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Laughing under pressure

Ajit Saldanha writes his wittiest columns when he has a tight deadline. The gourmet, travel writer, and actor has come out with a book



Ajit Saldanha: `Whether you like it or not, when you are saddled with the tag of a humour writer, then you can't deviate from it by an iota.' — Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

A LITTLE birdie told me about the Ajit Saldanha dosa joke. So, when I finally caught up with him for a brief interview, he says with a dimpled smile: "Oh that!" And after two little interruptions from people waiting to get signed copies of his recent book, he proceeds to tell me the joke in a colloquial Tamil accent.

That was 20 minutes before Saldanha read out an excerpt from his book, Hung by My Family Tree, (on popular demand by the glitterati at The Leela Palace Wednesday evening) in a hilarious Malayalam accent, sending them into splits. The book of anecdotes is quite funny when you read it yourself, but listening to Saldanha read it is something else. Ruby Chakravarty, Jagadish Raja, and Chippy Gangjee tickled the audience's funny bone with their readings too.

In between signing copies of his book, Saldanha took a few minutes of to talk about it and his other passions (he is a gourmet, a travel writer, and an actor rolled into one). Hung by my Family Tree is a collection of columns written for The Midday.

So, why was there a need for a collection like this? "Well, it was in response to a whole lot of readers' mail asking if there was a central source where they could find all of it," he says. Spinning out a column, week after week, made him feel like "a pretender", he says. "I really write stream-of-consciousness." Writer's block? "Mercifully not! I dread it happening, of course. I often feel that sense of terror when deadline approaches. I've wondered if other writers go through it too.

I would never have the column ready in advance. Sometimes, I would squeak in a 9 p.m. deadline; so it has been hard. But it's an adrenalin rush too."

And the witty columnist does write better under pressure. "Sometimes when I had the luxury of time, I produced stuff that was fairly prosaic or dull. I wouldn't want to read it myself. I think I'd call it the acid test of the column if I feel like reading it in newsprint. I tried doing the column on the first day of the week, but it looked forced," says Saldanha.

And how does he manage to get new things to write about? "Initially, I told myself that I wouldn't write stuff about my dog or my kid — the usual suspects and those painful pieces about men trying to cook or sexist stuff. But I suppose sometimes I have broken my own rules!"

"I use a technique for my writing. During the week, I sometimes try out the spine of the column on people whose opinion I respect, and then, if it provokes a response, I go with it. Whether you like it or not, when you are saddled with the tag of a humour writer, then you can't deviate from it by an iota," he adds.

He did get into trouble once when he tried to disguise his aunt's identity in one of his pieces called Putting Kai, Kahdal & Rummance. She asked him how could he have written such a piece. "Every writer will write only from his own experience. Nobody has an imagination that is from planet Zorg. Surely, a novelist would be able to internalise it, and then regurgitate it and present it better because he has gone through a process of maturing. I don't think a columnist need necessarily be precluded from writing like that."

Starting off with a granite business, he considers himself lucky to have converted a passion to a profession. Now he does things he enjoys: event management and writing.

When Saldanha started cutting his teeth on a food column, did he get into trouble anytime when he panned an eatery? "Oh yes, I don't know whether it is deservedly or not, I have quite a reputation of being a maverick. I think there is an attitude among the hotels that it is some kind of a jukebox approach — put a free meal into them and (the press is) supposed to sing the tune of their choice. I think that is wrong, because just as they have a job to do, we have a job to do, and whether you are invited or you pay shouldn't disqualify you from making a comment."

Saldanha has done films and theatre, the last being Popcorn. "Acting has always been a passion with me. I enjoy it and regret I couldn't make a living from it. But things are changing and hopefully, soon, there'll be a market for good Asian actors. Look at Kumars at No. 42. Finally Asians are coming into their own."

With the book out, what plans does he have? "Come February, I am bringing down one of the finest improvisational acts — the same guys who do Whose Line is it Anyway?"

That's bound to give Bangaloreans a few more laughs for sure!

DOLLY JOHN

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