What would Kiran do?

That’s the question I posed yesterday to Rakesh Satyal, author of the novel Blue Boy, wondering how his young, flamboyant protagonist would react to the fact that SALGA, the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association, has not been admitted to the India Day Parade this year, just a few weeks on the heels of the historic decision 377 in Delhi.   His answer to that question appears at the end of this post.

In the meanwhile, here is a profile I did of Satyal as it appeared in India Abroad‘s June 19, 2009 issue:

At the recent party in a Manhattan bar to countdown the remaining hours until the release day of his debut novel Blue Boy, Rakesh Satyal mingled with everyone, exchanging kisses, signing books and fielding compliments on his unique azure attire and make-up that night – a daring ensemble that suggested Indian bridegroom meets Cirque de Soleil meets MC Hammer.

Taking a cue from the book title, the event had a blue theme.   Well wishers could order a special turquoise-colored cocktail, and almost everyone present sported some blue garment or other.   But unlike the usual association the color has with moods ranging from crestfallen to downright depressed, Rakesh Satyal has absolutely nothing to feel blue about.

The 28-year-old overachiever, born in Cincinnati to Punjabi immigrant parents, seems to have glided effortlessly in the seven years since completing his undergraduate studies in literature and creative writing at Princeton into a successful career in publishing (editing such literary heavyweights as Paulo Coelho, Clive Barker and Armistead Maupin) and on to writing his own hilarious and poignant coming-of-age novel.

Blue Boy, the story of Kiran, a second generation Indian-American “˜tween growing up in Ohio, takes us deep inside the life of one particularly smart and creative kid who is juggling the pressure of his parents’ expectations, the challenges of avoiding or surviving the constant digs and snubs of his clueless and often cruel classmates, and the acceptance of himself as a boy who just happens to love ballet, dolls and trying on his mother’s Estee Lauder make-up.

No, this is not Rakesh as a young boy
No, this is not Rakesh as a child

Taking the Indian-American literary representation one step, if not several, beyond the bi-cultural experiences of Gogol Ganguli in The Namesake, Satyal has now contributed his tale of a young protagonist who is desi and gay and who thrives in spite of the challenges he faces growing up in middle America in the early 1990s.

Satyal, who is also an occasional cabaret singer on top of everything else, has saturated Blue Boy with pop culture references that are often funny and always dead on.   Aside from deft mentions of Madonna, Whitney Houston and Cinnabon at the mall, there’s Kiran’s bright pink Jordache backpack and his shopaholic mother’s ongoing tortured obsession with The Gap.   He manages to unite Indian and American cultures effortlessly in his own particular way; who else has ever described a jalebi as “˜a type of neon orange funnel cake so sticky you can see fragments of your reflection when looking at it’?

After speaking with Rakesh Satyal for even a few minutes, one can easily imagine that the frequent drole asides Kiran shares with us are one example where his novel is autobiographical in nature, but he is quick to point out that while he too had to endure many derisive comments from his classmates when growing up, he is not Kiran, nor vice versa, and his experiences at home were different.

“For my brothers and me, my parents have always just wanted us to be happy, he said.       “They understand the essence of their children, they see what our passions are and they can gauge our happiness.   In the book I was very conscious to make not just Kiran but the parents different, because mine have been a little more progressive than normal Indian parents, and I wanted the parents in the book to be a little more culturally normative.   I’d ask myself if such-and-such Aunty and Uncle had been my parents, how would they have reacted?”

That accepting parental attitude extends from openness about career choices to Satyal’s coming out and telling them he was gay.   “They were very good about acknowledging that this was one part of me and if they loved me already, that I was still the same person.   It was very nice to reveal these things and have people greet you with sympathy and kindness because I don’t think it happens to a lot of kids and there are very negative circumstances in coming out.”

Satyal’s father saw the 2008 release Dostana, a story of gay Indian men in Miami (some who are genuinely so, others who are pretending in order to be accepted as roommates) and found it so hilarious he urged Rakesh to see it too.

On the day we spoke, Satyal had just received a note from his mother, who had just read the final version of the book, telling him she thought it was important for the Indian-American community, a feeling her son shares.   “The book can help an older Indian audience understand what the journey was like for us to go through, the different stages while growing up here.”

All didactic leanings aside, it was something else compelled Satyal to write Blue Boy.   “I wrote the book I needed as a kid and definitely didn’t have.   The thought that there might be some kid who is gay and Indian, or who is just an outcast, reading the book and feeling some sense of comfort would be hugely fulfilling to me.

“You can feel so alone as a kid growing up when you feel different.   If I had a book like this to read I would have thought “˜Oh my God, there are actually people out there like me.’   I just felt like this complete anomaly.   “˜I’m alone and nobody can understand my situation and I’m letting all these people down.'”

One refuge that Kiran finds and an outlet for his creative, artistic nature is an intense interest in Krishna and the idea that he could be Krishna’s tenth avatar.   This, coupled with preparations for an upcoming talent show, lead Kiran to study the deity with genuine ardour.   For Satyal, this is grounds Kiran.

“He’s [Krishna is] his one and only true friend.   His creativity and what he makes of his religion and what he makes of the world around him, those are his real companions.   He can’t really take refuge in other people and that’s where he’s going to get his sense of worth and fulfillment.”

Given how religion can be such a hot-button issue for some people, Satyal admits he would be naïve if he were not concerned about reactions to this aspect of his novel, but he accepts that such reactions are out of his control.   Moreover, he says “I tried to stay as true to the story as I possibly could.   A couple of people to whom I gave the book and who are gay said, “˜You really nailed the experience of feeling like an outcast and you didn’t sugarcoat the situations.   Kiran had a lot of strength and that’s inspiring,’ and that’s really what my aim was – to be as true to the character and the construct of Indian-American life and the fact that gay Indians in particular have been marginalized in some respect.   There isn’t much gay Indian literature for people to draw from.”

In his career, it appears that Rakesh Satyal has gotten where he is by not letting the grass grow beneath him.   He recalls graduating on a Tuesday or Wednesday from Princeton the summer of 2002, and starting work the following Monday.   In the summer before his senior year, Satyal interned with editor Gerry Howard at Doubleday, the man who discovered Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk.   Satyal returned to work with him after graduation and credits Howard with being an exceptional and generous mentor.

Rakesh Satyal also gives credit to his father for giving him support and a strong work ethic. “My Dad used to say “˜Do whatever you want to do, but do it well.’       On deciding that I was going into publishing, then I thought I should do good work and work really hard and I shouldn’t dilly-dally.   I’ve worked with some amazing authors on some amazing books and that creative energy really fuels me.   I’m certain it’s helped in my writing.

“Just being in that environment helped me finish the book, and now conversely having gone through the authorial experience myself, it informs my editing work so much more.   I can empathize with my authors more and it makes me an effective editor because I’ve seen the process from the flip side.”

Given how his novel has such a strong sense of place and time, and how theatrical Kiran is, it’s natural to think of a film adaptation and Satyal admits “There has been interest and we’re working on that.   I think it’s gonna have to be somebody very passionate about it.”   He adds he wouldn’t mind collaborating on the adaptation and having the opportunity to see his characters through others’ eyes.

He is mum about the specifics of the idea for his next novel and is already some 30 or 40 pages into it, but Satyal predicts it won’t be the same experience as writing Blue Boy.   “I can already tell this thing I’m working on now is going to end up being something very, very different from what I imagined and I could see it going in a lot of different narrative directions.   But I’m very excited about the idea.”

For any budding Desais or Rushdies or Lahiris out there, Satyal has one piece of advice:   “Just do the work.   You have to do the work.”   He explains:   “People get ahead of themselves.   They think “˜Oh, I have this great idea’ but the thing is, especially with fiction, you have to write the whole book.   You invest a lot of time thinking about the book, about your process, if you’re being true to your characters, then you set it aside for a little while, and revise and revise.

“It’s a really long process and if you try and push it, your work is going to suffer.   Editors and publishers can sniff out when somebody hasn’t done that ground work and approached the blank page lightly.   We can tell when the upfront work has not been done.   Everything will be informed if you’ve done the work to begin with.”

Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal, 268 pages, published by Kensington Books is available in bookstores now.   You can read an excerpt here.

* * * * * *

And so, what does Rakesh Satyal think Kiran would do today, given SALGA’s exclusion from the parade?

With a laugh, the author says “I think he would most likely be dancing somewhere in the parade, with or without police sanction.”

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