“Charlie’s not a depressive. He’s certainly not suicidal; the boy’s too big a coward to even cut himself while shaving. He may be delusional, he may sincerely wish that he were depressed, but he’s certainly not a depressive.”
That’s Mao; nobody listens to him. But that’s probably because he’s a figment of Charlie’s imagination.
An unwitting Charlie -rudely interrupted in the middle of typing out his umpteenth suicide note- is hurled into a brave new world of addiction and rock music and debauchery in this tale of growing up and going down. From rolling joints to rolling in drug money, from backing out of life to fronting somebody else’s rock band, he’s in for a bumpy ride. Charlie divides his time between being in love with Paloma and hating himself, between living out Nineties music video fantasies and wishing he were someone else.
The problem is it’s 2006 and MTV is not Music Television anymore. Mixtapes are passé; self-loathing is cliche, and Charlie’s world is fast deteriorating into caricature. Charlie is forced to figure out which one of his many lives he really wants for himself.
Question: you can take a boy out of the Nineties, but can you take the Nineties out of him?
Q. First off, I’d like to ask you about the title. What does the “cough syrup” metaphor imply?
My frame of reference there was falling sick as a kid. When you got a really bad fever or cold, sometimes you’d end up drinking a little too much cough syrup and just lie around in a daze. Not quite an out-of-body experience, but you’re definitely floating a little above the ground – it’s not your usual perspective. The title is a reference to that state- that combination of being a child and suddenly having access to the mind on a wider, much grander scale.
Q. Coming to the book, you see the characters are stuck in the Nineties. What exactly do you mean?
It’s a little like the guy from High Fidelity asking: “What came first- the music or the misery?” The protagonist of my novel, Charlie, exhibits serious depressive tendencies and he seems to think that the early nineties music he grew up on, the whole grunge / Seattle scene, gave him no choice to be any other way. I went through a similar fascination for the early grunge bands- the literature they were into, their clothes, the hair, the self-loathing, the nihilism- and whether coincidence or not, it was the darkest time of my life. Tthe kids in the novel are stuck in the nineties, both because it’s the music they grew up on and because in terms of theme, it’s the pop culture they can relate most to.
Q. Is the drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll simply just the teenage boy’s dream or are you trying to tell us something deeper?
I was a very straight-laced kid in school, and there was always a sense of this big bad world just waiting to let me in, to live like they do in the movies. I guess we’ve all done it in one form or the other- from rocking out in the shower to more obvious affectations. Unfortunately, it’s not a lifestyle you can sustain; not if you want to live past 27. So I thought I’d let my characters do it, live vicariously through them. I don’t know if there’s a deeper lesson there, but I do think it’s a little more complex than just a teenage phase, especially with the internet and social media placing all kinds of demands on your public persona.
Q. You know, it is quite ironical, that this book is based in Chennai with Chennai being one of the most conformist metros. So I’m tempted to ask, did you base this book on your observations while you studied in Loyola?
Living and studying in Loyola College in Chennai certainly helped set the tone, and the novel does borrow from people I’ve met, strangers and good friends alike. But Chennai’s only as conformist as any other metro. The crux of Indian urban culture is the duality: the co-existence of what you called ‘conformity’, and an outer circle – the Others who don’t play by and can’t make sense of the same rules. We’re all forced to don both mantles in some way: for example, unmarried couples who live together but can’t tell their parents about it because they just wouldn’t approve. A lot of the time, it’s to avoid hurting and disappointing parents, but hey people fall in love, and human beings are really not designed to sleep alone. It can’t be healthy to have to lie about such an important part of your life to people who by sheer biological logic should be closest to you. So Chennai, more than anything else, helped me shape the duality of the protagonist, because Chennai has such contrasting cultural affiliations.
Q. Was the Malayalee sub-plot in the book inspired by your upbringing, in any way?
Well yeah, not so much my upbringing as being from and having been and brought up in Kerala, but yes being a Malayalee certainly helped write about being one. Before I went to Chennai for college, I had no idea a ‘Mallu’ was this mystical eccentric creature that Indian kids from other states approach with such derision. Mallus, of course, are equally casual in our racism. I’d never been so aware of my Mallu-ness before college though: Mallu seniors had some kind of dibs on ragging Mallu juniors, accents were made fun of, threats made and it was all very amusing because I didn’t think then I was ‘Mallu’ at all; all I wanted to do was shut myself up in my room and listen to Alice In Chains and write terrible, terrible poetry. So I wanted to portray some of that middle class cultural identity crisis – there’s so many Indias to deal with as it is, on top of which you have your cable TV baggage.
Q. I’m very intrigued by the sub-plot of Mao. How did that come up while you were in the process of writing the book?
Like I mentioned, I wanted the duality – this Calvin and Hobbes relationship between the protagonist and his imaginary friend, Mao. He’s the Mallu Charlie, his other identity that gets submerged under all the rock music and the Westward signposting. Somebody he can’t quite control, who’s selfish and mean and just as pretentious as Charlie is – because when you don’t particularly like yourself, even your imaginary friends take on the shades of your discontent.
Q. Do you think Indian conservative mindset can ever accept the younger generation’s addictions to alcohol and drugs?
I hope nobody ever condones addictions, but there’s certainly need for dialogue on and differentiation between recreational drug use and what constitutes abuse.
Q. So how did you jump in to the bandwagon of writing?
I’ve always had the habit, jotting down things here and there. This novel was written in parts when I was in college- character and story arcs based on people I knew. It kept getting revised down the years but those bits and pieces formed the bedrock. I write mostly to escape, and sometimes to live fantasies out, but either way it’s always been my favourite indulgence. And I’ve got to add: blogging and having an audience respond to your writing is a great motivating factor when you’re out of steam.
Q. If now, you could change anything in the book, would you?
It’s not nearly perfect, but it’s my first book. I’d like to think I would keep it the way it is, out of loyalty to my younger self if nothing else.
Q. How does it feel, being one book old?
It feels great. It’s a dream come true, and it’s been a very learning experience – the waiting period while it’s being packaged, then there’s the publishing side to it, marketing, promotion. It’s a brand new world.
Q. What can we expect next from you?
I’m working on my second novel at the moment, and a screenplay. That’s the dream now: a movie credit before I hit 30.
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