Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Big Fix by Vikas Singh, 2013

Review & Interview

“There’s twenty lakhs in there,” said the conduit. “As a gesture of goodwill, I’m going to let you keep it. There will be more later, if you do what I tell you. Fail me, and I’ll send another bag to your family, this time with your head in it.”

No other sport captures the imagination of an entire nation as cricket does in India. Football enjoys that distinction on a global scale. More than half of the 1.60-odd billion cricket fans worldwide are in the subcontinent and the bulk of these are in India, where cricket is a religion and cricketers are worshipped like gods. Curiously, while cricket has been the subject of academic and biographical books, it has never had a formal run in fiction, until Vikas Singh decided to score one. He may have set a precedent.

The Big Fix by the Delhi-based journalist is a fast-paced thriller that plays out both on and off the field, inside and outside the stadium. There is cricket, the game itself, played with familiar passion and intensity, a betting syndicate run by the mafia, unscrupulous businessmen, tainted players, a high-profile murder, and a police investigation.

The story is narrated in first person by its two principal characters, Shaurya Chauhan, the skipper of Capital Cavaliers, and Mitakshara, a dauntless crime reporter, in the backdrop of an explosive cricket championship called T20 and spot- and match-fixing scandals that threaten to derail the Cavaliers’ chances of winning the trophy.

In a Twenty20, the official term, each side with 11 players bowls a maximum of 20 overs of six balls each. The team that scores the highest wins the match although even scores can lead to a tiebreaker. The high scoring and electrifying nature of the game has endeared it to millions of cricket fans. T20 teams consist of players from around the world. It is the fastest and most advanced form of the game as opposed to the equally fast scoring 50-over ODI (one-day international) and the traditional five-day Test match that purists insist is the only way to play the game. The Indian Premier League is the official T20 championship in India. Held annually, the nearly dozen teams are sponsored by corporate houses and film stars with the tacit support of political bigwigs on one hand and punters and bookies on the other. The game is a money-spinner.

A T20 cricket match is a batsman’s dream and a bowler’s nightmare. A batsman doesn't just hit the ball, he bludgeons it, like in baseball or Quidditch. Shaurya, a top-order batsman, is struggling with his form and is easy target for opposition bowlers which puts his captaincy under a cloud. An in-form teammate is waiting to step into his shoes and lead the Capital Cavaliers. The explosive batsman almost gets his wish as Howard Jensen, the popular South African coach of the team, tells Shaurya to step down and let his teammate captain the remaining matches.

The next day Jensen is found unconscious in his hotel room with an injury to his head and the last person he met was Shaurya. The finger of suspicion points at the captain of the Cavaliers and the Delhi Police Crime Branch comes sniffing like a bloodhound. Matters get worse for Shaurya when his comatose coach eventually dies.

Who killed Howard Jensen and why? Was it Shaurya Chauhan? Was it one or more of the players with links to bookies and the mafia? Or was it someone influential with a sinister plan of his or her own?

Final word
The Big Fix is a finely crafted whodunit that keeps you guessing about the identity of the suspect and his or her motive until the end. In the midst of it all Vikas Singh entertains you with a ball-by-ball account of some exciting cricket, which is central to the mystery, even as Shaurya regains more than just his form with the bat. He also finds Mitakshara, the beautiful reporter with a hidden agenda of her own.

I know next to nothing about baseball but if a baseball fan had written this novel, I’d have enjoyed it, just as someone unfamiliar with cricket will find The Big Fix a racy story with a little humour.

The author
Vikas Singh, Resident Editor of The Times of India, Delhi, loves cricket and reading. The “self-confessed word addict” is already working on his second novel, “a Woody Allenesque romance” as he told this blog in an engaging interview (see below). He has also co-authored a brief history of knowledge titled The Know of Things. Vikas lives in Delhi with his wife and daughter.

The author spoke to the 3Cs in an email interaction organised by his publisher, Westland Ltd, Chennai, which sent me a review copy of The Big Fix. A Kindle edition of the book is available at Amazon for readers abroad. I have split the interview into three parts: the book, the characters, and the author. Over to Vikas Singh...



‘Hardly any fiction is written about a game
packed with drama and thrills as cricket’


THE BOOK

Prashant C. Trikannad: How do you relate to cricket? Did you play the game or are you a fan like millions of Indians?
Vikas Singh: Like most Indians, I passionately love cricket. I've played the game a lot for fun, though not at any serious competitive level. However, luckily for me, my job (I’m Resident Editor of The Times of India, Delhi) allows me to interact a fair bit with cricketers and support staff. I've also had the opportunity to cover some of the most memorable moments of Indian cricket, including India’s victory in the World Cup, Sachin Tendulkar’s double century in an ODI and, most recently, his very emotional 200th Test and retirement (India-born Tendulkar is a cricket legend and the highest run-getter in the history of the game).

You have written the cricketing aspect of The Big Fix like a professional cricketer right down to the last ball and the last run. How well do you know the game?
Over the years, I've had the opportunity to spend some time talking about the technical and mental side of cricket with players like Sir Viv Richards, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Krishnamachari Srikkanth, and Yuvraj Singh, and I also get to interact regularly with sports journalists. Plus, there have been tons of autobiographies and other books by cricketers, all of which I’ve devoured. All those insights came in very handy while writing The Big Fix.

Author and journalist Vikas Singh 
Photo: www.thedesijourney.blogspot.in

What prompted you to ground your debut novel on cricket?
I had always found it strange that hardly any fiction is written about a game that is so inherently packed with drama and thrills as cricket. There have been many outstanding non-fiction works, but good novels based on cricket have been few and far between. The honourable exceptions include Chinaman and The Zoya Factor, but even they didn’t really provide the cricketer’s perspective. As a reader, you don’t get to inhabit the players’ minds during those tense last-ball finishes. Why do some players thrive under pressure, while others crack? To me, that’s one of the most fascinating mysteries of cricket.

Simultaneously, there have been lots of real-life controversies. There was Bob Woolmer’s dramatic death in the 2007 World Cup, and the conviction of three Pakistani cricketers for spot-fixing in 2010. Last year, India TV did a sting operation which seemed to show some little-known players openly discussing fixing. And, of course, this year there were allegations concerning S. Sreesanth and other players from Rajasthan Royals. I thought if I could combine the on-field action with an off-field whodunit, it would make for an interesting book. So that’s what I set out to do. How far I succeeded is for readers to judge.

Did you meet with current or former cricketers, senior police and cricket board officials, and sports journalists to research for your book?
Yes, though for obvious reasons, they prefer to stay off the record. The one police officer I've mentioned in the acknowledgements is Satyendra Garg, who’s now IG, Law & Order, in Arunachal Pradesh, but was in Delhi while I was writing the book. He spent a lot of time explaining investigation procedures and techniques to me, though we didn’t specifically discuss the fixing case since he wasn't involved in those investigations. Incidentally, I’m part of a panel discussion on December 7 at the Times Literary Carnival with Neeraj Kumar, the former Commissioner of Delhi who actually led the investigations. It’s a session that I’m really looking forward to.

How much of the events in the story are based on real betting incidents in the cricketing world?
I’d say about 50 per cent is based on stuff that actually happened, or was rumoured to have taken place, while the remaining 50 per cent is pure imagination. It’s up to readers to figure out which is which!

The novel is told in the present tense and Shaurya Chauhan and Mitakshara, the two main protagonists, narrate their individual stories in the first person. Do you think readers would be comfortable with this approach?
I certainly hope so. The way I visualised the book, there would be two parallel storylines–one, the cricketing action, and two, the investigations and finally, they would converge at the climax. I was keen on Shaurya’s perspective because I wanted to make sure that the cricket part of the story didn’t get relegated to the periphery. But there was no way Shaurya could have known about all the stuff going on in the investigations, so you needed another point of view. It could, of course, have been the chief investigator’s perspective but having Mitakshara allowed me to bring in a romantic angle.

Have any cricketers read The Big Fix? If yes, what did they think of it?
Former India player Deep Dasgupta tweeted that he loved the book. Another former India player, Aakash Chopra, tweeted that if you’re into cricket, The Big Fix is a must-read. I really like reading Aakash’s columns, and I think he explains the technical nuances of the game better than anybody else, so I was quite thrilled that he enjoyed the book. Leading cricket websites like cricbuzz and cricketcountry have praised the book, as has Wisden India. And yes, some players who are currently playing have told me that they enjoyed reading the book, but are reluctant to say so publicly since some rather powerful individuals are being probed right now.

Do you think your novel will be of interest to readers in the non-cricketing nations?
Well, the South Asian diaspora is present in virtually every part of the world, so I’m sure the book will find readers even in countries which aren't usually associated with cricket. Of course, even if everybody who likes cricket reads the book, that’s a fairly large audience by itself!

THE CHARACTERS

I cannot help this question: is the character of Howard Jensen based on the English-born cricketer and international coach Bob Woolmer who died in 2007 under mysterious circumstances in a hotel room in Jamaica?
Well, the circumstances in which Bob Woolmer died certainly acted as a catalyst for my imagination. Of course, it was finally concluded officially that he died of natural causes, but conspiracy theorists remain unconvinced. Bob’s death was a terrible tragedy for his family and the world of cricket, and I have absolutely no desire to trivialise it. But it did act as a starting point for the book, though I have to say that the personality of Howard Jensen, and the final explanation in the book for his death, bears no resemblance whatsoever to Bob Woolmer and his life.

Can you put a real name or face on Shaurya Chauhan or is he an imaginary character who resembles one or more Indian cricketers?
About 50 per cent of Shaurya’s characteristics are a mixture of some of my favourite cricketers. The balance 50 per cent comes from my imagination. I can name the players but I think it would be a lot more fun for readers if they figured it out for themselves. It’s not particularly hard, really.

In the book Shaurya Chauhan comes across as a perfect specimen of a human being. Is his flawless character meant to send a message to a game tainted by match fixing scandals as well as to its many practitioners?
I don’t think he’s flawless. He’s stubborn and argumentative, and often loses his cool, much to his regret. As a captain, he tends to be authoritarian and takes some rather risky decisions, like plucking a teenager literally out of nowhere and throwing him straight into a big match. But yes, he’s clean and untainted by fixing. When I was writing the book, I met many people who told me they had lost interest in cricket because of the numerous fixing scandals. In a sense, the book reflected my angst as a cricket lover, particularly because I know that there are still some players who’re fiercely devoted to the game and will never stoop to unethical practices. I wanted Shaurya to symbolically represent these players.

Incidentally, I was very tempted to throw in one line at the end, where Shaurya looks at a bookie kingpin seated in the audience and winks at him. That would have given the book a real O’Henry-kind of twist in the tail. But it would also have been a betrayal of the character of Shaurya Chauhan and everything he stands for. So finally, I went with the present ending.

Mitakshara, the second major character in your novel, has the scoop of a lifetime but her feelings for Shaurya prevent her from writing her story and although she is around until nearly the end, I thought her role ended abruptly. Can you talk about her characterisation?
Well, you will get to see a lot more of Mitakshara in my next book, in which she really comes into her own. Obviously, I’m biased, but I do think that she’s one of the feistiest female characters you’ll encounter. She’s smart, sassy, loyal, and affectionate. And she has a strong sense of fair play, which is why she doesn’t break the scoop to begin with, because she doesn’t want Shaurya to be condemned even before he’s had a chance to prove his innocence.

THE AUTHOR

Vikas, how long did you take to write The Big Fix? Can you briefly take me through your writing process? For instance, how many words did you write everyday?
From the time I wrote the first line of The Big Fix to the time I wrote the last line, it took me exactly 43 days. I guess the story must have been bubbling away at the back of my mind for a while, because once I actually sat down to write it, it just flowed. I have a slightly weird work day, in the sense that I go into office in the afternoon and stay till well past midnight, so I had kept the mornings to write. I gave myself a target of writing about 500 words every day. But on most days, I found myself doing about 1,500 words. For me, the hard part was not the writing but forcing myself to stop!

I assume your next book is a suspense thriller called Another Time, Another Place. Would you like to tell me more about it?
My working title for the book was Love And Other Terrors, though I think we’ll finally publish it as Another Time, Another Place. It’s a Woody Allenesque romance that suddenly transforms into a thriller, with a terror plot thrown in. Yogi Mehta, who gets a one-line reference in The Big Fix (on Page 207), is one of the major characters. And, of course, so is Mitakshara. It’s not exactly a sequel to The Big Fix, because there’s no cricket involved, but it takes Mitakshara’s story forward and some other characters from The Big Fix also pop in and out of the book.

What kind of books do you read, in what genres, and who are some of your favourite writers?
It’s a long, eclectic list and includes John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, Haruki Murakami, Alice Munro (I was delighted she won the Nobel this year, though I was hoping that Murakami would get it), Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Conn Iggulden, Rick Riordan, George RR Martin (please God, don’t let him die before he completes the Game of Thrones series), JRR Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, P.G. Wodehouse, Larry Gonick, Neil Gaiman, and Lee Child (Jack Reacher is one of my favourite literary characters, though having Tom Cruise play him is a mistake IMHO. I’d like to see Cruise and Hugh Jackman switch roles, with Cruise playing Wolverine and Jackman Reacher. That would be a much closer match to the original physical descriptions of the characters).

According to your profile, your house in Delhi has more books than furniture. What is your private library like?
It tends to change quite a bit, because every few months, when it becomes hard to find seating space for guests, I give away lots of books to friends, colleagues, libraries, and NGOs. I try to make sure that I match the books to the tastes of the people who are getting them–I want the books I give away to find loving homes. Though, some old favourites stay with me–mostly books written by the authors mentioned above.

Finally, what do you think of current Indian writing in English?
There’s obviously a very strong literary tradition of Indian writing in English. Among the authors who’re currently active, I have a lot of admiration for Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, and Amitav Ghosh. But I'm also delighted to see the emergence of a new generation of very interesting, commercially successful Indian popular writers. Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi top the list, of course. But people like Piyush Jha, Madhulika Liddle, Anuja Chauhan, and Ravi Subramanian are pretty readable too.

28 comments:

  1. I'd probably enjoy this more than the Wodehouse cricket stuff I'm slogging through.

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    1. Kelly, THE BIG FIX is well-written and marked by clarity of prose. I love Wodehouse though I can't say I'm fond of his books revolving around cricket and golf.

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  2. This sounds good, I know nothing about cricket. And the interview is very interesting. Thanks, Prashant.

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    1. Tracy, thanks for your kind words. You'll enjoy this book even if you don't know the game. There are many elements of suspense in the story. It'll also give you a ringside view of cricket as it is played and cherished in India.

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  3. Prashant: I enjoyed reading the review and the interview. If the book makes its way to Canadian bookstores I will get it.

    I have not found much crime fiction involving sports to work well. My favourite Saskatchewan mystery, Prairie Hardball, is about baseball but not actual games. It seems difficult to find mystery writers who can be convincing in their depictions of sport.

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    1. Bill, thank you for the appreciation. Author Vikas Singh was generous with his time and his views. The book is not yet sold in bookstores abroad but you can purchase a Kindle edition at Amazon.

      I don't recall reading many crime fiction involving sports either. The one I intend to re-read and possibly review some day is THE EIGHT, a thriller by American writer Katherine Neville which is centered around chess, my favourite game. While I've not heard of PRAIRIE HARDBALL, I'd like to read it and gain an insight into baseball, which doesn't seem very dissimilar to cricket except perhaps in the rules of the two games.

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  4. Prashant this does sound really interesting and its nice to meet the author. I would add it to the list but the list is a bit ridiculous at the minute.

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    1. Col, thank you. THE BIG FIX is an interesting novel as it looks at the seamier side of cricket that, ironically, is known as "a gentleman's game" which it still is.

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  5. Fascinating. goes to show in a big way that "sports" fans are much alike around the world, no matter what "sport" they pick

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    1. Charles, that is so true. Every sport has its own fans, to a higher or lesser degree, but loyal nonetheless. I don't see much difference between cricket and baseball fans, two immensely popular games in our respective countries.

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  6. Fantastic Preashant - I absolutely have to get this. Really superb post and wonderful interview too - cheers mate, this has really made my day!

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    1. Sergio, thank you! That means a lot to me. I'm delighted that you liked both the review and interview. Thanks to Vikas Singh for the latter—much food for thought there. You can buy a Kindle edition of the book at Amazon. I'd like to know what you think of it.

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  7. Excellent review and interview with the author, Prashant. Thanks for giving us the background on this particular book - it's always interesting to get an author's point of view. I know nothing about cricket except that you once upon a time you got to wear lovely white clothing and that the shin guards are, for some reason I can't specify, rather sexy. :)

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    1. Yvette, thank you very much! I like reading about writers and their writing techniques and Vikas Singh offers his own in the making of his debut novel. Cricketers wear white clothes in Tests, the longer form of the game, and the "shin guards" you referred to are actually "pads" which protect the batsman from the knee up to his ankles. In ODIs and T20s cricketers wear coloured attire that distinguishes them according to the countries or teams they represent.

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  8. Oops, one 'you' too many. Sorry.

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  9. Prashant, when you talk about Cricket, you may as well be speaking Urdu as English, as far as I'm concerned. Guess I'll skip this one. Excellent review / interview, though. Thanks.

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    1. Richard, thank you for the appreciation. THE BIG FIX is actually a crime fiction that is set in and around the game of cricket, which I explained at some length for readers from the non-cricketing world. There is plenty of action both on and off the field to sustain the reader's interest.

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  10. Vikas Singh sounds like an intriguing writer. NIce interview!

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    1. George, thank you for the kind words. A good debut novel and I enjoyed reading it. An understanding of the game and how it is played in India helped. It'd be fun thing to bring cricket and baseball together. I wonder why no one has tried so far.

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  11. A game whose popularity has always puzzled me for seeming even more placid than baseball.Your review does much to dispel that assumption. You have me wondering whether someone could make a cricket movie. Hollywood endlessly churns out football and basketball movies. Fast-moving and full of action they seem to be well suited to the medium. I'm wondering what cricket looks like on TV, and would those day-long matches fit a TV schedule at all?

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    1. Ron, there are many in India who don't follow cricket or don't have the patience to sit through a day-long match leave aside a five-day Test match. I used to watch a lot of cricket until the rigging and match-fixing scandals broke out. I saw no point in wasting my time after that. Of course, much of the cricket played worldwide is aboveboard. Now I only read about the game in the papers, a journalist's instinct.

      I think Bollywood has made cricket movies although I can't recall any offhand. Boxing, cycling, and racing are some of the other sports movies made in Hindi. I have seen football and basketball movies made by Hollywood, especially one or two with Adam Sandler in it. I liked the baseball film ROOKIE starring Dennis Quaid who plays a pitcher past his prime. It was a good film.

      Ron, people in India sit glued to their TV sets for a T20 or ODI matches which fit into all kinds of TV schedules. The fact that many of these matches are day and night starting after 2 pm and stretching till 10 pm enables most people to watch them. They hog the television ratings.

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  12. Prashant, nice mulitple platforming here! And I think you should try the sports fiction, particularly the adult short sports fiction, of William Campbell Gault and not a few others, if you haven't...but I am now curious to check into Singh's work...thanks.

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    1. Todd, thanks very much! I'm glad so many of our mutual blog friends read the review and interview, and commented. I hope you get to read Vikas Singh's book. I don't know if I'd be comfortable reading about sports fiction centered around a game I know nothing of, though I wouldn't mind giving it a try, as I'll to William Campbell Gault's work. The only sports books I read are related to chess, non-fiction. I've downloaded several excellent ebooks written by some of the chess greats which are now copyright free and in public domain.

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    2. The best sports fiction makes the sport understandable even if you don't know it, and deals with the characters in the situation that sporting life puts us in...

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    3. Todd, a valid point. I can't say no to something I have never tried. As I mentioned in my response to the comment by Bill Selnes, EIGHT is the only fiction related to a game or sport that I've read and I enjoyed the book. I think I'll keep an open mind on these books. Thanks for writing again.

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  13. Even a non-cricket-fan like me found that interesting - great interview Prashant.

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    1. Many thanks, Moira. Interviews are fun to do.

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