By day, Arnab Ray, PhD, is a serious academic working in a high-tech research consultancy firm based in the suburbs of Washington DC. By night, he is the author of a popular blog, greatbong.net, and now of a book, May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss, that promises to analyse every ludicrous aspect of Indian pop culture from the 1990s onwards.
In an interview with DNA, Ray talks about his new book, blogging, and what kind of humour works in India and abroad
You’re a blogger. When and why did you first think of writing a book?
When I was in class 12, I tried to write a book. It was about a guy (coincidentally also in class 12) who tries to impress and win over the girl of his dreams by organising a freshers’ welcome but in the end fails miserably in every respect. Weighing in at a sleek 80 pages of hand-written foolscap, that piece of prose titled “Twists and Turns” (because it had many twists and turns), some might say fortunately, has since been lost to the world. But the dream of getting published always remained. So when HarperCollins asked me if I wanted to do a book with them, I jumped at the opportunity.
What’s with the title, May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss?
Growing up in Kolkata, there would be frequent all-night concerts where the microphones would blare into the wee hours of the morning (this was before people had heard of the two words ‘sound pollution’). While setting up the mic, the MC would do ‘mic testing’ where besides the customary ‘Hello Hello’ he would also say (and I presume that was his signature), “May I hebb your attention pliss”.
When I was looking for a, to use a word cliched beyond belief, ‘hatke’ title, it was this phrase that came to mind.
How was writing a book different from writing a blog?
Most importantly, it required a different style. Blog posts have immediacy. You put in links. You comment on what’s happening today. You know that about 90 per cent of people will read the post within a week. After that, interest will wane. And that’s fine. A book for obvious reasons cannot have a time-horizon of interest lasting a week or even a month. Hence my conscious attempt to steer away from events and persons to more general themes whose relevance I believe will not be confined to weekly news cycles.
Did being a popular blogger make it easier for you to find a publisher?
I don’t think I would have found a publisher if I had not been a blogger. Being a kind of an outsider, both in terms of not being in the media as well as being outside the country, I doubt if I would have caught anyone’s attention if I didn’t have my blog.
Would you say blogging was life changing in a way?
The blog has definitely been life-changing. It has given me a platform to express my views, it has given me an audience, and most importantly it has given me a whole lot of interesting friends. And the response I got for my posts gave me an idea of what would ‘work’ as a book and what would not.
What do you think of humour writing in India? Are Indians getting comfortable about laughing at themselves?
I would not go so far as to say that Indians accept all kinds of humour in the written form. There are certain types of humour that Indians find very appealing and there are certain other types, more caustic, sarcastic, bitter and perhaps very personal in nature, that they are not so comfortable with. In the US, there are literally no limits on what people will do and say in order to get a laugh. And people want the envelope to be pushed. India is quite different in that respect.
Additionally, India has laws that severely restrict freedom of speech —you are free to speak as long as you don’t hurt someone’s sentiments. All this makes humour writing of the more confrontational sort extremely difficult and fraught with danger.
What kind of humour do you think Indians ‘get’, if there is any such kind?
Indians get humour as long as it is directed at certain ethnic/sexual stereotypes and certain very generic groups of people — bosses, wives, etc and that too as long as they ‘don’t draw blood’. They don’t ‘get’ caustic humour directed at people and at institutions, especially those that are considered to be ‘holy cows’.