Sunday, September 29, 2013

Manish Gupta's interview at The White Scape!!!

I am thrilled to be hosting debut author Manish Gupta of English Bites on the blog today.

Manish is a wonderfully talented new author. I asked him a few questions and he was kind enough to answer.

But before that I would appreciate all if you read the review of the book first and than proceed to the interview.

How did you come up with the title?

Frankly I had grossly underestimated the amount of time it will take me to zero-in on the title. I had evaluated several titles for the book. My friends notably Alok Karkera and Jnanesh Kodical had also done several deep dives into their creative spaces to dig out interesting titles for the book. Some of them were either funny or relevant or both. For instance,

 “Word(ly) Wise”

“Amazed by the English Maze”

“I Struggled with English…You Don’t Have To”

“How I found my way through the English Maze”

“Behind Every Successful Word is a Story Involving a Woman”

Finally, we shortlisted three:

“My Struggles with English”

“Expedition English”

“English Bites!”

I was extremely impressed with the first option as it resonated with “My Experiments with Truth” and I secretly hoped the similarly of title may influence its success. My friends overruled me by saying “You could have chosen “My Struggles with English” if you were a celebrity and fans were craving for your story.” Of the other two titles that made the shortlist, I was quite keen that we chose English Bites! It was short, scored high on fun, and made me recollect how I was once badly “bitten” by the English language when I was newly “smitten” at sweet sixteen (more on that later).

Fortunately, my commission editor at Penguin Books India Shahnaz Siganporia shared my view. Where we differed was on the choice of a sub-title. I was keen to go with: “Waiter! One Plate of A la Carte” as this was drawn from an amusing incident captured in the book, whereas Shahnaz preferred “My ‘Fullproof’ English Learning Formula”. I finally succumbed to the gentle persuasion by Shahnaz and sealed the title/sub-title for the manuscript.

How much of the book is realistic?  Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

You may find it hard to believe but this manuscript has been in the making for over 20 years and this has influenced a lot of content in the book. It started as an idea in my second year of engineering way back in 1989-1990 when two of my closet friends and I resolved to publish a book each before we turned 21. I thought I had written a masterpiece by the time our final placements ended (spoiling my grades in the process) and was still a few months shy of turning 21. My other friends, who were writing on ‘quizzing’ and ‘poetry’, had pulled out of this pledge while they were still in their teens. My manuscript then hibernated for 20 years as I got busy with my first job at Tata Motors, an MBA from XLRI Jamshedpur, my banking career at Citibank, and family life. The manuscript was preserved on a 3.5 inch diskette in Microsoft 2000 that refused to open on my old PC, when I thought of reviving my work of art in the year 2008. Fortunately, the handwritten version (‘manuscript’ in the real sense of the word) had survived well on loose sheets of paper, which I promptly transferred on my PC and started editing and expanding it at the same time. By the time I finished in 4 years (working on weekends), I had landed up re-writing the entire book.

The book is a crazy mix of facts, fiction, and real-life. The entire discussion and commentary on English language is naturally fact based. The sketch of the underlying story of a struggling boy is roughly based on my own life story. The amusing incidents, anecdotes, and jokes in the book are either completely real, present mild or significant exaggeration of reality, or a work of my imaginations.

Which part of writing your book was the most personally interesting to you?

The book begins when I am in high school and much of the damage to my understanding and grip over the English language has already been done. It ends when, even after spending 20 years as a devoted student of the English language, and having achieved my goals of an MBA, a doctor wife,  kids attending convent school, and a reasonably senior position in a multinational bank, I am stumped by new discoveries every other day. So much so that I find some unfamiliar English words in the nursery rhymes of my kids…my extended student life as far as English language is concerned continues. Since the entire story is loosely based on my life, I loved writing it from page 1 to page 334.

What are you reading right now? Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?

I stick mostly to non-fiction, and there are far too many favourite books and authors to mention. But if you ask me to pick a few – I have loved the simple and relatable humour in books by Sam Levenson, the life skills taught by Dale Carnegie, and the seminal work on English etymology by Norman Lewis and Wilfred Funk. In the recent past, I have read and thoroughly enjoyed books on Mind, Passion, and Happiness by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, Dr. Carol S. Dweck, David Rock, and Ken Robinson. I am currently reading “The Secret Life of Words” by Henry Hitchings, “Entry From Backside Only” by Binoo K. John, and re-reading “Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight” by Rujuta Diwekar. I believe in reading fewer books but revising profound and/or interesting passages from books that I meticulously underline and highlight in the first reading. I am often shocked at the size of my hippocampus, the seat of memory in the brain and hence, keen that I internalise the lessons though a rigorous revision.

Give us five “Good to Know” facts about you. Be creative. Tell us about your first job, the inspiration for your writing, any fun details that would enliven this interview?

 1. In Class XI, was extremely embarrassed in front of my third and final crush (and her family) when I could not speak even one correct sentence of English with a foreigner we met during a family vacation to Manali (and she did). This was the inspiration for my writing.

 2. Till Class XII, I stayed in the campus of a girls’ college with our row house facing the girls’ hostel and left this beautiful environment to join Mechanical Engineering at Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh (a subject no girl dared to join in our year and many years before and after). This lead to a deep appreciation and understanding of how God re-balances our lives.

 3. Joined Tata Motors in the lovely city of Jamshedpur and realised within a few weeks of working on the shop floor that my constitution was better conditioned to a cushy and air-conditioned life working with computers.

 4. Drifted to do a MBA after realising that no specialist (read post-graduate) doctor girl will consent to marry a Bachelor of Engineering in an arranged marriage situation that I have found myself in after many crushed crushes.

 5. Till recently, I used to work as a Managing Director and Head of Sales for Treasury and Trade Solutions division of Citibank in India. I have now decided to take a plunge in the field of education, training, consulting, and executive coaching and will shortly start working with an organization that works for the underprivileged children at the school level.

In my personal life, I now live by the principle of learning one new skill every year (pity, I understood and adopted this only a few years ago) and have dabbled in adventure sports (like skiing, paragliding, bungee jumping) and getting off the beaten track while travelling. I plan to hone my moderate skills in singing, gardening, and cooking next. I also like to delve into human psychology and waiting for the day when someone will actually pay me for my wise counsel.

What’s next after English Bites?

I guess when you write a book, you give it your all. My stock of ideas is now empty but it doesn’t mean that I will not write another book. Book sales and readers’ feedback and appreciation are extremely strong motivators in rapidly refilling one’s reservoir and giving new ideas and different perspectives to make more meaningful and interesting books. However, I would like to stick to writing in a similar genre (laugh as you learn). Feel strongly about and need to put in my bit to make sure that that language does not become a handicap for anyone to realize their ambitions and dreams!

 Do you have any advice for other upcoming writers?


 1. Keep writing on a regular basis. Seek feedback from people who can opine critically and dispassionately. In my experience, quite often, we get so attached to our writing that we close our minds to any adverse comments and selectively absorb the words of appreciation. Develop the ability to accept and digest the feedback on improvement areas.

 2. Be extremely patient when it comes to getting your work published.  Let us understand that there has been an explosion of books in the Indian market in the past 3-4 years as new breed of writers have emerged from sectors like banking and finance, software, media and entertainment, etc. and invaded the bastion of litterateurs, political thinkers, economists, civil servants, and Oxbridge scholars. Naturally, the number of submissions has also multiplied. I am not quite sure that the publishing industry, despite several new entrants, is still adequately capacitised to handle the volumes of work pouring into their offices.

 3. Knowing this, I would advise that unless you have received brilliant feedback on your manuscript, approach the publishers through reputed literary agents (and there are several in the Indian market today). Literary agents usually have the ability to critically assess the quality and marketability of the manuscript and can help you identify and correct the gaps in the story, structure, or writing before submitting it to the select set of publishers that are interested in publishing books in your genre.

 4. Don’t exhaust yourself in the process of writing, revising, editing, and submitting. Save a lot of energy for the marketing of your work before and after it hits the stands.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing the book to life?

To answer this question, we need to get a little bit into my background. I grew up in Rohtak, a small and sleepy town in Haryana in the 1970s and 80s. The only English I spoke was in school and that too to respond to questions of my teachers in the class. I looked down at English as an alien tongue merely suited to the narrow field of academia and with no particular use once someone got into the real economy.

As a result, I was horrible in all aspects of communication. My active vocabulary was extremely limited, pronunciations & spellings were terrible (as I refused to accept English as a non-phonetic language that it largely is), sentence construction was poor, and my fluency was severely compromised. I was shocked by its increasing relevance and necessity in the real economy once I landed-up in at Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh.

Here, I came face-to-face with far more fluent and erudite specimens from convent schools from metros and towns much bigger than my hometown. I also noticed how I used to get tongue-tied while attempting to make a small conversation in English with or even in front of the convent educated colleagues.

Having lived all my school life in disdain for this alien tongue, the grossly neglected subject of English made me realize its importance, its vastness, its complexity, and my far less than self proclaimed ‘photographic memory’ all at once. I needed something quick and in large doses to beat the convent educated types in their own game and seal the best job offered in the campus in my name and after gaining some industry experience, successfully compete with them once again for admission into a top-tier MBA program.

Hence, I set aside the word lists, my failed attempts at mugging, and started creating interesting stories and anecdotes to make indelible imprints of this foreign language in my mind. This was the genesis of the book. It took a lot of research and creativity, but it was a matter of survivability. It was the only thing that could have rescued me from definite depression and elevated me to think and talk like an erudite gentleman. Most of the research was done in the period 1989-1994 through books sourced from college and public libraries at Chandigarh, British Council Library at Lucknow and all kinds of magazines and newspapers. Most of all, it was at the circulating library run by a retired army colonel from his garage at his Sector 11 house in Chandigarh (close to my hostel) that I would source my reading material and use the nearby photocopy centre to keep a record of my sources.

 In the last 4 years as I expanded on my earlier work, I banked on Google, Wikipedia,, and several online dictionaries for my writing. Both periods were so different and so much fun! In one there were dust mites in old books and in the other lots of bits and bytes….no wonder English Bites!


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