Exclusive interview: The Angel’s Share – the debut novel written by NLSIU Bangalore 2008 graduate and former Amarchand Mangaldas associate Satyajit Sarna - hit bookstores on Friday.
“I know that for me exorcism, or cleaning yourself out, or coming to terms with things, is by writing about them”, says Sarna. “At some point it just built up and I thought to myself: There’s a story here and someone needs to tell it. And I thought, I should tell this story.”
But more than narrating a plot, Sarna says, he really attempted to “tell a philosophical story like a journey”.
Novel of ideas
He first started writing The Angel’s Share fresh out of law school as a first year associate in the capital markets team of S&R Associates.
The story is told from the perspective of Zorawar Chauhan, a junior associate at a top-tier law firm, mostly looking back at his days at NLSIU Bangalore, but occasionally drifting to the present to narrate his life at the law firm as a highly paid junior associate.
Without revealing too much, the book begins with and is framed by the death of Chauhan’s close law school friend, with some parallels to real world law school history.
After much prodding, he calls the book an “elegy” and a “novel of ideas” - a “fairly forgotten” genre he says. “Celebrity and fame – that’s actually at the heart of the book. That is the philosophical message. What if you were to die tomorrow? Do you like what you’re doing? Are you happy?” he explains.
Sarna explores ideas around the central theme that “life only begins when you realise it means something”. Each chapter ends with an epiphany, which emanates from episodes ranging from dope-smoking parties at law school, to delving into the intricacies of human relationships.
Ask him how many of these ideas are riffs off true stories, and he offers: “I have to say that all of this could’ve happened, not all of it did. I’m sure that if you were there at the time you’d see some kind of connection.”
There are also others who’d see a real-life parallel in the law firm partners, senior associates, law firms, and law school administration whom Sarna has turned into subjects of his wit.
Sarna examines the culture of cold competition and non-existent work-life balance stereotypical of India’s biggest corporate law firms. He also links this to a similar habitat in law school, which seemingly inures the flock of future graduates that join the milieu with unquestioning gratitude.
And as chapters unfold, law firm partners or senior associates, might well see the commentary as going from cavalier to contemptuous. Was that a considered risk for him?
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“I trust the fact that fiction, in a way, is a way of putting on a mask and being honest. I think I’ve been fairly honest and if law firms can look at themselves and say – no we’re not like this, it is very good for them.
“But I venture to say that a lot of law firms will look at this and say, wow, we think we may have that problem. And if even one law school can look at it and say that none of this ever happens, then that would be just untrue.”
“If it does hit hard, if it does say unpleasant things, I think the reason it does is, because it’s true!”
Music and lyrics
Sarna finds his own pleasant medium to couch the “unpleasant things” he speaks of. The 2009 album First Days of Spring, by English band Noah and the Whale, is the sub-title of chapter 16 which narrates arguably the most acidic realities of law firm existence. Each of the other 27 chapters has its own album-band-and-year subtitle.
“Music is something which I’ve always been deeply into, though horribly untalented at,” he confesses adding, “music influences writing hugely. For example, there’s a lot of writing that comes out of impressionistic work like jazz.”
Sarna also enjoys writing poetry, and while his columns and book reviews have been published before, he is sitting on a collection of unpublished poems by him which, he asserts, lie wasted thanks to the modest market for poetry.
Unpublished poetry has a way of manifesting itself in his prose though, as is evident from his love for long sentences. “What long sentences allow is a sort of musicality, lyricism. I think I have a bad habit of using very long sentences that I enjoy.”
“Sometimes I think when you have a sentence with little clauses, you get this rush; it tastes like a nice cocktail,” adds the lawyer, then laughs. “You can also make awful cocktails.”
A giant cocktail is what life looks like for Sarna currently. He is trekking the Himachal, partly researching for his next piece of, what he calls, “fantasy writing”, and partly to take a break from writing itself, gearing up to return to law practice.
After leaving behind his position at S&R Associates in October 2009 when he realised he was not suited to transactional work, Sarna joined senior advocate Neeraj Kaul in the Delhi High court in January 2010, and assisted him until April 2011.
For a year until May 2012 he was part of the litigation practice at Amarchand Delhi, and now he plans to join a drafting counsel and continue the litigation path.
“What I like about litigation is having to think on your feet and being creative in court. And it is also a social thing. You meet a lot of your fellow professionals, a lot of your clients; it is not about sitting in office and the same five people come to your desk.”
Wanderlust and gold dust
The big-moneyed lifestyle of the corporate law firm, and the compelling fear not to let it slip away despite unhappiness, consumed a fair share of words in The Angel’s Share.
What battles did Sarna wage to make the jump from an S&R package to distributing his time between writing, travelling, and a brush with the art of court practice instead?
“Ever since my first year as an associate I have just been earning lesser and lesser, but I have never been happier. But there are things you love doing which require money. It cuts both ways, so severely.”
Eventually he offers an easy explanation. A racing bicycle he covets would have been an easy buy for him on an S&R salary, yet working six-and-a-half days a week he wouldn’t have found the time to jump on the seat and pedal.
“You have to find your medium. I’d be happy taking a lot less money and having the flexibility to cycle when I want to.”