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Suresh Menon, Author and Friday columnist Image Credit: Supplied

If the rules are followed, a title is meant to contain the book’s DNA, its very spirit. It usually includes less of the author’s own personal backstory and more of the personalities that lie within. But the title of Suresh Menon’s latest book Why Don’t You Write Something I Might Read? is based wholly on conversations he’s had with his wife. As Suresh says in our interview, ‘I break the rules just as often as I make them.’

The compelling title came about due to Suresh’s penchant for writing books on cricket – and his wife’s foot-dragging on reading them. ‘All the books I‘ve done before this have been cricket books,’ Suresh says in a telephone interview from his home in Bengaluru. ‘I’d ask my wife to read at least a chapter of those and she would always say ‘why don’t you write something that I might read?’’

Suresh Menon's latest book

And so he did. Although this is no all-out sacrifice for his wife – the former Dubai-based sports editor and now India-based columnist confesses to enjoying an equivalent bibliophilic thrill through the process. ‘I had great fun writing it during the pandemic and early lockdowns. It didn’t need a lot of intense work as this is what I’ve been doing all my life – I read books and I have fun doing it.’

The result of that love affair is 270-odd pages of snippets on all things literature. Authors, readers, ghostwriters, playwrights, poets – everyone finds a mention. There’s a chapter on the appeal of the writer suffering for his art, and whether suffering is almost a prerequisite to creating great work. There’s one on a man who has probably read more books than anybody else on earth. Others on Wodehouse, and Paulo Coelho, and Orwell, and Ved Mehta. There’re facts – ‘Jane Austen used forty-five cliches per 100,000 words’- too.

Peppered liberally with personal stories of his friends and parents and wife. The chapters can be read in any order – although Suresh half-jokingly warns against reading too much of it in one day. ‘I should have called it ‘A Lifetime of Reading’ but it makes me sound about 150 years old,’ he quips. ‘It took a lifetime to write it. That again sounds very pompous, but what I mean to say is everything I’ve read over the years is a part of this book.’

Is the book just for literary aficionados then? Suresh disagrees. ‘It’s meant for a general audience, although a literary audience will recognise a lot of the books and authors I talk about.’

He doesn’t shy away from saying he thinks it was a brave move on his publisher’s part to go ahead with the book. ‘It’s a collection of literary essays. These aren’t exactly fast-selling items. But my publisher had the idea first for this book. It’s not always that you don’t have a writer and a publisher who are constantly fighting it out.

‘But the reviews have been good critically and commercially. It worked out well, so it wasn’t such a terrible idea.’

A lot of top writers don’t go around promoting hard. But it’s a difficult one from a writer’s perspective and it’s easy for me to take a moral high chair but I understand why that happens and how that keeps happening.

- Suresh Menon, author

But Suresh firmly believes in not keeping the commercial aspects in mind while penning his thoughts, in an attempt to not dilute its purity. ‘I write exactly what I want to write, if it works that’s good, but selling and producing – that’s the publisher’s lookout. My job is to write as honestly as possible.’

The chapter on VS Naipaul is especially poignant, with Suresh showcasing his admiration for the late author. Is it easy for Suresh to separate the art from the artist what with Naipaul being widely seen as a misogynist, among other things?

‘I’m not consistent about it,’ Suresh says. ‘I can easily do that in certain cases and not in others, and it depends on the person involved. I’m not blind to that aspect of Naipaul. Most writers you come across, there are things you like about them and things you don’t.

‘Alice in Wonderland is such a lovely book that we read in school – but the man who wrote it may have been a paedophile. How do we handle that? I’m not unaware of it but I’m not consistent about it. I’m able to make that distinction theoretically but not always practically.’

Suresh isn’t afraid to court controversial topics in Why Don’t You Write…, be it writing that Enid Blyton’s work might have been treated unfairly or the literary snobbery that exists due to an ‘English’ education in India. ‘I think writers have a literary obligation to speak the truth and the moral obligation to write with integrity.’

Was it difficult to segue from sportswriting to literature? ‘I thought my sportswriting was literature!’ he laughs. ‘But it’s a continuum. I didn’t wake up one morning and decide I was going to write X number of essays. Why Don’t You Write… involved me writing over a long period of time; I had read the books that have been written about over a long period of time. Maybe I had to double-check a quote or go back to a particular book for a certain nuance in reference. There was no specific research in that sense. I checked to see if my quotes are right – that’s the newspaper background at play.’

Even today, Suresh is a serial reader, and he gestures to the multitude of books crammed on shelves in the background of where he sits. ‘I read about half a dozen books simultaneously... I might leave quite a few unfinished as it might be uninteresting or some other book is more interesting, or I might be travelling and am not a Kindle type of person. Every room of this house is filled with books. One day these books are going to drive me out of the house.’

Currently he’s performing a balancing act between Julian Barnes’ Elizabeth Finch, John Berger’s collected essays, Places of Mind: A life of Edward Said, and Horizons, a global history of science by James Poskett, ‘which argues against the Western concept of science.’

Suresh writes of publishers going for a great personality over writing. What does he think of authors and self-branding?

‘Writers are expected to promote the book, but writers who turn into brands themselves, I suppose they’re made that way by the media or readers, and if it means selling another half a dozen books I suppose the writer is not shy about doing what needs to be done,’ he says.

‘That’s true of most people in the public eye, like sportsmen or actors or politicians; they operate under the theory that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

‘Could it dilute the art? Maybe the art is already diluted, and that’s why you needed to press that hard... I understand why that happens and how that keeps happening.’

Next in the pipeline for Suresh is a journey back to an old friend – cricket, however much his wife may protest. ‘I haven’t done one in a few years. But I’m also looking to do something similar to Why Don’t You Write… as a second book.

‘The first two books that made me cry were Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. In the same vein, the purpose of Why Don’t You Write… is to see if others got as much fun out of reading it as I had writing it.’