Publisher Ashok Chopra’s first novel, Memories of Fire (Penguin Random House; Rs 599), is “densely peopled”. Interspersed with the “dark, contemporary history of India and Pakistan”, its characters encounter Operation Blue Star, the 1984 riots and political upheaval in the two countries. Set in Rasoolpur, a village in Himachal Pradesh, it is the story of four friends who meet in their old age to relive memories of their childhood and adult lives. There is Dr Waryam Singh, who owns an 85-bed hospital in ‘Jullundur’; his best friend Seth Raja Ram Upadhyay, a staunch Brahmin and chartered accountant; their sons Balbir and Radhey Shyam, and their other friends Deepak Kumar, Vijay Thakur and Syed Reza Ahmed. Reza, a Pakistani, lives in India as his father works for the United Nations.
The book offers insights into the Punjabi ethos and the north Indian culture, while nature-loving Bishnois of Rajasthan also find their place. Chopra quotes from literature, describes the designs of baghs, elaborates on the inception of the railways in India and writes about pancreatic cancer. “But none of the protagonists are based on any of my friends”, says Chopra, 59, when we meet in his Vasant Kunj office, but a part of him is there in each one of them, be it the housemaster Brother Walsh or the enigmatic Bansi bua. The books reads like part fiction and part non-fiction thus blurring the lines between the genres, but Chopra wanted to write his own “historical fiction”. At places, facts blend well with fiction, but there are also sections you would gladly skip.
While the novel took him over three years to complete, he was inspired by Chilean writer Isabelle Allende, who is known for weaving her personal life with the politics of her country. His list of favourite authors is long, which includes Nadine Gordimer, Gunter Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, essays on whom form his book Of Love and Other Sorrows (Penguin Random House). Among Indian authors, he enjoys reading Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Khushwant. Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto is also on the list and finds space in the novel too.
“When we were children, we did not know who was a Hindu, Muslim or Sikh,” he says, “Life was very different at that time, and beautiful. Every parent treated us as their own. If they slapped you, they also loved you.” In the story, when Biji, mother of Vijay’s friend, finds him playing pitthu, when he should be attending math tuition. She slaps him a couple of times, drags him to it, and threatens of dire consequences if she catches him again. This is a scene of Chopra’s childhood, who was born and brought up in Himachal Pradesh’s Shimla.
Describing his process of writing, he says, “I go totally off the radar, I don’t meet friends, I don’t see movies, I don’t read newspapers or books. Even now, I am not really back, I am still living with the book,” says the Chief Executive at Hay House Publishing India. “There are times when I felt like opening the window and throwing myself out, so that I crash on the ground and something would crack open,” he says.
After a brief stint with journalism, Chopra enter book publishing and over the past few years has head publication houses such as Harper Collins India and Macmillian India, among others. He started writing columns on authors, poets and book fairs, for newspapers in India and abroad. His last book was a memoir titled A Scrapbook of Memories (Harper Collins, 2015). The publisher, with almost four decades of experience, may go into the cocoon again for his next novel, The Lovers of Rampore.