In the mid 90s I worked as a Sales Engineer for a mechanical engineering firm in Bombay. I lived in Borivali and undertook an hour long commute by local train to reach my office which was a ten minutes walk from Churchgate station. On evenings I frequented the pavement booksellers of the area and it was from there that I picked up a novel called Vertigo. The author was Ashok Banker. Maybe it was curiosity about the author’s last name that made me buy it. I struck an instant empathy with the novel and its protagonist Jay. Jay was a struggling, mid twenties marketing executive and the 300 plus page novel captured the ethos of middle class Bombay at its rawest. In those pages one could experience the blood, sweat, tears and semen of the bustling city. This book was a keeper. And I was instantly catapulted to the status of fan of Banker about whom I knew absolutely nothing. The book lingered in the mind. Later I came to know that Ashok Banker the Mumbai (by now the city had been rechristened) based writer was only 26 when he wrote the book and he had some more novels to his name like Byculla Boy and The Iron Bra.
By late 97 I had moved to the US after a brief sojourn in Bangalore where I cut my software engineering teeth. Initially I subscribed to the The Hindu International edition which came to me by post every fortnight. But when the internet caught up soon, I switched to grabbing my news from home through the computer. A popular site at the time was Rediff.com which boasted of some brilliant columnists in Pritish Nandy, Rajeev Srinivasan, Francois Gautier and Ashok Banker. I communicated with Banker and to my pleasant surprise he was very responsive, which is unusual for a busy writer. I came to know about him a bit more. He was thirty five at the time.
Ashok Banker was born in 1964. His dad Sudhir was Hindu and mom Sheila Ray D’Souza, a Goan Christian. He was enrolled in school with ‘Indian’ marked against the column for religion. His parents split when he was five. He lived with his mom who was recklessly alcoholic. In her senility she tried to kill him on two occasions but failed. A former model of the Bombay fashion industry, Sheila was spared of her misery forever when she died at the age of 44 in 1990. Growing up in the suburb of Byculla, reading was the escape from the gruesome reality of his life for little Banker. He read and he read, like a pathological case. He read when he ate, he read when he traveled to school and he read at the loo. By age thirteen he had finished the entire world classics. By the age of twenty he had read the Complete Works of William Shakespeare twice over. When I first befriended him he read a book a day. He finished Vikram Seth’s 1349 page A Suitable Boy in two days flat. After a shot at an advertising job (where as happens with talented admen, he rose quickly) he gave it up and took to full time writing. He lived in with his college mate Bithika Jain, an year elder to him, with whom he had son Ayushyodha and daughter Yashka.
Banker is a prolific writer. He wrote as furiously as he read. He had many firsts to his credit – writing 320 episodes of India’s first English soap on TV, A Mouthful of Sky which starred Milind Soman and penning the country’s first online novel, Bad Karma (which was followed soon enough by another called Swing City). He wrote thousands of columns and at one point irretrievably lost many archived material from a system crash. His Rediff columns endeared me to him even as I wondered how he could get away with such unguarded honesty and idealism. Let us examine some of the stories he filed. When the house of Birlas commissioned a chap called Minhas Merchant with Rs 70 lakhs to write the biography of Aditya Birla, Banker wondered how objective can such an account be. At best it can be a hagiography. When Salman Rushdie edited a volume called Mirror work in ’97 which was to celebrate fifty years of post Independent Indian writing, he pointed out two wrongs in it. One was the absence of representation for vernacular languages. Two was the presence of an obscure writer called Kiran Desai. What was the reason for Rushdie to include a portion from her highly forgettable first novel ‘Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard’ in it? Well, in the 70s Rushdie wrote a dud novel called Grimus (title is an anagram of Si Murg or Forty Chicken in Arabic) and was so pissed off with the result that he wanted to quit writing forever. He was persuaded from not doing that by veteran writer Anita Desai. Rushdie next wrote Midnight’s Children and the rest is history. Now years later Rushdie was repaying that debt by including his mentor Anita’s budding writer daughter in his anthology! Banker pointed this out as a case in point on the sad state of Indian literature. [Tailpiece: In the next decade Kiran Desai did write The Inheritance of Loss which won her a Booker. When I last heard she was dating the much senior Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk]. During the Kargil War when Rediff.com sold T shirts with war motifs Banker lashed out against this insensitive commercialization of patriotic fervor. He said he did not give a damn if those guys took exception to his saying so.
Banker did not have a passport. I wondered aloud how that could be and shouldn’t a writer be as well traveled as possible. He said yes, true, ‘if I lived in say Belgium or Sweden. But living in India one lifetime is not enough to fully explore the country. I must be doing that’. He refused to promote his books and saw such acts as a kind of prostitution of art. He openly locked horns with pseudo-intellectuals like Pankaj Mishra who wrote books and articles catering to wrong Western notions of India and the East in general. Banker was being painfully reclusive. He was not very rich either, despite all the reams of writing. He let out a portion of his Mumbai flat to raise money. He even joked to me that he might sell one of his kidneys since that would fetch him a lakh of rupees. When Indian women started winning Miss World and Miss Universe too frequently to not suspect fixing, he commented on the racket. He said post liberalization cosmetic multinationals had identified huge markets in countries like India and the granting of these crowns were conspiracies between the jury and such companies. When Yukta Mookey or Diana Hayden won such a crown he was like, ‘Come on yaar, my wife is better looking than that one!’ He wrote about the flip side of beauty contests, the enormous input of money and time that went into it. It was alright for the lucky handful of winners but what about the also-rans? The luckiest among them became junior artists or landed modeling careers, the hapless ones inevitably ended up in prostitution. The conversations carried on regularly until one day in ’99. I remember I was in Worcester, Massachusetts. Banker said he would be going incommunicado. He said, ‘Biju I am embarking on a major project which I have tentatively named History. It will be either the biggest event ever in Indian publishing history or the biggest dud. Nothing in between’. And then the emails stopped.
A year and a half later I heard all about the project from news sites. Ashok Banker had landed a hitherto unheard of high advance for a series of books based on the Ramayana and Mahabharatha from Warner Books. The deal included film rights and publication rights in many international languages. The books started coming out with regularity. The Ramayana was retold in the form of attractive paperbacks named Prince of Ayodhya, Siege of Mithila, Demons of Chitrakut, Armies of Hanuman, Bridge of Rama, King of Ayodhya, Vengeance of Ravana and Sons of Sita, each of whose arrival I eagerly awaited. They were also collected in omnibuses called Prince of Dharma, Prince in Exile, Prince at War and King of Dharma. Then there was Krishna Coriolis, historical trilogies planned on Shivaji, Ashoka…. Banker was against bookshops stacking such work of his under fantasy or science fiction. He was clear that he was a writer of epic fiction. I won’t go into details of his books; those can be found in his Wiki link or http://www.akbebooks.com/.
There were dark secrets of his life that he held within himself and those related to the tragedy of his mother’s life. In 2005 he came out in the open with it. His mom Sheila Ray was a victim of the Bombay film industry. She was a beautiful model and went out to wild parties. And in one of the nights out in 1977 she was drugged, gang raped and dumped. And that changed her life forever. It was a downward spiral from then on. Ashok was then 12. Banker said he was going to make a film on her life and named it Beautiful Ugly. And one of the people he finger pointed at as responsible for his mother’s tragedy was director Mahesh Bhatt. Sheila had had an illicit relationship with Bhatt. She conceived a child by that relationship but he forced her to abort it in the seventh month. Her grandmother who was a nurse, organised the abortion, but being in an advanced state of pregnancy, the child was removed alive and given to a fisher folk family in Bandra. After that none heard again about the baby. Bhatt vehemently refuted it, even offering to undergo DNA test if the child is found. The case and the story/film seemed to have been shelved as Banker got busy with one series of books after another.
I must frankly say that I have enjoyed his novels less than I did his columns and book reviews. However hard I tried finding delight in a science fiction like Vortel or a crime thriller like Ten Dead Admen or even the long winded Ramayana books, for me none of them could recreate the passion of Vertigo, the semi-autobiographical novel with which he announced his entry to the world of Indian writing. It is no great literary fiction mind you but a simple, brutally honest tale of love and living. Banker is now 53. It has been eight years since I last interacted with him. He set the mythology trend on which the Amish Tripathis and Devadutt Patnaiks ride high today. Ashok Banker may not be as popular a face among the literati or even chatterati as that clever marketing genius Chetan Bhagat but he has carved a niche for himself in the write scheme of things alright. He has his undeniable distinction as a pioneer in the popular epic genre.