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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sunil K. Poolani, Rest in Peace - an Obituary

I knew Sunil K. Poolani. He was a friend who had turned, sort of, adversary, due to circumstances beyond my control. It was sad to learn from Facebook that he was no more. So this is a sort of obituary as I didn't have any ill will towards him, no major ones. I wished him well, though from what I know of his life he led a stormy life. He would openly submit to dislike and be disliked by people. He once said, to effect, "I either love a person or hate him/her, no in between." I guess I was first the former and then the latter. I am the sort who wouldn't wish death on my worst enemy. I liked him for what he was: creative, hard working, a bit of a bad boy in his personal life. I liked his rebelliousness which reflected in his dealings with people and his writings. If a book is shit, he would call it shit, and would not find a way to nomenclature shit as "a lump of brown solid emitting a strong smell." That was it.

It all started when Sunil and I became members of a group called "Quill Writers," back in the nineties. It was started by writer Somi Ghosh and had as members: Sunil Nair, Merril Diniz, Sunil Poolani and self, among others. Of course, Somi Ghosh was sort of moderator and creator. We met a few times and kept in touch through a common mailing group. The group died a natural death when people moved and became interested in other things. It was then Sunil wrote a sort of pamphlet called, "The Rape of News," which was about the selling of space for news by newspapers. I contributed an article in this publication. The book was an immense success and sold in tens of thousands.
Sunil Poolani, rebel, writer, vanity publisher , he wanted to create history in the Indian publishing industry. But the end  was indeed sad. His addictions put paid to his dreams.

Sunil offered me a job in the online news channel he was working for. I accepted. He was my boss, sort of. We worked together and drank together, in those days when I still drank. (Nowadays I don't.) Later I realised he had a drinking problem. As our friendship blossomed, we shared a lot of information about each other and about our writing. He told me the story of his life. He was involved in the Naxal movement in Kerala, and did his masters in Malayalam literature. He had participated in bandhs and public demonstrations. (One of the writers he had to study in his masters program was my great-uncle and poet Mahakavi Puthencavu Mathan Tharakan.)

I showed him a few of my short stories and poems and told him about my novel, "The Love Song of Luke Varkey," which I was writing then. He was not satisfied with them and frankly told me about my drawbacks as a writer. I accepted it as constructive criticism, which was okay by me. As such, I was in a stage when any feedback was welcome and I was eager to improve and make progress. I had neglected my writing for some time and, I feel, I had regressed in whatever little talent I had nurtured.

It was then that he started his own publishing company – Frog Books. I happily bought his books and attended the launches, but felt that somehow vanity publishing didn't become him. It didn't have a future as the publisher would bring out a book and then would forget about it. I told him he should have struck out as an independent publisher who didn't charge his authors. Some of his authors showed their dissatisfaction and he was upset. I thought that profits can be made even if a publisher didn't charge his authors. I was, quite selfishly, I guess, trying to get him interested in my novel. Also since he was against paid news in newspapers, I didn't understand why he would want to charge his authors for publishing their books. Both smacked to me of a lack of ethics.

Then I wrote a feature for the online channel prior to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). I felt that consensus on global warming had to be reached immediately to stop the inexorable march of global warming. Therefore I wrote a detailed article intending it to be published. My intention was to deal with it in several inter-linked articles within the feature as the internet didn't have the constraint of space. However, to my chagrin, Sunil refused to publish my article. I don't know what had gone wrong in our relationship. (In the close-knit world of Indian publishing, many a times, personal relationships override professional relationships.) I made several changes to the article as suggested by him, but he still adamantly refused to publish my article. I resigned in frustration.
After we parted ways, I used to keep in touch with him through Facebook and emails. I attended some of his book launches and bought his books. I felt, quite frankly, that they had low production values – cheap paper, dense text, bad covers – though the editing was of a high quality and order.

Then there came a measure of success in his business. He had rented an office and also had bought a flat, so I heard. He had also got divorced. It was then I tasted the bitterness of rejection as my novel "The Love Song of Luke Varkey" was rejected by all agents and publishers I had approached. Harper Collins which had shown interest also didn't respond after one year.

The distance grew. I used to see pictures of him on Facebook in which he would appear as an aloof individual. I didn't know the reasons. But I learnt from common friends that the drinking problem had got worse. Then came the news that he had suffered a heart attack. He died in his sleep, his brother was with him, so it appeared. No obituary appeared, the press for which he worked didn't report his death; nobody reacted except stray people on Facebook showing shock at the sudden demise of someone they knew.

As a writer and editor he was meticulous and dedicated. He had a racy and conversational style. He shared a lasting relationship with the late Malayalam writer and cartoonist O.V.Vijayan when he lived in Delhi. They would meet often. After Vijayan's death he wrote a touching obituary, something which I am aiming – rather ambitiously – with this. He hasn't left behind a big oeuvre of work except for the books he edited for Frog Books. Samples of his writing appear on his company blog: Frog Books. He had shown me a short story, a rather gruesome one, which he said was from an actual event in his life. I don't wish to reveal the contents, which could paint an adverse picture of him. He lived such a life, unpredictable, unrepentant, on the edge of social acceptability and propriety.

He was an atheist and a staunch leftist. He was very strong in his convictions and I found his strong opinions rather scary sometimes. For all the times we spent together, for the many occasions we drank together, for the vibes we shared during our working together, I would remember him as one who wouldn't compromise much on his set beliefs. Such people live very lonely lives. Many were the friendships he broke, unable to bring himself to be nice and non-committal when he didn't agree with something. In his book reviews he didn't hesitate to be nasty to writers if he didn't like their style. Perhaps, in these standardized times, when we seek to build a forced sort of consensus, or else, skirt issues when we do not agree with it, he – in fact people like him – are rare.

Though he didn't believe in an afterlife, may Sunil K. Poolani rest in peace!


Kannan Gopinathan said...

A free and frank piece of writing from someone who seems to have known him too close! .....Kannan G

John P Matthew said...

Kannan, thanks for your comment. Yes I knew him closely.

John P Matthew said...

Kannan, thanks for reading and commenting, http://johnpmathew.blogspot.com/2011/06/sunil-k-poolani-rest-in-peace-obituary.html#disqus_thread

Rechana said...

A really genuine attempt to pay tribute to someone who lived like he didn't really want any (tributes); who lived lonely and lost to the world, but for facebook. 

John P Matthew said...

Rechana, yes, seems like that. He was very active on Facebook as can be seen
from his page. Thanks for commenting.

Mathew Panamkat said...

I had a brief encounter with him through emails. He was engaged in editing  my historical fiction, "The MeluhanTablet: Code nine" when he passed away. I was desperate, for my brief encounter with him was a happy and joyous one. He had struck me as and intellectual giant and humane at the same time. May he rest in peace!

John P Matthew said...

Hi Panamkat,

Though I had my differences with him (obvious from the text of the
obituary), I liked him for his pioneering spirit, his writing, and his
independent views on most issues. He set up a publishing organisation
believing he could make a success out of it.


Sapna Anu B.George said...

John, i never  knew much about him , but he was almost  going to do my poetry book , now  all cancelled. Never knew  this  depressing  side of him and yes he was  depressed and moody , never  knew  why. God  rest his soul.

John P Matthew said...

Sapna, I know he was a complicated personality. May his soul rest in peace.