Pursuit of Happiness

Quill to parchment

General Mills India MD, Mainak Dhar on how he balances work and his passion for writing 

Soumik Kar

There’s a Stephen King short story collection right at the bottom, upon which rests a paperback copy of Twelve Red Herrings by Jeffrey Archer. Over a dozen hardbound thrillers, sits a mighty-old olive green edition of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. That’s just one side of the bookshelf in the massive room that houses over a 100 other copies across the horror, thriller and fantasy genres. Bob Woodward’s Bush At War and a couple of other non-fiction titles are the only oddballs.

On the coffee table, too, there is a tall pile of books, authored by just one person. Horror and thriller are the dominant themes across the 17 titles, which also includes editions in four foreign languages. How does someone whose day job involves running a company find the time to pen down so many titles? “If you wish to sustain any hobby for a long term, then it’s all about making deliberate choices. For example, when I’m on a flight, I could watch a movie, but I choose to finish my writing instead”, shares Mainak Dhar, managing director, General Mills India.

For the 42-year-old IIM-Ahmedabad alumnus, writing began as a hobby. But the urge to become a published writer was so strong that Dhar came up with an innovative idea. “I solved the math textbook for the next term, created several copies of it, stapled a few of my poems and sold it to 25 of my classmates.” The exercise got him $12 in the seventh grade itself.  Then in 1992, in his first year as an Economics student at the Hindu College, Dhar co-authored his first book - Economic History of India.

Since then, he has added to his list. Dhar’s popular horror series Alice In Deadland has sold 250,000 copies across mediums so far. The television rights for the trilogy have also been picked up by a production house in the US. One of Dhar’s earlier fiction stories Herogiri, about a common man, who discovers that he has supernatural powers, is being made into a feature film by the Anil Kapoor Film Company.  

The most recurring themes in Dhar’s work are horror and thrillers. But, the writer says, that’s not always intentional. “Horror helps me provide a certain context. When you want to elicit extreme reactions from people, you deploy horror. In my case, it’s not necessarily the horror that involves supernatural elements”.

This is similar to the narrative of American author Stephen King, who Dhar admits is his favourite novelist. While King is known to use supernatural horror as a mainstay for his stories, the emphasis is always on the reactions of the characters to the extreme situations. Dhar also seeks to pursue the same style in his stories. Besides, he likes to use influences from his own life to pen character profiles and the setting. His book Brand Shastra and thethriller 03:02 are set in the neighbourhood of Powai in Mumbai, where he resides. “The other theme that I pursue in my non-fiction works like The Cubicle Manifesto and Brand Management 101 is how one can apply concepts used at work in their personal lives,” he adds.

But the importance of horror and King in his life can’t be underplayed. Dhar says it was King’s words - “The day somebody pays you a cent for your writing, you have become a published author” – that drove his seventh-grade manoeuvre. He also credits his publishing foray to his mother, who accompanied him to publisher’s offices and book stores.

How does he balance the two facets of his life? Dhar credits it to the discipline learnt at work. He uses a one-hour early morning run to ideate and sets aside 30 minutes each day to write, diligently noting the daily word count. The executive also prefers to pen down character sketches and narratives in a bound diary, the old-fashioned way, before switching to the Macbook Air.

But does he want to become a full-time writer soon? “Currently, I’m content with the way things are. Coming up with stories and character traits makes one think differently, that comes in handy at work. And, work gives me a chance to meet many people, which helps me pen better character sketches,” he says, explaining how the sides of his life contribute to each other.

His advice for budding writers: “Write about what matters to you, that way it will be more authentic and fulfilling.”