Journalist, yogi writer, snail breeder, stone collector, handicraft exporter. Rajendar Menen is many things. But one thing he is not is a "press conference journo". Two decades of on-ground reporting and life in Mumbai's underground, are evident in the gritty Karma Sutra: Essays from the Margin, a first person account of the trauma and triumph of those destined to spend their lives on the other side of the boulevard. He was kicked, pushed, beaten up and threatened, but refuses to regret a minute.
How did Karma Sutra come about?
I have been covering the streets for over two decades, and I had a lot of material. Poet Dom Moraes, my guru, encouraged me to put it all in a book. But I didn't take the suggestion seriously. Then I sat at a computer for three months, and finished it. Despite zero publicity, the response has been fantastic. A Kannada edition will be out in May and an Italian edition in 2010 perhaps, followed by other languages. Talks are also on to bring out a cheaper Indian edition.
What is your modus operandi?
I am like RK Laxman's common man. I just hang around and keep my eyes, ears and nose open for strange sights and sounds. Normally, I play dumb and pretend to be an idiot, or I talk nonsense and provoke. Both are good methods to dig out information. I don't fit in a crowd, and I don't stand out either; this ambiguity helps.
But if the person I am getting information from is poor, like a sex worker, I pay for the time spent. Sometimes, I buy gifts or food and drink. But I've never "bribed" anyone for info; people love to talk out here!
Your most exciting interviews?
I loved interviewing rescued child sex worker Tulasa Thapa in Kathmandu, and the friends and family of Dominic D'souza in Goa; he was India's first openly HIV+ activist. It is also interesting to travel with "white" journalists; people somehow offer much more information to them and even expect to get paid for it.
What has Mumbai's underbelly taught you?
The street beat has changed me from inside out; I live very simply because of it. I've realised circumstances and birth determine the directions in life. It is easy to understand someone's actions when you look at the circumstances they are born into. I try not to be judgmental; everyone has their own margins of right and wrong, and it works out alright in the end.
What would you say to street writing hopefuls?
A lot of good writers lack discipline and get sucked in to the system. On the street, there are no freebies. You go with the flow.
Karma Sutra: Essays from the Margin by Rajendar Menen, published by Saga Books is available exclusively at Strand Book Stall, Fort, at a discount price of Rs 575