We were intrigued when we read the synopsis of ‘The Mystery of the Midnight Murder’ that it is based out of Kolkata. What was most interesting was that the author – Shevlin Sebastian is from Kerala and based out of Kochi, but writing a story that’s not based out of his hometown.
The second part that nudged us was a review of the book by Ashok Kallarackal and one of the lines, which said, “…My nine-year-old got pretty emotional reading the book but refused to let go of it, till she finished it in one sitting. Her next question was whether the author had written any other book…”
There are not many Indian children’s mystery novels that one may have heard of. After all, we have grown up reading Nancy Drew, Famous Five, Hardy Boys and Three Investigators by Hitchcock (a personal favourite), so this was the third reason why we wanted to explore more about the e- book and its author further.
About the author
A journalist for 25 years, Shevlin Sebastian has worked in the Sportsworld magazine of the Ananda Bazar Group in Kolkata, The Week magazine belonging to the Malayala Manorama group, The Hindustan Times in Mumbai, DC Books in Kottayam and now working as a Special Correspondent in The New Indian Express, Kochi.
Thanks to his job, Shevlin had a chance to meet eminent personalities like Mother Theresa and Edmund Hilary (both exuding raw charisma), Olympic champion Maurice Greene, cricketer Sourav Ganguly, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, and many other top-notch people in the arts, politics, cinema, culture, business and society, nationally and internationally.
The inspiration for ‘Mystery’:
It all started several years ago when Shevlin was working for Sportsworld, of the Ananda Bazar Group. Sometimes, he would write articles for The Telegraph Colour Magazine.
“One day,” he recalls, “I went to do a story on the night school run by the Don Bosco school at Park Circus for underprivileged children. Among the children I met was an 11-year-old boy Ayaz Hussein. He lived in a nearby slum and told me the tragic story of how his father had been murdered, and how he was studying so that he could get a good job and provide for his family. Something about Ayaz touched me deeply; maybe, the fact that his father was murdered. So I asked myself, ‘what sort of a feeling would a son have when he has this information? Will he have feelings of revenge against the murderer? Would he avenge the death one day?’ So Ayaz became the inspiration for my novel.”
This book was written quite some time ago. The setting was Diamond Harbour Road. Shevlin lived in that area until he was seven years old. There is a church, which he would frequent with his parents and siblings that had a slum nearby. So Shevlin decided to place a character like Ayaz in this setting and things took off after that.
The reason why this book is set in Kolkata is because Shevlin grew up there. His father, a Malayali, went to Kolkata as a young man, looking for employment prospects.
“I spent several years there. I regard myself as a half-Bong and seem to give that impression. I remember meeting an Air Force officer in Kochi who has lived all over India. He watched my face, listened to my conversation, and suddenly said, ‘Are you Bengali?’”
The book-writing journey
“I would write a little every day and followed the dictum set by veteran children’s book author, the Kolkata-based Vernon Thomas, who told me, ‘End every chapter with a bang. That will induce the reader to go to the next chapter and on and on, till the end.’ And that is what I have done in this novel,” shares Shevlin.
As for the reason why it is about a rag picker, again, he did a story on rag pickers and their lives for The Telegraph. So it was easy for Shevlin to make the protagonist a rag picker in his children’s novel.
It took him a few months to finish it. There was no plotting. It was just that one thing that led to another. In other words, his subconscious led him forward.
According to Shevlin the uniqueness of Mystery is that on the one hand, it is a straightforward novel with twists and turns; but at the deeper level, it is a philosophical novel. The subliminal message is about the need to forgive your enemies. That when tragedy strikes, you need to get up and move on and only hard work and determination can increase the chances of your success.
“I use the word ‘increase’ because I believe luck plays a very important role in success. While having a chat with author/politician Shashi Tharoor, he told me, ‘I know of many people who have worked twice or thrice as much as I, but they have not been successful. How to explain it?’ and Shashi lapsed into silence,” smiles Shevlin.
Currently, his novel is only available on Amazon.com as an e-book. He has found it difficult to get a publisher and quotes what first-time author Sudipto Das told him recently – “The literary world is a closed group and does not entertain outsiders. They have their own shell. They don’t like engineers or IT guys writing books. They look down on Chetan Bhagat, even though he has superb sales.”
He further adds, “I think Sudipto is right. I know of many talented authors who have not been able to get a breakthrough. In fact, most books which have become humungous best-sellers were initially rejected by Indian publishers. The names that come to mind include Amish’s books on Lord Shiva, Anand Neelakantan, and of course, Chetan Bhagat.”
Shevlin recalls what a Croatian Bharatnatyam dancer Nikolina Nikoleski told him, on a recent visit to Kochi, “In India, there is no free elevation to the top. In the West, you can start as a backstage helper and become a president. Here, the social mobility is one in a billion. It takes a lot of connections for that mobility to happen. Of course, if you talk to publishers, they will say how they are always on the lookout for talent. But for me, the e-book revolution has provided much-needed oxygen to revive a moribund writing career.”
However he admits, “As for sales, the book could have done better. I have purposely not gone on a promotional campaign, using my contacts in the media, because I want to put up several more books, before doing so. As for the feedback, it has been positive.”
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