In his debut novel The Alice Project (HarperCollins India), Satwik Gade takes the all-too-familiar genre of the coming-of-age novel and infuses it with humour, philosophical meditations, and observations on life’s inane absurdities, making the book a refreshing read.
An illustrator and writer based in Chennai, Gade is a graduate from the National School of Fashion Technology in Delhi. He is also a Fulbright scholar with a Master’s in Community Arts. From 2012 to 2016, he worked for The Hindu as a designer; ever since, he has been freelancing as a cartoonist, including for The Hindu where he has been an editorial cartoonist since 2019. Besides this, his work has been featured in Firstpost, Buzzfeed, and a host of other news and lifestyle portals.
He also illustrates children’s books for publishers such as Karadi Tales, Tulika Books, and BLPS. Some of his notable works include Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why (2013), Srinivasa Ramanujam: Friend of Numbers (2020), and Music for Joshua (2018).
Satwik Gade spoke to Frontline on his book, the process of writing it, his literary influences, and much more.
The title of the book is intriguing. How did you arrive at it?
So the name Alice—I just like the idea of having a character have a girl’s name, have a male character have a girl’s name, simply because I think it resonated with the personality a lot. I think, even though it’s a typical guy’s coming-of-age story, the protagonist is not very much like a typical cis-het male figure that you see in movies and in books. So I like the idea of just having him have a girl’s nickname, and I thought that would evoke a better feeling in the audience than actually giving away his real name.
You said that The Alice Project is in the genre of a coming-of-age novel and from my reading of the book, I think so too. Even though a lot of the tropes felt familiar, the treatment overall came across as fresh. Tell us about the process of writing it.
I think there are a bunch of genres that really interest me a lot, like, say, a rom-com, a chick flick, or a stoner comedy. These sorts of things are typically considered very commercial genres and also, they are not considered art or arty, per se. So I find the idea of taking those genres and trying to elevate them very interesting.
And I do think a lot of writers in the past—this is not something new—who have been very successful have essentially taken run-of-the-mill commercial genres and elevated them through really great writing. I keep thinking of Dostoevsky in this regard; if we remove the really beautiful psychoanalysis of his characters and the deep emotions that go with the setting and all that, essentially his writing is like soap operas, right? They are like these elaborate family or romantic dramas, but the execution or the heart that he puts into it elevates it to great literature.
That was something that always struck me… I’ve also seen that in the case of, say, Upamanyu Chatterjee, who wrote English, August, which was again in the genre of a slacker coming-of-age novel. And even over there, I think he took, again, a stoner comedy and made it representative of an urban Indian in the 1980s, which became very iconic. So, I think I’ve always been influenced by these sorts of things. And so when I wrote, it was natural that I try something like that.
Besides the protagonist Alice, your book has well-rounded characters throughout, so much so that they come across as real people. Keeping in mind that it’s your first novel, how much of the book, in that sense, is autobiographical?
It is a little autobiographical definitely, because I was focussing a lot more on the craft of writing it. So, to me at the beginning, it felt like too much of an effort to come up with completely new characters. And I felt that wasn’t what I was looking to do. So, just to take the easy way out I took a setting that I was very familiar with, so that I could really focus on what it is that I wanted to do.
Also, the thing with college is that you meet so many different people and all of them are really interesting characters; once you get to know them, you really realise that they are all people worth writing about.
Coming to your work as a graphic artist, did you ever contemplate writing a graphic novel as your first solo project?
Yeah, I do keep toying with the idea from time to time but the reason why I was really drawn to writing is because it’s not my day job. So, once you are done with a day of illustrations and comics, it’s very difficult to want to do that as your passion project as well. So, it was really great to be able to just write and that’s probably why I managed to do this first. But I do have a graphic novel in the works. I hope it will also come out soon.
I found the book quite cinematic in terms of storytelling. Do you think your skills as a graphic artist come in handy?
I think more than my skills as a graphic artist, it’s how I am as a reader that sort of came in… I think this is true of many readers as well that when you are reading a book, after a point you don’t feel like you are reading the words, right? Like there is that image that flows in front of you even as you are reading it, the reading becomes subconscious and you actually start seeing the story in front of you. And that is something that’s very common for me—across all reading experiences, I’ve had that. So, when I was writing, I was conscious of the image that is getting created in the minds of the readers.
And I do like cinema a lot. Because cinema is such a mass medium, there are particular ways of looking at people that have been established by cinema. So, we can use that to our advantage, because if you feed that to your audience, they’ll easily take it.
There are quite a few bits which dwell on philosophical meditations, be it the passages on the Ajivika philosophy, which feature at different points, or the darkly comic bits, such as Alice’s theory of ‘existential apathy’. Where did they stem from?
Some of them were these weird explanations that I would come up with, to explain to my parents or to my friends or other people, like why I was the way I was.
Some of the others, especially about the Ajivika philosophy and also all of the other philosophical musings, I felt that when we set a character in his early 20s, like we try to show a person who is sort of hormonal, materialistic, focussed on things that we normally considered like people of that age are supposed to care about. But actually, I think as real people we are always in many different parts at the same time, right?
Like we have this side of us which is highly frivolous… Like, you are just sitting and talking about something really frivolous, and then you walk away and by yourself, you start thinking about something very deeply philosophical and the line between the various things that you are thinking about is always very blurry.
So, I very much like the idea of having a 20-something-year-old guy think about these things very deeply but not be able to or engage with them seriously. I wanted the effect of a young person engaging with very serious ideas, but in his own very frivolous way.
For the most part, the novel has a very keen sense of time & place. To establish the time the book is set in, I liked how you used pop culture references—to bring to mind, two instances are movies like Josh and Kalyug. Then, in terms of place, the setting of Delhi is almost akin to being a character in itself in the first half. But it felt like in the second half, which is set in Chennai, the city took a backseat. Do you agree with the observation and if so, was that a conscious decision?
I think the Delhi college setting is something that is very easily relatable, and college experiences themselves are very easy to relate in a sense. And the setting that we lived in Delhi around our college, which was also this college area in the sense that the south campuses of Delhi University were over there, AIIMS was there, NIFT was there… So, it was a very familiar sort of a setting that a huge group of us were going through. It came out very organically.
In terms of Chennai, I did set a lot of things that were very typical of Chennai, but then at the same time storywise, the character and the character’s thoughts start becoming a lot more inward-looking.
Also, this is the second time around where the focus is on the romance a lot more. The two protagonists are trying to create this bubble for themselves, which shields them from the outside world completely. So, in that sense, Chennai does take a backseat in the story itself, because even as they are exploring the city, they are trying to create this bubble where the city or their lives in that city don’t affect them in any way.
Towards the end of the book, there was a passage that caught my attention as Alice comes of age: “Maybe this acceptance was adulthood: understanding that things won’t be as you think as they should; and exploiting the way things are for personal profit.” In a way, it also captured the sense of how Alice seems to have moved forward & yet was stuck at the same time—which is true even for the character of Javed (reference to the character of Snigdha observing Javed as being Alice’s split personality or superego). Your thoughts?
I personally chose to write in the slacker genre for this specific reason. I think the kind of hyper-reality that the slacker genre allows you to create is that typically in stories, you have arcs and characters have arcs. But in the slacker genre, the arc is almost cyclical: you sort of come back to where you started from.
And that to me is very close to real life because I do feel that even in real life, there are several milestones which gives you some kind of an illusion of progress. But then, you kind of realise that the more you move forward, the more you are in the same place.
I think this is a mood-setting sort of a thing. I just wanted the mood across the entire book to be this, where you see a series of milestones that don’t actually make a difference to the character’s internal personal arc at all.
You have mentioned both Dostoevsky and the works of Upamanyu Chatterjee. Apart from them, who are your literary influences?
I think I’m very strongly influenced by Upamanyu Chatterjee. I’ve read all of his books multiple times and really savour them for the writing.
Also, there’s a writer called Kuzhali Manickavel, who has written a couple of books. I don’t see a lot of books by her, but she’s one of my favourite authors. What I really like, which probably I used very minimally in this book, but these just gentle moments of magic in the ordinary, which she captures very, very beautifully. And her stories are extremely rooted. I tried to imbibe a few of those things.
You spoke of a graphic novel earlier. What are you working on next?
Interestingly, I am toying with the idea of doing a sequel to this book, because I do think I have a lot more to say in the story, or so I have realised in the recent past. And apart from that, I’m working on my graphic novel, which is something that keeps going on. I am also working on a screenplay for a Web series.