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Tuesday December 4, 2012

Book review: Auditor to author, from fact to fiction

Scratching an itch: E.S. Shankar felt compelled to write Tiger Isle, a novel that takes a satirical look at human greed and its consequences. Scratching an itch: E.S. Shankar felt compelled to write Tiger Isle, a novel that takes a satirical look at human greed and its consequences.

Auditors and authors don’t seem to have much in common, do they? Ah, but there is always an exception to every stereotype.

THEY SAY our experiences shape us – for Hemingway it was war, and for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey, it was his experience acting as an unwitting LSD guinea pig for the CIA in America.

But if the themes that emerged from these conditions were, respectively, love, war, wilderness and loss; and madness, manipulation, freedom and confinement, then what comes of two decades working as an auditor in Malaysia?

Meet E.S. Shankar.

Retired in 2010, his career of embroilment-in-numbers spans 22 years as a senior manager, executive director and consultant, in both private and publicly listed companies in Malaysia.

And as is evident in the debut release of his thriller-science fiction-satire, Tiger Isle, Shankar is drawn to themes of greed, control, corruption and the inevitable rise of the underdog.

His personal aspirations for society seem to be reflected in the central theme of his new book, where, whether through individual self-empowerment or a man’s subjection to external forces, when systems go out-of-whack, nature will correct itself.

His interest in literature began at an early age. The 59-year-old Shankar hails from an era when literature was taken as a compulsory subject in the post-colonial remnants of an English school system – Shakespeare, Camara Laye, Gerald Durrell are names he mentions. “With that kind of education system, something had to rub off on you about reading,” he laughs.

Over coffee recently, we talk about his itch to write and where it has taken him.

“It started in the 1990s, I would go back to the Asian financial crisis of 1997/98, when (then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr) Mahathir (Mohamad) sacked his deputy prime minister (Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim), that got me to thinking that I need to take a closer look at what was happening in the country and the region.”

Shankar was never active in politics, never the member of any party, but was by nature politically minded.

“My thoughts and feelings about events around us began festering, but at the time, the only outlets for such things were (online news portal) Malaysiakini. You couldn’t write about your political opinions to any of the newspapers, it would never get published.”

Not long afterwards, Shankar felt himself pulled by the heady tide of unsolicited discourse when the Internet began unleashing a generation of influential bloggers; a pioneering source of inspiration for Shankar was the no-holds-barred exposes of people like Raja Petra Kamarudin, aka “RPK”.

In 2006, Shankar started off by writing articles, commentaries on society and politics, and satirical pieces reflective of the times, albeit not for publication. However, “I always knew I was writing them for someone, and that one day I would want them to be read, or published,” Shankar says. Finally, in 2007, when he got the hang of the Internet, he started posting his work on his blog, donplaypuks.blogspot.com.

But the postings were not enough to satisfy the writing bug, and so he dove head first into his first novel despite the fact that his only prior writing experience was as editor of his school paper when he was at the Victoria Institute, and what he calls “fancy auditing reports”.

He finished it, a 500-page historico-fictional epic, but was unsuccessful in finding himself a literary agent (this was a time before publishing moved in any significant way online – when every manuscript had to be posted via snail-mail).

An interim publication of memoirs gave Shankar his first taste of seeing his words in print. Let Us Now With Thankfulness tells of his formative years at the Victoria Institute, a time of his life which he holds in great esteem.

Then, after his retirement, the characters of Tiger Isle began to call out to him irresistibly. The itch occupied his brain at all hours, plot-lines would intrude into his life at odd moments, and he would find himself typing out entire chapters at two or three o’clock in the morning.

“I’d go to bed, and then think, argh, I need to change that, and then get out of bed again, sit at the computer and change it.”

Shankar’s world is coloured deeply by politics; because of his work, he sees life through a political lens – which is why he chose to frame his novel with his personal passion, politics. But when it came to Tiger Isle’s main character, a woman named Rekha, he smartly stuck with what he knows thoroughly professionally: auditing. So Rekha is an accountant.

“I wanted to write something I was familiar with – so making the heroine an auditor meant that I didn’t have to struggle to figure her out. If she were a nuclear physicist, for example, you know, I wouldn’t know where to start!”

Another reason he decided on an auditor as a protagonist is because, that way, she – and the reader – gets to understand what’s going on in the financial circles of the government. “I knew I was going to be making up the story in terms of accounts and types of financial fraud.”

His plot involves devices that you couldn’t really talk about without being familiar with high finance or having a financial background or were involved in some aspect of government auditing.

Tiger Isle is set on a fictional island where one strong woman and her friends are all that stand between its despotic leader and a slide over the precipice towards third world status and bankruptcy.

His story touches on patriotism, too: “What is true patriotism?” he asks. “Beware of patriotism, the last refuge of the scoundrel! People wrap themselves in a flag and hide behind the problems of the country.”

And then there are the science fiction aspects in this multifarious novel.

“I am a fan of science fiction, and in a scene from (the 1993 movie) Jurassic Park, someone asks the character played by Richard Attenborough, what would happen if any of the dinosaurs escaped from their enclosures? And he smugly replies that they have engineered the dinosaurs’ DNA so that they cannot reproduce.

“I like Jeff Goldblum’s line after that; he says ‘life will not be contained’,” says Shankar.

That line stuck because, to him, it describes that precarious place humanity puts itself in, when we let greed and ambition infect our rules and systems of governance.

“We can do all these experiments – cloning, Dolly the sheep – but, mostly, we don’t really understand what we are doing, and nature has its own way of looking at things.

“It has its own plan, we don’t realise we are just visitors here.”

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