Code read: Smriti Irani on her first novel, a thriller called Lal Salaam

Updated on Nov 26, 2021 05:39 PM IST

A murder mystery set in Chhattisgarh, the book is inescapably political. But the union minister and former TV star knows how to script a twist in the tale.

‘Nobody looks for a message in a work of fiction... If people look for a message, it is that you need to continue to believe in the supremacy of your Constitution,’ Irani says. (Photo courtesy Tarun Vishwa) PREMIUM
‘Nobody looks for a message in a work of fiction... If people look for a message, it is that you need to continue to believe in the supremacy of your Constitution,’ Irani says. (Photo courtesy Tarun Vishwa)

When Smriti Irani was first chosen to be union education minister in 2014, many were surprised. She was then 38, the youngest minister from within the Bharatiya Janata Party, and had the unconventional background of having been a very popular TV star. Seven years and several ministries later, the women and child development minister still refuses to be pigeonholed.

On Monday, November 29, she will release her first novel, Lal Salaam. Set in a small town in Chhattisgarh, it follows a Superintendent of Police named Vikram Singh who arrives to solve the murder of his best friend. The characters all seem picked from recent headlines: there’s a wheelchair-bound professor and his wife who are prime suspects in a Naxal plot, an activist who interferes with police work, and police forces that are overwhelmed and under-equipped. It’s the thriller Irani wanted it to be but also, as one would expect, very political. But she only wants to discuss only the book, no real-world politics, she tells Sunetra Choudhury.

Excerpts from an interview.

How did you have the time to write a book?

One of my best friends is a writing instrument on my phone because I was writing a lot on my phone as I travelled. I wrote a lot at night.

So, the truth about the book is that I was writing another book and my editor had been waiting for that book to come to life for a good two-and-a-half to three years. I think she was at the precipice of just giving up on the idea of me writing a book. That’s why to wrangle her back into my trap I said that there is a work of fiction that I am thinking of writing... this was an idea that I had carried with me for a decade. When I was done with my narration, she said “Hmm, interesting.” She was a bit circumspect and said how many years will you take to write this one? But then I wrote it very quickly.

When people see the title, Lal Salaam, and your name beneath it, it comes with connotations…

I chose the title. If you read the book, you know why. When I said, I want the title to be Lal Salaam, my editor choked. You read the book end to end and then it explains why the title is what it is. I wanted that to happen. I did not want the book to be an expression or a journey that titillates you from the beginning. Three quarters into the book, you already presume who the killer is. I just wanted the reader to have an experience and at the end say, “Worth it”.

Not many ministers have written novels…

If you are from a creative background, then it’s not that difficult. It’s just that the story idea needs to excite you enough to go end to end with it. But like I said, the other project that I was writing, it’s been three years now. So, it really just depends.

You reproduce Naxal literature and go into great detail about court proceedings. How did you do your research?

I quite enjoyed the fact that I could relate all this to the edit team and explain to them that these are the nitty-gritties which need to stand up in a court of law. This is because judgements have to be based on properly presented evidence ..., and how a case falls apart if the evidence is not properly presented or for that matter how people get discouraged in law enforcement agencies when a judgement comes that was not expected. So, I think that for me the socio-political experience that I’ve had over the last two decades in the country came handy.

I have worked extensively as a young political activist in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, so I had the privilege of meeting officers who have served in these areas. Between my experiences in Naxal-affected areas as a political activist, I’ve been on the political and social field since 2002. I think most of the book stems from experiences of being a young activist.

It is also quite violent. What did you draw on for that?

Naxalism is violent. There is nothing rose-petalish about it. I think it has been gruesome and it has torn apart families. It has blown to smithereens well-meaning citizens. It has brought to death our service people, paramilitary forces.

Given that Lal Salaam deals so much with Naxalism and terror, what is it you want readers to take away from your book?

The fact that you seek a message from a fiction book, I think is one of our achievements as a writing and editing team. Nobody looks for a message in a work of fiction. I think that responsibility is incumbent upon us that if people look for a message, it is that you need to continue to believe in the supremacy of your Constitution. You need to continue to establish your faith in democracy.

It was interesting to see a journalist play a key role in the book.

There were a few journalists who were extremely afraid as to how I would portray a female journalist. One said, you’re a right-wing writer, and I said, I’m just a writer. I am happy that all the female journalists who have read the book have a smile on their face. I think the journalism that is being done is smaller cities or rural India, and the struggles that they have to face and the balance that they have to walk between reporting and sensationalising something, just so they can retain their jobs… if there is even a modicum of reflection of that in the book, then I think we’ve met with a little bit of success.

Because most of the limelight is hogged by the capital or the major cities of the country. So what does a journalist in my book do, that is for people to tell. Whether the journalist becomes a part of the story or whether she is the story or whether she sits in judgement of the story or whether she just reports facts.

What do your colleagues think of the book?

I think a lot of them are flabbergasted because they only had one question: When did you find the time? I get by with two hours of sleep. So I always have time for something that I am passionate about.

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    Sunetra Choudhury is the National Political Editor of the Hindustan Times. With over two decades of experience in print and television, she has authored Black Warrant (Roli,2019), Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous (Roli,2017) and Braking News (Hachette, 2010). Sunetra is the recipient of the Red Ink award in journalism in 2016 and Mary Morgan Hewett award in 2018.

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