it. Others said it had a Stardust kind of style to it. A couple of relatives of two artistes called to express their anguish at what was written. But by and large family members and descendants were delighted. To me, two pieces of feedback were the most valuable. One was APJ Abdul Kalam telling me that he found it unputdownable and finished it in a night. The other was the sight of Manohar Devadoss being read out the book by his wife Mahema. It was amazing. That a near-blind artiste should be listening to the story, being read out by his quadriplegic wife moved me beyond expression. That it brought them happiness made me happy. And since then, Al hamdulillah as we Arabs say, I have continued to write.