Never before has IIT been written about from the perspective of someone who did not study there. But Neeraj Chhibba, the author of Zero Percentile, in his debut work has done that and more. Here's an exclusive interview.
Never before has IIT been written about from the perspective of someone who did not study there. What inspired you to write this book?
There were quite a few things that inspired me. For one, I always wanted to write. All my friends had known for long that I will turn a writer one day. Whenever we talked of an alternate career, I was always very vocal about writing as an option after retiring from an active corporate life.
Apart from this deep-sitting desire, I wanted to write Zero Percentile for all the young people whose dreams are not fulfilled (I have put this into the story through the protagonist not being able to make it to the IIT) and they start despairing, not realising that there are so many other things which are equally satisfying that they could take up. Then, Russia has never been written about before from the perspective of a student. Like the myth that India is a land of snake-charmers and cows, it is perceived that Russia is the land of mafia and a largely unregulated society. I wanted to break this notion and let the world know that the Russians are as normal a people as all of us.
What prompted you to choose the title Zero Percentile?
I know from research that a title which has a number is catchy and sticks to the mind. If you read the definition of percentile, it is the value of a variable below which a certain percent of observations fall. When I chose Zero Percentile as the title of the book, I wanted to say that after not being able to get into the IIT the protagonist felt that he had failed in life and considered himself as the biggest loser and the moment as the Zero Percentile moment of his life.
Your book is a heady cocktail of an unfulfilled dream, the political climate in Russia and AIDS. Weren't you skeptical about offering a mixed bag to the readers?
Yes, I was. In fact I have received comments such as the book reads like a travelogue and that there are no other strong characters in the book except the protagonist. If you read the book carefully all the other characters do not have many pages written on them, but each one of them has strength and makes the journey of the protagonist complete. If I draw a parallel, the film Sholay has so many characters, but apart from Jai and Veeru you still poignantly remember the roles of all the bit players in the film. Just to emphasize, I was actually shocked by Mac Mohan’s death (he died in May this year) because I felt that Sambha had died with him.
They say success is counted sweetest by those who don't achieve it. Have you ever regretted being an author and not an IITian?
Yes, this is very true. But that’s where human intelligence has to step in and play a role. Our mind is the supreme soldier, waiting for us to give it control of our body, but we always let our heart win and suffer more pain than needed. In my case, I did regret not getting into the IIT but then I used this supreme soldier (read mind) to reign in the pain. I can say that as of today, I love being a writer and have little regret that I don’t carry the IIT tag.
Tell us about your life in Russia.
I went to the erstwhile USSR as a student when it was on the verge of disintegration. I lived through that volatile period in Russia’s history when it was converting from a communist to a capitalist state.
Initially, living there was very tough because the Russians did not speak English, had a very different lifestyle from ours and the climate was very harsh. It was a sea change from what we had experienced in life till then. I lived there in a student hostel. So, my friends and fellow students (who had come from different parts of India and the world) became a surrogate family with which I shared every small piece of joy and sorrow.
What was difficult about living in Russia was that studying was one small part of what we did there (though that was what we were supposed to do in the first place). We faced all the challenges posed by a hostel life – we cooked, we washed our clothes, bought our grocery ourselves and did all those mundane chores which look easy but are not when you get down to doing them. Now I can proudly say that Russia has made me a strong individual, not afraid to take on the challenges of the world.
Being a debut novelist, what are your aspirations as a writer?
I nurture that dream of turning into a fulltime writer which is easier said than done. I will leave my job only when I am sure that writing will provide me with financial security and this cannot happen until I am sure that my books will sell at least 100,000 copies each year. From a different angle, I would like to write books which have freshness, are unique and everybody is able to identify with them. I want to be known not as Neeraj Chhibba, but as Neeraj Chhibba – the author of many Zero Percentiles.
Buzz is that you are planning a sequel to the book. What do you plan to write about?
I want to take off from where I finished the first book. So, Zero Percentile 2 will talk about the adult lives of the main characters in book 1 – what happens when they take up a job and go for professional success, all this with a lot of drama and human emotions thrown in. I hope that it turns out to be a worthy successor to Zero Percentile.