How Neeraj Missed IIT, But Kissed Russia!

Feb 10th, 2010 | By | Category: Interviews

Neeraj Chhibba is the Author of the book ‘Zero Percentile – Missed IIT Kissed Russia’, which has been published by Rupa. He was born and raised in New Delhi and then went to study engineering at Volgograd, Russia. He is currently employed with a software company in Gurgaon, India. For a while the pressure of succeeding professionally and earning his daily bread made him turn away from writing, but eventually he returned to his first love- writing!

Here he talks about his journey to becoming a published author.

The MAG: Tell us something about your background – the city where you grew up, the school you studied in, your childhood friends, and anything else about your past that you think left an indelible mark upon you.
Neeraj Chhibba: Well, I was born and raised in the city of Delhi. I studied in a public school. Have a lot of fond childhood memories – of playing leg cricket in school recess (it is an extinct sport now but we had a gala time playing it), of preparing for the school exams and finding innovative ways to cheat in the examination, of the excitement of moving to the senior wing when I entered class VI. I am sure my chest expanded by a couple of inches on the first day.

TM: When and how did you start writing? Was it something that was a result of an inner yearning, or was it due to some external factors?
NC: No, for me writing was always an inner calling. I grew up in a family where not so much importance was given to English speaking and writing. But, I still grew up to write a whole book goes to show that I was destined to write. I wrote for the school magazine and I participated in an Essay writing competition on behalf of the school (where I won the Highly Commended Certificate from the Royal Commonwealth Society and I was the only one in New Delhi to have received it). From so far as I can recall I began to write after I entered class VIII. I wrote a few poems at the start which I did not show to anyone then, and now, when I try to find them, I can’t. I think I have lost them forever.

TM: In India, even today, most parents will not feel comfortable if their child tells them that he wants to be a writer. Did you ever discuss this with your parents? How did they react?
NC: In my case, they would not have wanted to stop me. This is because my circumstances were different when I decided to write. As I was already in a job and I had no intention of leaving it, there was no question of a financial loss. Consequently, there was no reason for them to stop me. To share a secret, nobody in my family ever thought that I would be a writer but I very strongly believe that I did it since I was destined to.

TM: You have a blog. Did the blog come first or the idea for the book? When did you start writing the book?
NC: Oh! The blog came much later. I began to write the book almost five years ago and the blog came almost two years after I finished the book.

TM: In India, getting a publishing house to accept your manuscript is not easy. How was your experience with that?
NC:
It was no better (or worse I think) than anyone else’s. Initially, I felt that my book had an international flavour so I sent the manuscript to publishers in the West. But, as it is difficult for first time authors to get noticed I was rejected always. Then, after trying at least a hundred lit agents and publishers, I began looking inward and finally found Rupa. Rupa really is a breeding house for debutant authors. I was also lucky to get this break with them.

TM: Tell us a little bit about your book.
NC: Zero Percentile is a unique book in many ways. It is the story of Pankaj, the protagonist, who nurtures the dream of getting into the IIT but could not and ends up in the Russian city called Volgograd. This is the story of his journey which he undertakes, after being born, till after the time he finishes his Engineering degree in Russia. Zero Percentile also does a few firsts in the history of fiction:

– Never before has IIT been written about from the perspective of someone who did not study there. Zero Percentile delves into this and tells readers that there is life beyond IIT, beyond failure, and you just need the courage to get on with it
– Russia has always been portrayed as an enemy by the west. Zero Percentile takes a look at the humane side of the Russian society, a far cry from the evil people they are always shown as. The time explored in the book is the tumultuous 90s when Russia was converting from a communist to a capitalist state, one of the more turbulent times for their huge population trying to cope with the extreme changes brought about by the rapid transformation
– Interwoven in the story is the part about the lives of Russian War Heroes who were a part of the II world war and played a major role in stopping Hitler’s onslaught, an obscure fact not known much outside the Eastern Bloc. This part talks about Volgograd, one of the five ‘Hero Cities’ in Russia, which had more than two million casualties in World War II
– Beyond the firsts, Zero Percentile very subtly raises the issue of AIDS and how young people need to be careful with their sex lives without being preachy

TM: What was the most difficult part of writing your book, and getting it published? Did you ever feel like giving up?
NC: The most difficult part in writing Zero Percentile was when suddenly all my ideas dried up. That’s the moment when you shut down your laptop and want to stop writing altogether. And then, when you finish the book and start looking for a publisher, you realise that writing was just a small part of that big charade which you had unknowingly started. Writing is entirely in your control. So, if you have discipline and the will, you will be able to write a book but Publishers are under nobody’s control and they are really not ready to publish a debutant author. That’s when you begin to despair and think of shelving the project altogether.

TM: How has writing “Zero Percentile” affected your life? Are you still continuing with your day job? Does that interfere with your writing?
NC: Yes, I am still continuing with my day job. I would like to borrow from a famous paraphrase: ‘You cannot make a living out of writing but you can make a killing out of it.’ So, I guess I will continue with my day job. My writing does not interfere with it as I write on weekends when I don’t have any office work lined up. I also make sure that office work takes priority over everything else.

TM: There is a sizeable population out there who would want to quit their day jobs and become professional writers. Do you think that is a good idea? Based on your experiences what would you suggest to such people?
NC: No, I will never suggest people to quit their job. First, they should test waters, get published. See how their first book went in terms of number of copies sold. Then they should come out with their second book and see if what they achieved with the first book is a trend. Only then if they see enough financial reward that they should think of quitting.

TM: Do you thinking writing is more of a talent, than a practised art?

NC: It is actually both. Beautiful sentences will flow because of the inherent talent. But, a good story can even come out with disciplined writing and methodical research. It’s like cooking your favourite dish. Put in all the right spices in right quantity and you are bound to get the right dish out.

TM: What are your future projects? Any books in the pipeline?
NC: I am planning to come out with the sequel of this book. But, a lot needs to be done for Zero Percentile before I think of coming out with the sequel in the market. I think it will at least be a year before it hits the stands.


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In this section The MAG brings you face to face with people like you and me who have beaten the odds to achieve what their heart most desired. If you know someone you would like us to interview, drop us a line!

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  1. Nice interview guys. The brief about the book definitely raises the curiosity for me to grab a copy of Zero Percentile. Also, I feel The Mag is giving a good platform for first time authors to market themselves.
    All the best.

  2. Goog job guys…

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