When my son came home on a holiday about six months back, he left behind his copy of ‘Keep off the Grass’ by Karan Bajaj. I promptly picked it up and kept it safe in my bookshelf with absolutely no intention of reading it, dismissing it as a clone of Chetan Bhagat’s ‘Five Point Someone’, an IIM version of the IIT experience described in the latter. Not that I did not like ‘Five Point Someone’. I just thought ‘Keep off the Grass’ must yet be another campus book. (Like chicklit, is campuslit a genre yet?)
Having read it now, I realize that nothing could have been farther from the truth.
The other day I undertook a train journey and took that paperback along. I found it engaging reading and laced with great humour.
It is about Samrat Ratan, a Yale valedictorian (That word was new to me, though I did know the words ‘valediction’ and ‘valedictory’) and a hotshot investment banker earning half a million in Wall Street, fed up with the money hungry, power hungry environment. It is not in his scheme of things to ‘bust your ass off become a millionaire by thirty’. He decides to quit and find solace from his restless and unsatisfactory life. Yearning for some soul searching, he decides to visit India where he hopes to return to his ‘roots’ and find the answers to his questions. The route he takes is rather unusual – he enrolls himself for his PGDBM at IIM Bangalore.
The book is seriously funny, if you get what I mean. Once the first semester begins, the protagonist realizes that the competitive atmosphere in Wall Street continues to chase him in the IIM. He cannot cope with the assignments and the uncountable quizzes. He develops addiction to marijuana (grass) and this tells on his academic accomplishments. His self-esteem and self-confidence plummet. He hates the mess that he has got himself into and begins to question his decision to come to India, and wonders whether his search will yield him any fruit at all.
Comparisons with ‘Five Point Someone’ are inescapable. In ‘Keep off the Grass’ too, the hero has two classmates (Vinod Singh who is a Kargil warrior and Shine Sarkar who is an IITian) as his partners in all he does. All three share a contempt for the inhuman nature of the rat-race, and often feel alienated in it. The book raises some basic questions which haunt us every day.
Samrat is on a search, but he doesn’t quite know what he is looking for. His quirky quest for self-discovery takes him on a rickety, potholed ride through Bangalore, Jaisalmer, Dharamshala and Benares. The roller-coaster takes him to places, plights and people he had not prepared himself for. Like a night in the prison, for example or getting inducted to Vipassana meditation, having sex with a Danish hippie in the Himalayas, hanging out with a cannibal on the banks of the Ganga, and peddling soap to the formidable Raja Bhaiya in Benares.
What I liked most about the book is the odd one-liner Bajaj throws in: questioning the government’s ban of narcotics, Sarkar observes, ‘It's like me wanting to make potatoes illegal because I don't like their taste’. When asked ‘Any questions?’ at the end of a talk, Samrat wants to ask, ‘Yes, I have one question, can you please tell me where I can score some marijuana in Mumbai?’ And another is the way the chapters conclude. Words from the last sentence of each chapter form the title of the next – it is a continuum.
I did not quite care for the liberal dose of philosophy, though indulging in which, I thought was not consistent with the protagonist’s age (just as not liking it does not quite suit mine!)
I would not say this is a masterpiece but it is definitely worth a read. If you are a twenty-something like my son, you will realize that the questions which come to you at this age frequently (What do i want to do in life? Is this the right thing to do? Why should I do it? And many others) occur to everyone. If you are a sixty-something like me, it will give you a keener insight into the minds of your kids and you will realize why they do what they do. In either case, it tugs at a personal chord.
One reason I liked ‘Keep off the Grass’ must be that Karan Bajaj acts as my spokesman. For, as he makes Vinod say, ‘Books give you a funny kind of solace, that you are not alone, and someone, somewhere thinks exactly like you, and articulates it better.’ Read it with an open mind, you will definitely enjoy it.