NAW Interview With Chetan Mahajan

Chetan MahajanChetan Mahajan is the CEO of HCL Learning Ltd. He has lived for many years in the US, where he earned an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management. He now lives with his family in Delhi NCR. The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail is his first book. Learn more about him and his work here.

NAW-  When did your literary journey begin? At what age did you discover that you wanted to write?

Well, I had been writing bits and pieces since school, but only in the very amateur category. I also started a novel some 3 years back but then that too stopped after 30 odd pages because of the pressures of corporate life. However, when they lock you up in jail, three things happen :

Firstly, you have all the free time in the world. Secondly, there are very few things that you can do – no technology or friends or stuff. Thirdly, you are surrounded by very interesting subjects. Not a bad setting to write, as long as one can keep a level head.

So in the one month I stayed in Bokaro jail, I turned into an “accidental author”.

Bad Boys book cover

NAW- Tell us about your book, ‘The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail.’ 

The book is non-fiction – it is the story of an Indian jail through my eyes. It is the story of the people I met behind bars, and about how things work in a prison. In many ways it also represents the difference between urban India and small-town India.

While my own story is a part of it, I have tried to keep it less about myself, and more about everything around me.

NAW- How did you get the idea to write a book about your experiences in jail? Weren’t you dejected and depressed? Are you mentally very tough? Others in your position would be suicidal and here you turned it into an opportunity, did you keep a regular diary during your imprisonment?

When inside the prison I wrote a diary everyday, and through that captured all that was happening around me, and all my experiences real-time. The idea of a book being published one day was a very vague, fuzzy one. It was too distant and unreal at the time, given that I was in jail.  I was writing more to stay positive, and have something constructive to do.

When I first went to jail, I was swept with feelings of fear and panic, which very quickly subsided as I figured out my way around the system. I decided I would look for positive things to do. In my case, these were running, reading and writing my diary. That diary eventually became “The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail”.

I don’t know about being mentally tough and all that. But the fact that the book has been published is a personal victory for me as I have given a negative experience a positive ending.

NAW- Please explain the circumstances that landed you in jail. Did the attitudes of friends and relatives change after you came out? Was getting another job difficult? 

I had just joined my then employer – a listed company named Everonn- and was hired to run a division of the company. However, things were not going well internally and the only strong, profitable entity in my division – the Bokaro centre of toppers (an IIT test-prep chain) came under threat because five of the key faculty members quit in one shot. I rushed to Bokaro to pacify the customers (students and their parents) that Everonn would continue to provide all services as per plan, but certain parents were activists and had me arrested. The whole thing was completely wrong, and that is what the Judge finally said when he quashed my case.

My close friends and family were like rocks, and stood by me unwavering through it all. Some distant friends and acquaintances seemed visibly uncomfortable. Maybe some thought I had to be guilty of something. And many were just socially inept because they were just unable to have a straight, even conversation knowing that I had spent a month in jail. Something in their eyes just changed.

After my imprisonment, nobody was willing to hire me as long as I was an under-trial. However, HCL was great and completely without bias when it came to hiring me. And once my case was quashed I immediately quit Everonn, and moved on to HCL.

NAW- Did you face any trouble while publishing your first book? I hope not because publishers would be waiting to lap up such a project right? But tell us how did the book get published? Did you hire an agent?

Well I went to Penguin through a contact and showed them the manuscript. They looked at it and said it was interesting material but “not a book”. It lacked a lot of things like proper construction, character development, high and low points of drama, narrative etc. So they hooked me up with Hussain Zaidi, the prolific crime writer, as a mentor. He gave some advice, and also came up with the title for the book. On the basis of all these inputs from Hussain and Penguin, I did the rewriting / editing of the book. The ramblings of a diary were structured and streamlined to make it a better read, but I ensured none of the facts were compromised.

Since Penguin did express some interest right from day one, I never went to another publisher. In that respect, I think I have been very lucky.

NAW- Any bad experiences in jail? Were you in solitary or with other prisoners? And do you plan to sue the state for wrongful confinement?

Not really, there isn’t any specific instance I can pick. The worst experience was really my employer’s complete ham-handedness in their half-hearted attempts to get me out, because of which even bail took a full month. I was never in solitary – the jail is structured into wards, with each ward holding some 25 inmates. I was always in a ward.

I did evaluate suing the state, but having just suffered at the hands of the Indian legal system, I did not want to have to get back into it to seek recourse. In some ways the book is my way of exposing the system.

NAW- An experience like this would make a person negative, revengeful and bitter. How did you convert this negative energy into a positive streak? We are all dying to find out how a man who landed up in jail picked up the pieces and wow, wrote a novel about it. Weren’t you apprehensive that people would want nothing to do with you, least of all read a book by somebody who’d been in jail, given the social stigma we have about such things in India. I mean didn’t people say, if he was in jail, he must have done something wrong?

I focused on what I needed to move on. I could get into the fact-finding and the blame game. But I wanted to put it all behind me.

In many ways, it was almost therapeutic to get the book out. Writing this book was also my way of making it into ‘not my problem’ but everyone else’s problem. Instead of choosing to be stigmatized, I chose to be upfront, and factual about the whole thing. Now that “The Bad Boys…” is out, I don’t need to be defensive about having gone to jail. Quite the opposite, actually; I am almost celebrating it.

If the legal system is rotten, it is all out in the open. The authorities have to deal with it. If Indian prisons are a hive of corruption, that again is explained as clearly and lucidly as possible. If you, my dear friend, are uncomfortable and shifty-eyed about my having gone to jail, and don’t know where to look, that is your problem. With a steady gaze, I have announced to the whole world that I spent a month in jail. I am unapologetic, and don’t need to be defensive about it. It is a historical fact, and that is where I have put it, if rather loudly.

How you deal with it now is your problem.

NAW-  How do you write, following a well planned routine or randomly? Take us through your writing process.

When in jail, one is not exactly in a steady state of mind. Mood swings happen. A lot of frustration is a way of being. With that state of mind, I was not able to approach writing very evenly every day. On some days, I managed to write just 1-2 pages, or even none at all. On others, I wrote many pages. But I had two registers full of long hand text (no laptops are allowed in jail) by the time I left Bokaro Jail.

After my release for about a month, I was just numb, and recovering. After a full month, I reopened my registers, and started even thinking about approaching a publisher. Before that I had to transcribe and edit extensively even to get a few pages in place. Over time, a structure and flow emerged.The overall content was all there but it needed a lot of restructuring, editing. Lots of repetition, diversions and ramblings required extensive surgery. I did multiple rounds of editing, and my publisher was awesome and brutal at the same time. But I think that is what was needed at the time.

NAW- What are you reading right now?

It is a book on parenting called “The childhood roots of adult happiness” by Edward M. Hallowell.

NAW- Please name your favourite author.

Too many to pick one. But I love Robert M Pirsig, Katherine Boo, and also Alistair MacLean. And for kids writing I just adore Dr Seuss.

NAW- What are your upcoming projects?

Two projects. First is to revive my novel which is still waiting in the wings. The other is a book guiding parents on the Indian education system.

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