My Life With Books: Avik Chattopadhyay

Gurgaon-based Avik is a senior automotive industry professional who’s worked with Maruti Suzuki, Apollo Tyres, PSA Peugeot Citroën and Volkswagen among others. In recent years, he’s struck out in new directions and is co-founder at Expereal India and Emote AI. Avik has an eclectic range of interests and enjoys reading across diverse genres. His favourite quote comes from Lord Tennyson’s much-admired poem, Ulysses; ‘One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’ We talk to Avik about his favourite books, authors and bookshops.

What are you currently reading? What are the three most remarkable, memorable books you’ve read in recent years?

I have just finished reading Why I am an atheist and Other Writings by Bhagat Singh. Riveting. Refreshing. I keep reading Tagore’s Nationalism once every year, so it always features in ‘the list’ if I ever have any. The two other books I would love to go back to once again are Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter and The Rebel by Albert Camus. It is funny that I ended up reading Camus after so long, but everything good in life has its right time! 

Did you read a lot when you were in school and college? How have your reading preferences evolved in the last 20-25 years?

I have been brought up with books all around me. Being a single child of parents who have majored in literature does have its benefits. So, even if I end up reading every book that we have at home, I shall live long!

I have always been fascinated with history and the entire literary ecosystem around it – biographies, encyclopaedias etc. Could never take to fiction, which is my shortcoming. My mother bought me books like World of History when I was in class 3, so they have been my companions since then. I preserve them even now. I would spend my time with Amar Chitra Kathas, Tell Me Hows and the like in school. The turning point was when I read Churchill’s The Second World War in class 11. Mind bending, truly. 

The genre of books remained more or less the same through college, business school and even now. The coverage within the genre has increased for sure but I still divide time amongst historical works, comics and encyclopaedias. Also that a significant part of the reading has moved from physical to digital as a medium. Otherwise, give me an Asterix even today and I am a happy person!

You have worked in the automotive industry for more than two decades. Do you read a fair number of automotive-related books? Any particular favourites in this area?

Have read more books on design and engineering than business and marketing. I have picked up books not led by the name of the writer but by the subject. No particular favourites here. There are publishers who specialise in automotive books and they are of interest to me. Quite frankly, I abhor business books. They are too preachy and cocky. There are exceptions like Good to Great by Jim Collins. Otherwise most of them are either self-laudatory or presumptive. 

Who are your favourite authors? Any favourite Indian authors?

As I read more of history and non-fiction, evaluation and ranking is out of the question. However Amitav Ghosh fascinates me by the way he weaves fiction and fact into compelling narratives. C. Rajagolapachari’s Mahabharata is a landmark. R.K. Narayan is comforting. Tagore is sublime, though I have read him in English which will be an inefficient translation of the original Bengali. Premchand is brilliant and uncelebrated. Faiz and Jaun Eliya charge you up into rebellion. Marx is disturbing. Manto is equally disturbing. Professor Amartya Sen is disarmingly candid. Piketty is hugely insightful. There are many who have moulded my thinking, comprehension and questioning but none can really be a ‘favourite.’ That would show disrespect to the others. And yes, there are Isaac Deutscher and Lawrence Rees, two amazing storytellers.

In the genre of comics, Goscinny and Uderzo are unparalleled. Again, the seamless blending of history and fiction is what fascinates me. The little fiction I read, apart from Tagore and Manto, is made up mostly of Feluda, Byomkesh Bakshi and Poirot. Keeps the little grey cells gainfully occupied, n’est ce pas?

You’re deeply interested in the life and times of the great Indian nationalist, Subhas Chandra Bose. Did you, by any chance, happen to read the recently-launched Bose: The Untold Story of an Inconvenient Nationalist, written by Chandrachur Ghose?

Bose is fascinating, as a concept and not as a controversy. Sadly, most of us enjoy the latter. I have heard that Chandrachur’s book is very good, though I have yet to read it. The years he has spent in single-mindedly researching Bose is laudable. Have read the books on Bose by Saugata Bose and Mihir Bose. Interesting narratives and perspectives, which is what makes Bose so fascinating.

I find the Azad Hind phase of Bose’s life more fascinating as it is a heady mix of ethos, administration, ambition, social vision and military action. Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind was not just an army, it was the envisioning of New India, based on the principles of Ittehad, Itmad and Qurbani [Unity, Faith and Sacrifice]. 

Most writings bother with the controversy of Bose’s disappearance and the details of his documents and factoids. Someone needs to bring the spirit of Azad Hind alive! 

Do you do most of your book buying online or do you enjoy going to bookshops?

I believe in going to the bookstore, looking around, rummaging and then deciding what to own. Every trip need not end in a purchase but each helps me know more. In Gurgaon, Om Books is a good place. They do not bother you with repeated ‘What can I do for you Sir?’ Bahri Sons in Delhi is an institution. Sadly, Crossword closed down. Airports are good places too with the likes of WH Smith.

Books will continue to be a hybrid ecosystem with the physical and digital co-existing. In fact, they need to collaborate more to expand the base of book readers. The rise of platforms like Notion Press is a very good development as it sort of democratises book publishing. That will certainly bring books back into the radar in a big way. It encourages all to write and express themselves in a convenient manner. One does not have to depend on the whims of uppity publishers who favour only ‘saleable’ names. 

Ever tried reading eBooks and devices like the Kindle? What’s your take on these?

I have tried a friend’s Kindle once. Could not handle it too well. Maybe I needed to spend more time with it, understand its capabilities and then use its potential better. My friend cannot read books otherwise, and he is my age! Personally I still love the rustle of the paper, the smell of the book, the fact that I can pick it up and close it wherever I wish to and also that I can refer to other pages and pictures just with a flip of the hand.

E-readers allow you to store unending books in one device. That is the biggest positive. But they take away the sheer sensory beauty of placing a book on the bookshelf, dusting the cover, admiring the coffee table pictures and many more. The Kindle and the physical book will co-exist. One might have 1,000 books in the device but choose to buy physical versions of the book reader’s favourites.

You have worked with various Indian, Japanese and European carmakers for more than two decades. Surely, you have a bunch of interesting stories to tell? Any thoughts on writing a book about your 20+ years of experience of working in the automotive industry?   

Currently I am putting together a compilation of 52 articles I have curated from the 150 odd I have written on various subjects across various platforms during the Covid pandemic. I have called it 52@52. It should be out by early January 2023. A pending project is a book on the launch of the Maruti Suzuki Swift, with Penguin. My sheer laziness has seen it delayed by more than a year now. But I shall ensure it is ready by 25th May, the birthday of the Swift. 

Really have no interest in writing about my experience as I might unconsciously fall into the trap of preaching and patting myself. Better to explore other things in life to write on. Who knows, I might finally end up writing some fiction!

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