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The man who wanted to be king
As a 12-year-old, Mainak Dhar thought that nobody would pay him for his poems. But when he heard Stephen King say that the moment someone paid you a penny for your writing, you were a professional writer, Dhar just had to find a way. King was god. So, the boy, who was studying in class seven in Canada then, solved all the problems in his maths textbook for the next term, stapled the solutions together with his poems, and sold them to his classmates. That day, he made $12. 50 (roughly Rs 650), bought ice-cream and a few comics and announced to his mother that he was a professional writer.
Today, Dhar is number two on Amazon's e-book bestseller list as the top-selling author of horror. For a week, he even unseated his idol and master of the genre, Stephen King, from the top slot. Dhar has written 13 books, five of which are horror novels. His zombie novel Zombiestan sold more than 70, 000 copies and he is currently writing the fifth book of his zombie series Alice In Deadland. The Singapore-based Dhar uses zombies as a metaphor for "how we ourselves are the biggest threat to our world". In fact, this guilt is also why zombies are suddenly popular.
"We are acutely aware of how we are screwing up the world, " says Dhar. "Some Delhiites are worse brutes than any fictional zombies, " he says, referring to their attitude toward women. Dhar spent his formative years in Delhi but had a largely nomadic childhood spanning nine schools, six cities and four countries. This meant that he could easily conjure up entire worlds. "When you move to a new city or school every couple of years, you don't form lasting friendships and learn to rely on your own imagination. "
For a couple of years, the author had an imaginary friend called Freddy who would sit next to him in class. Dhar would even insist that the seat be left empty for him. "I would write tests for him and give attendance on his behalf, " says Dhar, confessing that he named a rather deranged character in his novel Zombiestan after Freddy.
While running for an hour every morning or commuting, Dhar imagines characters and places. That's how Zombiestan popped into the head of this IIM graduate, who had till then written management books. Dhar had always loved post-apocalyptic classics like The Stand and Lucifer's Hammer. During one of his "one-man brainstorm sessions", he started thinking of the kind of post-apocalyptic world he'd like to create.
Soon, an Afghanistan-where Taliban terrorists are trying to regain their grip after Osama Bin Laden's death-materialised. Alice, on the other hand, lives in a post-apocalyptic India or better yet, a warzone that occupies the land where Delhi once stood.
Given the generous smattering of fight scenes and gore, people tend to assume that Dhar has a twisted imagination and likes overthe-top action. They are not wrong. His brown belt in karate has helped him add an edge to the combat scenes, he says. He has borrowed mannerisms and eccentricities of characters in Alice in Deadland from people he knows. Locations such as the underground Biter bases are inspired by tunnels near the Yamuna that he explored while in college.
While taking a fairytale and adding a monster seems to be the fad, there is a deeper reason why Dhar chose to displace Alice from Wonderland. "The tale of a young person finding her destiny in a world where nothing is as it seems and whose destiny lies in fighting tyranny resonated with me personally, " says Dhar, who has had to fight his own share of demons. After cancer took his mother in 2001, he drank himself into obesity. His writing suffered. Before his book The Funda of Mix-ology was published, Dhar racked up 50 rejection slips.
Dhar, who is now in good shape, has resolved to write one book a year. He ideates while running in the morning and writes for about 45 minutes before going to bed at night. "Writing a book is like running a marathon-you need to pace yourself and keep at it, day after day, " says Dhar, who is averaging two books a year. Though his wife reads the first draft of all his novels, even though "she completely dislikes zombies and horror, " he says. His five-year-old son, who was the inspiration for the pivotal character in Zombiestan, seems to like the genre as he practises the zombie walk with him.
Dhar runs a Facebook group called Alice in Deadland, where he discusses his work with readers and bounces ideas off them. He has even drafted many of them into his book, Hunting The Snark, as characters who accompany Alice on a dangerous mission. "They are more friends than readers, " says Dhar.
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