Dr. Sujit Saraf: Scientist and successful author

Photo credit: Divya Satia

Another IITian turned writer, he has traveled all the way from Bihar to Darjeeling to Delhi to NASA to Palo Alto. But his heart and soul have remained Indian, so Indian that he writes commentaries of even politics in India. Meet Sujit Saraf, author of ‘The Peacock Throne’ and ‘The Confession of Sultana Daku.’

Techgoss (TG):
The basic questions first. Tell us about yourself, your education, your career so far and currently what do you do, where are you located?
Sujit Saraf (SS): I was born in a small town in Bihar and went to school in Darjeeling and Delhi. After graduating from IIT Delhi, I received a Ph.D. from Berkeley. Over the last few years, I have done research for NASA, taught at IIT and worked in a software startup, and am now a research scientist at a defense company in California, where I live.

TG: What was your first book? Has it been published? When and why was it written? How many books have you written in total so far?
SS: My first book was a mishmash of Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” books; I am glad it was never published! My first published novel was Limbo, written when I was a student at IIT Delhi. I have since written many books – some incomplete – and a few have been published.

TG: Your credentials are very impressive… IITian, NASA scientist, how come you chose the label of a writer?
SS: I’ve always thought of myself as a novelist. Publishers disagreed.

TG: Why social fiction and why not sci-fi, since you seem the ideal candidate for SF?
SS: I’ve never found any joy in science fiction.

You have a lot of social commentaries in publication in the form of articles, what is your pre-occupation with Indian politics and society, in spite of being in a career so removed from the same topic?
SS: Perhaps a paraphrasing of an old adage will do: you can take the boy out of India; you cannot take India out of the boy!

What is your background in theatre? How was the transition from writer to dramatist effected? Could you elaborate on why the theater has become a passion?
SS: In 1995, a friend and I founded Naatak, a theater company, to stage Indian plays in California. Naatak has since flourished. Through Naatak, I have written, directed and produced many plays. I am not a professional performer, but Naatak provides something enjoyable to do with friends over weekends.

TG: Tell us about your writing process? What is your current project?
SS: I write methodically and mechanically, without anything that could be called “creative passion”. Chapter 1 is written first, followed by chapter 2, chapter 3 and so on. Perhaps I approach writing as an engineer approaches a project. Currently, I am at work on a novel based on my grandfather’s life and travels.

TG: In spite of being away from the country, you are still very involved with the logistics of living in India, any reasons? How does it fuel your passion in theater and writing?
SS: My books have all been set in India, perhaps because I have still not come to the US in “storyland”. While my early plays were set in India, the last two are firmly rooted in the San Francisco area, where I live. Because a play is more direct (it is being performed right in front of you) while a novel can choose to be indirect, I find myself increasingly writing plays that relate to the life I now live, rather than the one I have left behind.

TG: You straddle two languages and two genres of writing, how do you manage these plus your career in space science?
SS: I don’t sleep much these days!

TG: What do you plan to contribute to India in terms of your expertise in space science?
SS: Nothing. No one working in America contributes anything to India.

TG: You have two unique gifts – binary logic of computing as well the artistic skills of writing. Do you have to make an attempt to balance the two? Or can you just switch off one and switch on the other?
SS: I have often felt that the two are the same.

Indian tech firms have won billions of dollars of American business based on their talent and competitive costs. But there is a dark side to the exploitation of Indian workers in the US as well. How do you see the future of the outsourcing industry? How many more years before we lose our cost advantage?
SS: I do not think that Indian workers – either in the US or in BPOs in India – are being exploited. In each case, people have used their skills to ensure a more prosperous life; in each case, this transition was made voluntarily.

I think India will retain a cost advantage in outsourcing for at least another decade. Of course, I am not a BPO expert. I deal with BPOs only when I call my bank to complain about an unfair fee on my monthly statement, and am connected to an Indian in Bangalore who calls himself Max.


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