Dhiraj Singh is the Director at MIT – World Peace University’s School of Media and Journalism and the ‘Idea Lab’ which serves as a unique hub of communication innovation and design. For his outstanding contribution to Journalism and Nation Building, he has been awarded the ‘Man of Excellence Award-2021-22’ by INDIA ACHIEVER’S FORUM.
In his most recent avatar, Dhiraj is the author of the book, Master O, which brilliantly imagines the future where the rule of men is overthrown by a species of mutant elephants who can change physical reality.
With vast experience across different platforms which include Branding, Film, TV, Digital, and Print, especially in the spheres of strategic media and communication, the author also has a high level of expertise in digital communication and in the formulation of strategies for different target groups including institutions, advocacy groups, legislative and policy think-tanks. He also specializes in finding and delivering innovative, creative, and fresh modes of outreach.
Dhiraj is also a documentary filmmaker who has created and presented a series on the amazing and colourful fairs of India. In his previous stint, he had functioned as the co-founder of Hunar TV, which was an arts & culture web channel that aimed to make the arts (all arts—including visual arts, music, dance, film, performance art, food & more) the talking-point of a wider audience.
He also has an arts column called #ArtIsEverywhere with NDTV-Mojarto. He has authored two other books—one on translated poetry and the other a biography. His book of translated poems by Jnanpith awardee Saumitra Saxena is called ‘I Like To Wash My Face With Seawater’. The book is called ‘A Life in Two Lanes’ and it is a biography of Uma Jain, the first woman art gallerist in India and also one of the first woman Supreme Court lawyers of India.
His early years were spent in print journalism during which he worked with some of India’s best & leading publications such as OUTLOOK magazine, HINDUSTAN TIMES, TIMES OF INDIA & ASIAN AGE. This has given him a lot of journalistic rigour and an in-depth understanding of issues, working with some of India’s legendary editors such as Vinod Mehta, M.J. Akbar, and Vir Sanghvi.
Dhiraj is extremely well-versed in Hindi and English and can anchor, write and produce in both languages. He has also translated works of eminent writers such as Premchand, Nirmal Verma, Bhisham Sahni, Ajeet Cour, and Asghar Wajahat among others into English. He is a published novelist and short-story writer (in English).
We at bookGeeks got a lucky chance to have a tete-e-tete with the author. Here is what he has to say about his book, his love for writing, and his work in general.
|Tell us something about yourself. Who is Dhiraj? What are his likes and dislikes?
|I would say I have planted bits of me in the characters in MASTER O, my novel. So as a person I love the idea of justice and how it has a way of manifesting in our everyday, mundane lives.
Sometimes we don’t understand the full import of what wrong is being done (by others and by us) and that in a way is the beauty of living. Different cultures and civilizations have had different ideas of justice but I think there is a golden mean aggregating from them all—from the Vedic to the Greek to the Babylonian to the Hebraic to the Chinese to the meso-American and the Aborigine—that there is a certain returnability to your actions, both good and bad, right and wrong. I’d also say I like the idea of evolution; how things unfold and how the process of unfolding is ultimately in no one’s hands no matter what we tell ourselves about being in control and being in the driver’s seat.
My earliest childhood memories are of seeing people with absolutely no control over their lives and sometimes even their bodily functions because I grew up next to a psychiatric hospital where my mother was working.
I think it was that experience that gave me this capacity to imagine scenarios (some of which are in the book) where the very thing that gives us power and autonomy—that is our mind and our thoughts—is no more in our hands. It is a staggering realization that many characters in the book get at different points in their lives.
|Take us through your work in the professional sphere. What do you do and has it ever inspired your writing?
|I have been writing since I was in school which is why I chose a profession where I’d be writing all the time—not always the kind of writing that I wanted to do but writing nonetheless.
I began as a print journalist, worked with some of the best publications such as the Times of India, Hindustan Times, Outlook etc. Then I went to TV and progressed to heading the first Parliament channel, Lok Sabha Television, where I made several documentaries and interviewed over 200 Members of Parliament.
Somewhere along that road I also began to paint and make X-ray installations that showed at some of the most prestigious venues like the India Art Fair and the Venice Architecture Biennale. Then I was co-founder of an online arts and culture channel called Hunar TV.
Most recently I am Director of School of Media & Communication at a university in Pune where I get to share my vast and varied experience with young minds so that they are inspired.
To answer the second part of your question: Yes, my writing has always been inspired by people, people whom I have interviewed, people who became my friends, also people who chose to become my enemies (laughs). I have been especially fascinated with people whose choices do not follow any logical, or at least a perceptibly logical pattern. Such people confound, baffle, surprise and fascinate me.
|Tell us about your latest book Master O? What can the readers expect from it and who would the book most appeal to?
|MASTER O is a book that takes you to places that are hidden in plain sight. It makes you hear the cries of the wronged but not in the way that the current media eco-system would make it available to you.
As a book, Master O is both intuitive and counter-intuitive and that comes from a much deeper place, a place of less judgement and more understanding. I think the best way to read Master O is to live with the buzz that it leaves you with which is I would think the same kind of buzz you are left with when you hear great music. There is a kind of hummable quality to it.
So, in that sense Master O is like a ‘mind hum’ which is what many reviewers have also said about the book—that it stays with you long after you’ve finished it.
|What is the scheme of ideas that you had behind the naming of this book?
|Since Master O is a pivotal character in the book I was absolutely sure that the book would be named after him but the character’s name itself went through a chain of rethinks.
I began with ‘Babaji’ because I wanted to contextualize him to Subcontinent because we have a long tradition of babas but it didn’t quite fit in to the futuristic feel of the book. Then I went for a more contemporary name which was ‘Mister Huhi’ which was meant be spoken as ‘who he?’—an allusion to his fuzzy antecedents that no one knows about or even cares to know about.
Finally, with some chiseling and hammering I arrived at Master O because it conveys most things I want the reader to know about him which is a mix of authority and vulnerability.
|Tell us a bit about your thoughts in terms of the characterisation in the book.
|A lot of the book’s secondary characters emerged from the situations that Master O was entering and leaving but the main characters I had really spent a lot of time building. Not to say I wasn’t thrown completely off-guard by the way my characters behaved.
There were moments of amazing epiphany where characters were developing their own logic and justification for things that they were doing or wanted to do and my role in such situations was merely that of a light-boy on a film-set in the sense I had to make sure whatever it was that the characters wanted to do had enough light and luminance for people to see and feel it.
|Do you think that the plot twists are crucial in a work of suspense-filled thriller?
|I guess they are, to be qualified as a thriller. The unexpected has to happen and has to happen to people at unexpected moments. In Master O’s case however, I was constantly battling with the willfulness of the characters who sometimes didn’t want to be in places I was taking them to.
For example, for Ake’s confession on TV I had intended him to talk about how someone was sent to jail because of a story he had done and in the back of his mind he felt guilty about it but Ake totally rebelled against that. He sort of challenged me to rewrite the entire confession and its later ramifications which became a story in itself. It was something I had not imagined earlier.
So I guess sometimes your characters challenge you to give them a better voice and a better twist.
|Are you a spontaneous writer or a disciplined one? Do you often write daily?
|I am totally a binge writer. I can write like a maniac for hours on end and then not even open my laptop for days because am just not feeling it. So discipline really doesn’t work for me. Inspiration does. Enormously.
I have sat down and written after long hours of grueling, physical work—the kind all of us were forced to do in the pandemic because there was no help at home—and I have not written a word on days where everything was served to me on a platter.
|What are your other interests apart from writing?
|I like to take photographs and I like to cook with my own peculiar flavor-twists like ‘mattar-paneer ravioli’ and Korean gamjajeon with Indian chutney. I do some acting and modelling on the side, it’s a great way of getting under the skin of different characters… when you’re saying the lines you’re also subtly feeling them and conveying the emotions the character is feeling. Even though I am not a trained actor I do enjoy the process of understanding, what it means to be someone else.
|If you had all the money in the world what would you do?
|I would start a space travel company because I think not many people have the perspective to grasp the preciousness of our planet. So taking them into space and then making them look back would in a way give them that… besides of course the thrill of taking off on a rocket (laughs).
|One quote that never fails to inspire you.
|Neti, neti. Not this, not that… the ancient Indian idea of finding your true purpose by a process of negation. It is very deep when you understand its true meaning.
|Any future projects that you are currently working on?
|Some people have asked me for a sequel to Master O so I am on it, in my mind for now.
The author can be reached on his social media platforms.