Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Been There Bungled That by Paddy Rangappa

Been There Bungled That is a fictionalized autobiographical story stretched across almost 300 pages. They endeavour to put together snippets and anecdotes from the protagonist Jagannath Srinivasan's life. With a first-person narrative, it is a collection of unconnected short pieces more reminiscent of a blog or column than a book/novel.

Jagannath Srinivasan, fondly referred to as Jags (not Jughead), drifts through life in benign autopilot... armed with the impressive combo of IIT-IIM degrees.

Like millions of Indians he studied engineering - not out of interest, but because he took the entrance examination and secured admission. Rote learning played the all-important role. Soon the natural progression to Amul country follows - to fortify him with degree #2 (~ while also applying for an MS degree in the US - just in case). Thereupon, he embarks on a rudderless career journey... with carefully worded versions of resume - each expressing his boundless passion for banking, consulting, marketing and advertising. He finally settles for whichever offer comes his way ~ based on herd mentality or peer perception, i.e. whichever is more coveted by others. For example, banks and consulting firms come to campus on day 1, which means they are ranked higher. Even the best marketing jobs are all on day 2.

Highly confused and upwardly mobile, he is easily swayed by things he reads, people he meets, and advice he actively seeks and receives. Except sane ones of course, such as the ones offered by (his father's friend) Dr Sidelinger Wakefield (a professor at Brown University) and later from his wife, Vidya. Both counsel reflection - to discover and identify what he wishes to do. ~ These sorts of advice he instantly disregards - since their source(s) are ignorant of the managerial decision making process - that requires one to start at ground zero, which is data collection. This insight helps Jags to make discerning (in Jags' view) shifts from engineering to consultancy to advertising to marketing to banking - by trimming one to three years on the typical career curve.

Here is a snippet - Jags' discussion with Dr. Wakefield:

'You're studying engineering now, right?' I nodded. 'Why?'
'Thats easy,' I said. 'I passed the JEE - the Joint Entrance Exam. ... I did badly in the medical college entrance test.'
'What?! You actually wanted to be a doctor?'
'Of course not,' I said. 'Why do you ask?'
'Because you took the medical college entrance test. You just told me!' The professor was getting agitated and his voice was rising.
'Yes, I did,' I replied soothingly. 'But that was only as a back-up. I was not serious.'
The professor shook his head in bewilderment. 'Ok, so you really wanted to do engineering but just for fun, took the medical college test too. I understand - or at least I think I do...'

Dr. Wakefield is even more puzzled to know that Jags chose his area of specialization based on its relative popularity and the popularity of the institute.

'Yes, but it's not just the relative popularity of the specialization and the institute separately. It's the combination that's important. ... It's very complicated,' I said smugly. ('And therefore beyond your comprehension,' I added, but only to myself.)
'I'm not going to try to follow that,' said Wakefield. ('Exactly,' I said, again to myself.)

There's the bit about a strict professor (Prof. Thampi) and his charming daughter (Vidya) whom he eventually marries - whiff of '3 Idiots'.

My twopenceworth: The chapter titles including the chance meeting with Vidya while trying to submit a late assignment: 'Submitting the POM report... and meeting someone' - reveals too much, and dilutes the charm of the following pages. It somewhat interferes with (read: diminishes) the readers' interest.

Inside jokes about copywriters, bankers, consultants, brand managers etc pepper the book. There are anecdotes regarding Jags' travails on foreign shores. However, none of them can be called fresh or original. In humour writing, especially one with large dollops of perceptive satire, novelty makes all the difference. It is also advisable to eschew unnecessary meanderings... that alters the flavour and wearies the readers' mind. Reading becomes a chore then. With humour or satire that is a no no.

Using lots of very short chapters creates an impression in the reader of very rapid pace and lots of movement. For some genres (such as thrillers), this accelerated pace is exactly the effect that a reader wants. The same may or may not be applicable to other genres, such as humour or satire. Here the quality of writing makes all the difference. Having longer chapters doesn't quite preclude fast-paced movement, but it does allow for more breathing space and a sense of scope and continuity.

Been There Bungled That has been compared to Wodehouse... and this piqued my expectations. But after plodding through the frequent and needless winding of nearly 300 pages, the content leaves me quite wooden. It neither makes nor leaves an impact. Besides, it is Jags narrating the story, talking about himself, or explaining his points of view. The rest of the characters appear quite abrupt.

However, the book is genuinely funny in bits and parts; for instance, when Jags' mother wants to have a serious discussion, he coveys it with "So I did the South Indian equivalent of laying down my fork and spoon: I stopped mashing rice with my fingers and gave her my full attention."

The jacket cover is attractive. The author is observant and a decent raconteur, apart from having a good hand at humour and insightful satire (including a dash of gentle snarkiness). What's missing is some sharp editing to curb the debutant author's prodigal instincts.

Details of the book: Been There Bungled That/ Author: Paddy Rangappa/ Publisher: Ebury Press, an imprint of Random House India/ Binding: Paperback/ Language: English/ Publishing Date: Nov. 2013/ Genre: Humour/ ISBN-10: 978-8-184-00433-5/ ISBN-13: 9788184004335/ Pages: 300/ Price: INR 250.

Picture: The book jacket cover of Been There Bungled That. Courtesy: randomhouse.