Atulya Mahajan started blogging as ‘AmreekanDesi‘ in 2007 while in New York and continued capturing the nation’s imagination even after the ‘Amreekan‘ bit faded away on his return to India. He is the writer of satirical blog posts, open letters that go viral, and two books – Amreekandesi: Masters of America and the recently launched ‘Democrazy‘.
In an ideal world, he would be an advisor to Indian (and Pakistani) politicians who stops them from making ghastly but entertaining mistakes. BlogAdda spoke to Atulya about his success as a blogger, author, and his thoughts about the bundle of addictive contradictions that is India.
Q. Starting from the very basics, when and why did you start blogging?
I started writing in 2007 when I was a single guy living in New York and wanted to share with the world my experiences of living in a foreign country. Thus the name ‘amreekandesi’. The initial posts were mostly about the various facets of life for a desi in amreeka, though over time the blog evolved more into Indian society/politics commentary.
In hindsight, single guys in New York spend their time much more fruitfully than slumped over a laptop typing away furiously. I should have known better!
Q. When you started off, did you expect that your blog would be as successful as it is?
Of course. A panditji had predicted that I would be the next superstar. In my dreams.
Q. Do you plan your posts? Are they scheduled around major events or do they happen as and when you come up with ideas?
I have a busy day job so I don’t get enough time for blogging, which means that there can be no planning. I often have a few ideas in my head, issues that I want to write about, but a week or so passes, I don’t get any time to write, and the topic is already dead.
If someone steals Azam Khan’s buffaloes, it only makes sense to write an open letter to the audacious buffalo thief before he gets caught. Once he’s been found and lynched, there’s no point, though maybe one could write to the buffaloes asking if their ghar wapasi was a comfortable one.
The posts that I do manage to write are generally very topical and mostly about current happenings. In that sense, it is generally that either I write about a topic quickly or I don’t write at all.
Q. Most people who have lived outside India have a very rosy, idealistic view of India. How did you develop this realistic, critical view of the country?
This is a most interesting point. Back when I was in the US even I used to think that things are going very well for India, it is the place to be, India is shining and all the growth in the world is happening only in India. How wrong I was. I think being so far away does this as you only hear the filtered news coming out and get shielded from the day to day troubles of life in India.
This is why I now notice that some of the NRI observers always seem to be more gung-ho and optimistic about the future of India than the people living in India. Most fascinating.
Q. Of all the different types of posts that you do – Return To India, Satire, Open Letters, Indians Abroad – which are your favourites?
I believe my Open Letters are the most famous, and various people have awarded me various epithets when it comes to writing open letters. Fair to say that I enjoy that format, which is ironic because I am writing a letter to someone who isn’t even going to read it.
Q. Does it get difficult to maintain a standard of humour or satire in your posts since people expect it from you? How do you manage it?
It sure is. Writing humour is so tricky. In comparison, writing tragedy is as easy as playing the lead in a Sajid Khan movie. You just kill off the main character or his wife and people will cry bucket-loads and give you awards. Comedy is too unappreciated in modern world for how hard it is.
I am not sure how well I would do if I had to write funny pieces every day. But then I have written two novels so maybe I won’t be that bad after all. *brushes shoulders*
You should totally read my new book Democrazy to judge for yourself.
Q. Do you ever face writer’s block? What do you do to counter it?
Twitter is the real writer’s block. I sit at the laptop, think that I will quickly go through the timeline before writing, and before I know it, I have whiled away the evening and it is time to go to sleep. While writing my first book, I used to tell people to send me virtual slaps if they see me tweeting. That helped.
Aside from the distractions, I wouldn’t say I have faced much of a writer’s block, but it sometimes takes time to get in the right ‘mood’ to get the flow going. Sometimes that happens, but persistence and loud music blaring in the headphones help.
Q. How did you make the transition from a blogger to a writer? What are the things that have remained the same and what are the ones that have changed in the two forms of writing?
It is a massive jump; one that I didn’t appreciate fully until after completing the first book. Writing a blog is much simpler in that you are writing one piece of maybe up to thousand words, and you’re done there.
Writing fiction takes a lot more technique and skills. How to structure your novel? How to set the pace? How to sketch the characters? There are a lot of aspects to novel writing. After two books I am still learning.
In terms of what remains same, I would say the humour. I try to keep the language light and informal with bits of humour thrown in, and often reuse some of my one-liners posted on Twitter in my books.
Q. Which are the issues close to your heart? What gets you frustrated as, to put it simply, an average Indian?
Issues close to my heart? My phone’s battery life.Spent so much money on the damn overpriced phone and it lasts about as long as a decently long Ashutosh Gowarikar movie.
In less important issues, I worry a lot about India and its future, and more specifically whether I should expect living conditions to improve or get worse. I would like to see an India where at least the basics of law and order, security, electricity and water are not things that people need to worry about.
I would like to see India grow and claim its place on the world stage, and I would like to see the people who are trying to do that be given the chance to prove themselves. Hypocrisy and politics frustrate me, whether on the wider stage of Indian politics or elsewhere.
I would also like to see my kids get into IIT and then into Harvard Business school or something similarly fancy, so yes that worries me too.
Q. What has been the highlight of your blogging career? Any feedback or impact of your blog that is particularly memorable?
A few of my posts went quite big, and all of these were topics close to my heart. One was at the time of the CWG games fiasco, another on Robert Vadra, and a recent one in response to Bilawal Bhutto’s exhortations about reclaiming Kashmir. The particularly proud moments are when everybody and their mother copy-pastes your work and passes it around with no attribution.
And then there was this time when someone wrote me an open letter praising my open letters. And that time when I got a death threat for one of my posts criticising a politician.
Q. If there is something that you could go back and re-do in your life, what would it be?
Nothing. I am happy with what I am 🙂
Q. What advice would you give to people who want to start blogging?
Be persistent. It can get frustrating when nobody reads your blog initially but you need to hang in there and stay true to yourself. Write what you believe in, not to cater to ‘market’ demands.
Also, don’t bother. Why increase competition for people like me when anyway nobody wants to read blogs these days?
Q. Is there anything that you wouldn’t change about India? (Except Sachin Tendulkar, maybe)
Our diversity. It is a miracle that such a diverse people exist and live together in a relatively peaceful atmosphere.
Q. Is knowing whom/what to write about (read: lampoon) half the battle won? How do you keep yourself updated about current affairs?
Knowing what to write about is many times quite obvious. You could always turn on Arnab’s Newshour and pick the person he is lambasting as a safe bet as the newsmaker of the day. But what do you write about them? What is it that you are trying to say? That’s even more important.
How do I keep myself updated? I read. I read the news. I read a few newspapers. I try to follow updates on Twitter and Facebook, though often I find the newspaper to be the best source of information. Twitter and TV channels often only pick one topic and flog it to death.
Q. Tell us something about you as a person. What do you do in your free time?
I am happily married and with two kids. Two kids and two books. Basically a perfect family of 4 as per Sakshi Maharaj. In my free time I am either reading, writing, playing with my children, or getting beaten up by them.
Q. Writing about politics/ current affairs is quite the balancing act considering the low tolerance levels about such topics. Do you have to walk a tightrope for everything you write?
Oh yes. Often I write something and strike out a line thinking this might offend some people. Some topics I wouldn’t even touch. Satire and all is fine but you try to not mess with the people who are known to not have any sense of humour. Though at the same time the upside is that getting arrested for a silly cartoon could get one an entry into Bigg Boss and a chance to make a cartoon of yourself.
This would be a good question to plug my new book Democrazy. This book is a wild spoof on the ways of the land. Of course none of the crazy cast of characters was inspired by real people who spend their days planning conspiracies, running the government into the ground or shouting at news panellists. I can’t wait to see protest rallies against the book at Jantar Mantar.
Q. Do you get too involved with what you write? How do you maintain an objective view?
I think good writing only comes with passion and I am passionate about the topics on which I write. It is human nature to pick sides and tend to ignore any negatives of your chosen side, but I do try to be objective.
I call myself an equal-opportunity critic, though these days that may not be such a smart idea. It seems to pay more to pick your side and enjoy the salary. *cough* #PaidMedia *cough*
Q. You have been an active blogger for quite some time. Any thoughts about BlogAdda?
I have seen Blogadda start and grow into a massive platform for bloggers. I think you are doing a great job in bringing the Indian blogger community together. I remember the good old days when you ran the #PerkyTweets contest and a winner every week would get a t-shirt. I got 3 of those t-shirts with my tweets printed on them, before you shut down the contest!
An interesting challenge for you to consider is that with the advent of social media and reduced attention spans of people – what is the future of blogging? Does anyone even want to read blogs anymore? What can we do to influence this? I know a number of prominent bloggers I used to read and respect shut down their blogs over the last few years.
Q. How do you use social media to promote yourself and your work? What’s the ratio of personal updates is-à-vis promotional posts?
I do promote my articles actively on Facebook and Twitter. I have a reasonable following on both mediums and must say they generate a lot of my traffic. With social media, the old model of people subscribing to blogs has become a bit redundant and it drives a lot of what people read.
I hardly post personal stuff on social media. I am a bit of a superstitious person in that sense. So my updates are either commentary on the news of the day or maybe promotions for the latest blog post or book.
Oh, by the way, read my new book Democrazy to find more about this fascinating aspect of my life.
Q. What other blogs do you follow? Any blogger/author/ opinion makers’ work you like?
There’s plenty more but if I list a few, the others will get offended. Many people have got burnt by issuing lists of their ‘favourite’ Twitter people so I wouldn’t risk going there.
When I want to unwind, I…would like to go for a long run, but I watch TV with hot Maggi.
3 people to whom I want to write open letters…the three people who bought my first book ‘Amreekandesi’.
My pet peeves are…too much traffic on the road, and too little on my blog.
Favourite book…Democrazy. Mera bachcha.
My memoir would be called…A Punny Life
My vision for India in 2020 is…6/6.
If I were the PM of India for a month, I would…order everyone to buy a copy of my book.
BlogAdda loved this interview with Atulya Mahajan. Tell us what you think of this piece in the comments section below!