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How A bicycle named Nautanki and roads less travelled became a book

Lamat R Hasan | Updated on: 29 March 2018, 19:48 IST
(Lamat R Hasan)

Book: Nautanki Diaries
Author: Dominic Franks
Publisher: Rupa Publications
Pages: 272
Price: Rs 236 

In a world where actions are driven by purpose and profits, Dominic Franks decided to turn his life upside down to find his soul. He quit the prized medical profession to dabble in sports and pursue his dream of writing. And then embarked on a 22-day journey from Bengaluru to New Delhi on a doodhwallah-bicycle called Nautanki.

The result: Nautanki Diaries – part-travelogue, part-memoir, part-cycling book. It's arrived a tad too late as Franks undertook the journey way back in 2010 to attend the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. His reason for the delay is telling of the unconventional man who enjoys living on the edge.

Franks lost the unsaved manuscript when his laptop got stolen in 2011, and from the acknowledgements section the readers learn that Franks not only lost his own laptop, but also the one he borrowed from a friend: “Sibi again, for giving me his laptop to write when I lost mine; Arjuna, for giving me his laptop when I lost Sibi’s”.

It is this quirky sense of humour that makes Nautanki Diaries delectable. The book is layered with similar anecdotes. As he was leaving on his journey his anxious father handed him xeroxed copies of relevant ID papers and “a laminated prayer to St Jude – the Patron Saint of Hopeless Cases – was also in the packet for good measure”.

Another favourite is when he stops by at a house to refill water. The woman of the house – “who wore make-up in the middle of the afternoon, an uneven spread of powder with a blotch of lipstick; jasmine fell from her hair” – asked him what he had come for. His answer “water” earns him a mouthful of expletives.

Not all of Franks dreams were fulfilled on his dream trip. Surely not the one his public relations friends had promised – a meeting with Saina Nehwal – where he would shake her hand. As he enters the academy where she is practising, Franks is his capriciously self exploring the possibility of interviewing Saina and getting her to go for a ride on Nautanki. But when Saina emerges from inside, she walks past Nautanki without even noticing the cycle or her rider. 

Franks occasionally talks to Nautanki like a man would to his girlfriend. “I leaned over the handlebar and christened my cycle, whispering in her ear, ‘From now on Nautanki, it’s you and me against the weather and the roads'.” And Nautanki returns that love and adulation by holding him in good stead till the last leg of his journey.

Writing about the obvious is never easy and as a first-time writer Franks has done exceedingly well capturing the spirit and life of the road less travelled – literally and metaphorically.

Excerpts from the interview:

LH: Are you a full-time writer? Was it easy to quit medicine and take to writing?

DF: I am not a full-time writer. I quit medicine with the intention of becoming a writer, but mere intent is never enough. The big dream though, is to make a living as a writer. Although time and good sense convince me that's still some years away.

It wasn't difficult for me to quit medicine so that I could write, I guess it was more difficult for my parents and family to get used to not having a 'first doctor in the family' anymore.

LH: What took you so long to document the story?

DF: Some journeys take longer than others. I started Nautanki in early December 2010. I finished it on February 15, 2011. It was a Sunday. I used to write in the Reading Room (of Bengaluru Medical College) back then. I knew if I put in a 12 hour stint, I would be done. I also knew I hadn't saved the manuscript in a long time.

I used to write in the foyer of the building where the reading room was located. The building overlooked a main road. It was Sunday evening with a lesser crowd of medical students than usual as there had been a big post-graduate medical entrance exam that afternoon. Everyone had gone to sleep or drink off the exhaustion of the slog. When I came back from my chai the laptop was stolen. And I hadn't saved and mailed it back to myself.

The second time I wrote Nautanki it took longer. I got side-tracked easily, didn't have the same vigour or the flow that I knew the first one had. Then life happened. I changed sub-consciously, unconsciously. I started working harder at what I was doing, I took up an independent project in a field I'd never experienced before. Writing slid into the background. Money took the edge of artistic ambition, I wasn't faithful enough to serve two gods.

The second first draft was almost done, and the fear of finishing prevented me from completing. After I completed the manuscript, the long haul to getting a publisher took almost half a year. And then the interminable wait while the cogs of the publishing houses kept churning and personnel shifted, editors changed, and finally the manuscript came up on schedule.

So yes! I guess five years to complete, and two-and-a-half to get it published. Hopefully, the next one won't be another seven years.

LH: How hard was it to stretch this into a full-fledged 250-plus page book? 

DF: Wasn't difficult at all. Both first manuscripts interestingly tailed off at round about the same length. When I wrote Nautanki the first time, there were no restrictions, whatever came to mind was acceptable, all indulgences were permitted, length was never a negotiable. It's been through three rounds of editing to reach where she's at.

Throwing out large chunks was interesting for me personally because I wanted to strike a balance between cycling and the journey itself, describing the people I met along the way, and the internal monologues a long-distance cyclist is bound to have. There are some axed passage that I quite like, but they are probably only interesting to me maybe.

First published: 29 March 2018, 19:48 IST
Lamat R Hasan @LamatAyub

Bats for the four-legged, can't stand most on two. Forced to venture into the world of homo sapiens to manage uninterrupted companionship of 16 cats, 2 dogs and counting... Can read books and paint pots and pay bills by being journalist.