Monday, August 15, 2016

Meet Santosh Pandey : A School Dropout Second-Hand Bookseller Turned Published Novelist

Having recently been bitten by the mythology-fiction genre, I am always on the lookout for books in that category these days. About a couple of months back, I was searching for something decent on the story of Ravana, a character that really intrigues me. I then came across a book titled “Karmaayan, Untold Secrets of Ravana”. While the blurb was interesting what really caught my attention was the small summary written about the author.

Santosh Pandey comes from very humble backgrounds in the Jaunpur district of Uttar Pradesh, is a school dropout and runs a second-hand bookshop in Ville Parle, Mumbai.  What is keeping him in the news these days is “Karmaayan”, the book he has authored. Santosh’s tale is inspiring and shows us that no matter how many obstacles surface in our lives, we always have the option to rise above them and shine brightly.

The cover of 'Karmaayan'

I got the opportunity to speak to Santosh from his second-hand bookstore where he is also busy selling his own book these days. Over the course of the interview, I realized that this was a really earnest and simple man who has just entered a world which he may find too cruel. I hope he manages to survive its oddities and makes a real name for himself. As for the interview, I must say I was left inspired by the end of it. I hope you are, too. Take a look.

Excerpts from the interview

Q. How has the response to your book been thus far?

Santosh Pandey: By God’s grace, the response has been very good so far. I was given about 700 copies initially by my publishers to sell in my shop. And within a week, the entire lot was sold out. I have now ordered a fresh stock.

Santosh with a delighted customer after purchasing his book at his shop

The feedback from the customers, too, has been very encouraging. Many said that although they knew that I had written this story, they didn’t expect it to be so well narrated and presented. I feel truly overwhelmed and now am hoping to get some more honest feedback from others.

Q. Selling your own books in your bookshop. How surreal must that be?  

Santosh Pandey: What can I say! That is a feeling I will never be able to express. I feel moved beyond words and that I am getting this opportunity in life. I feel that all my hard work that I put in while writing relentlessly late into the nights is slowly paying off. I am also thankful to good people like you who are supporting and motivating me. People like you are able to spot a lotus in the mud. Not everyone does that. I feel blessed. Especially because I am a class 7 school dropout.

Q. Can you elaborate a bit on this part?

Santosh Pandey: I come from a very poor background; from a small village named Amani Pandeypur (Uttar Pradesh). Life was the toughest when I was in the 7th standard. I had not been able to pay my school fees for months and my mother was very distressed. We didn’t have proper food to eat and I did not know where life would take me.

One day, one of my cousins, who lives in Mumbai, came to meet my mother. He asked her if she can send me with him to Mumbai as some young men were needed for work there. My mother was initially against the idea. But I wasn’t. I knew that nothing will happen if I keep sitting here. Hence I requested my mother to send me to Mumbai. She was angry at me first and began crying. But I insisted and made her understand that with time I will get experienced there and also manage to provide for the family while even getting money for the education of my younger brother. She finally agreed and I came to Mumbai to work.

Q. So what happened then?

Santosh Pandey:  When I came to the city, I was made to work in a wholesale book business. Things were okay but the money I got after one year of work was just Rs.500. It was a setback but I had no option then. Years passed and I was married too. However, my mother had taken a loan of about 5000 rupees for my marriage. I then decided to start my own second-hand bookselling business. By God’s grace, it worked well and I managed to establish myself decently because of it. I paid off my mother’s debts and even ensured that my brother finished his studies. He is now an engineer and is in a reputed job.

Santosh Pandey at his bookshop

I did face a lot of difficulties while in this business; especially because of the surge in e-books and with e-commerce websites like Flipkart and Amazon offering huge discounts. Many from my village asked me to return when times were tough. But I did not. This book business gave me a new life. It helped me when I was going through the toughest phase of my life. And today, it has helped establish my identity. In my village, people look up to me because of what I managed to achieve and I feel proud of that.

Q. Where did the idea for writing a book come from?

Santosh Pandey: When I was going through that tough phase, I came across Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s famous book ‘Madhushala’. One stanza from the book changed the way I looked at life:

मदिरालय जाने को घर से चलता है पीनेवला,
'किस पथ से जाऊँ?' असमंजस में है वह भोलाभाला,
अलग-अलग पथ बतलाते सब पर मैं यह बतलाता हूँ -
'राह पकड़ तू एक चला चल, पा जाएगा मधुशाला।

This made me believe that I had to do something related to books only in my life. That I was meant to be with books. Then I began writing some stuff here and there and eventually ‘Karmaayan’ happened.

Q. Tell us about the process of completing ‘Karmaayan’.

Santosh Pandey: When I was in the book-selling business, there was a phase when my life wasn’t moving ahead. I was stressed and went back home. There I began reading the Ramayana in search of some answers. The book inspired me to get back on my feet and fight my circumstances. I returned to Mumbai and resumed my life.

Then, in 2011, I got the idea of writing the tale of Ravana based on my experience with reading the Ramayana. Within six months I completed the book. But the problem was that it was in Hindi. For a wider audience, I wanted an English translation. The noted translators were asking me to pay up over 2 lakh for the translation, which I obviously didn’t have.

I then shared my dilemma with one of my regular customers Vinod Cherian (a marketing professional in Mumbai).  He had an interest in writing and I asked him if he could translate the book for me. In return, I said I would give his name in the book as a ‘co-author’. After contemplating for a while he agreed. And within the next one and a half years we worked tirelessly after finishing our respective works, late into the nights, to complete the book which now is thankfully published.

Q. So why did you choose the story of Ravana for your first book?

Santosh Pandey: I have read various renditions of the Ramayana. In all of those, Ravana has not been portrayed as an all-out evil person. Every author has mentioned that he was a supremely learned Brahmin who somehow faltered in his ways. I was interested in this character as what we had got so far was just a glimpse of his story. I wanted to delve and explore more about this intriguing character. Why did such a learned person become evil? Surely he too had some goodness in him. How did a boy who once had nothing to eat went on to become the ruler of Lanka? I then took some references and also used my imagination to narrate the tale of this fascinating character.

Q. How did your family react before and after your book was published?

Santosh Pandey: Well, my mother firstly is immensely proud of me. I know under what circumstances she has brought me up. And she really loves me a lot. She was very happy just knowing that I was writing a book. When she came to know that it has been published, she was thoroughly pleased. She is now satisfied that even though I did not complete my education, I have at least managed to write a book which many educated people, too, are not able to achieve.

As for my wife, there is an interesting story there. She is uneducated and had no idea what exactly was I doing with the process of the writing of my book. Often late at night, I would come upon an idea for the story and go outside the room to pen it down. This continued for many nights and my wife then began having suspicions. She thought that I was having an affair and hence was going out at night to see this other woman (laughs).

She later realized her mistake and apologized to me profusely. She is very happy now that I have managed to publish the book.

Q. So what next after ‘Karmaayan’?

Santosh Pandey: I have actually written two more books - both sequels to Karmaayan. The second one is titled ‘Untold Secrets of Lanka’. Depending on the feedback I receive for the first book, it will be decided whether or not the remaining ones will see the light of the day. Hopefully, things will go well and I will be able to present the complete trilogy to the readers.

Q.  You have now even inspired me in a lot of ways. I wish you all the success for your book and hope that you keep inspiring and entertaining many others like me.

Santosh Pandey: These words of yours are my greatest wealth, my greatest achievement. I can’t believe that I, being a class 7 dropout student, am being able to inspire people like you. These words are motivating me to work even harder and keep writing more. I hope that I never stop and keep entertaining people through my writings.

You can buy Santosh's book 'Karmaayan' here: