A problem that has teased me since long has probably teased a number of people before me, namely the problem of commencement. What comes first, language or thought? Character or Plot? Form or Content?
The human mind is a storehouse of weirdly mystifying activity. It is too deep to be fathomed and too abstract to be given shape. It churns out mysterious questions that defy clear-cut answers. Yet the writer must try to attend to some of these. I would love to get the views of readers on these, on my blog.
The Tailor’s Needle: How Dickens Helped
In India in the 1960s and 70s Charles Dickens was one of the best loved novelists in English for school children like me. Thomas Hardy was popular and so were Jane Austen and George Eliot, but these did not match up to Dickens then. We loved his sentimental situations, his humour and his pathos that he drove home with the help of his exaggeration. His crime worlds and his mysteries blended well for the young mind in search of classics.
When I began to write The Tailor’s Needle, I had no idea that Dickens would guide me on at the subconscious level. I was all the time trying to measure up to his novels and his style without quite knowing it, and that when Dickens had now been reduced to just a name in my life. I never ever discussed him or his art, nor did I think of him.
Some of my characters became Dickensian, then some situations followed suit and when I reached the middle of my novel, I was suddenly gripped by the fear that the novel may have become uninteresting for the reader. I then thought of Dickens’s Bleak House which became a murder mystery somewhere in the middle even though it began as a simple literary novel. Even Great Expectations had this sense of mystery running through it. This helped me to decide what I was to do. I changed Part II of The Tailor’s Needle, making it a murder mystery with the backing of Dickens behind me. The strategy worked and this novel was first published in the UK and then in India by Penguin. Thank you Charles Dickens!
Now I know how many Indian novelists writing now have consciously or unconsciously imbibed from Dickens – R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Manu Joseph, Vikram Chandra, and others.
Fighting the Tsunami
Life like devastating waves goes down or up; to peace or the other way.
Like swings it moves with force yet not unhinged; there’s no escape.
You must return to face what you leave behind; cruel or kind.
People, refined, those who can smile sitting on needles, hoodwink.
Defending everything, validating all; pretending, talking tall, sugary stuff.
Continuing to keep edifices standing, cementing the wall, blocking chinks.
They know how to look the other side when love bleeds or folks ditch.
‘I fight my battle, you fight yours. We’ll meet when storms have gone astray.’
‘Don’t mix matters personal and social. Learn to take the stab calmly.’
A social animal, yet man’s all alone; fighting the tsunami singlehandedly.
There comes a time, when you unwind,
Move differently, to the other side.
When your mind is made up, youth left far far behind.
The mind is seized with things of another kind.
The spirit changes and your moods change too.
All that had “happened” is now just spots of time.
The final act before the curtain, to be braved by you.
An act of matchless colour; not just pink or blue.
You’re fighting the last battle, quite alone it is this time.
Your friends of better times are now nowhere near.
It is all a new experience, quite a new paradigm.
To some it is smooth sailing, to others short of crime.
Preparing for the quittance from this world it is.
One’s uncertain which way the road's to lie.
It’s your last stroke to discover what they call “bliss”.
You either hit a jackpot, or end up with a miss.
Napoleon or Gandhi?
Getting and giving, is great but not always.
There are shades of grey, we are proving ourselves,
Testing our limits like Raskolnikov or Tamburlaine even.
‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends’ said Hamlet.
Does what I give or get follow my action?
Give to the one who responds not to unthinking blonds.
Give to a beggar who blesses not to one who looks back to curse.
Get from her who never grudges or him who never judges.
‘Everything is nothing’, said Lear’s Fool, then why bother?
Giving can be all a selfish affair. When Austen said, ‘It is a truth
Universally acknowledged’, that a man with a ‘good fortune must be
In want of a wife’, she meant the opposite:
A woman in possession of five daughters is on the lookout for
Good husbands. While a Man gives, a Woman takes
And when the scene is reversed one goes through that witchly
Experience that changed Macbeth to jelly. Giving and getting
Must be left to God; man ruins all he takes firmly into his hands.
Would Napoleon win or Gandhi if they had a duel?
The Creative Personality
If you are a poet or a creative person you may feel the changes around you and in your life much more than others. This is so because you are more open to experiencing things, generally, than the non-poet. The world (not the material world but just the world) matters more to you and therefore you get affected by the slightest change that may occur in it. The world keeps changing at all times. These changes are more visible to the sensitive soul. He can see or notice things more minutely. There are people who can, as Shakespeare would say, ‘sleep in spite of thunder’ or, pass through a garden without noticing a single flower.
The creative mind is more restless and therefore in need of a soothing calm or balm which his surroundings may or may not provide. His pain though of a personal nature can easily be transferred to the more general plane. He tends to see patterns in life’s schemes more easily than one who considers life to unfold mechanically, without design. The creative mind never loses sight of the universe even when it considers issues of the most personal nature. William Blake spoke of seeing a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour. This may seem an exaggeration, but to a creative mind it is quite the thing to happen.
Society is often at odds with the creative temperament. The responses of the creative person can seem peculiar and abnormal particularly to the practical though generally insensitive mind. The creative mind is a strange mixture of the highly personal and the highly impersonal. At one level it can experience virtually anything very personally and yet at another level is goes to great distances from the self, becoming part of another’s feelings, joys or pains. The highest style of an author therefore combines the very personal with the very impersonal. At the creative moment the author dies personally even as he remains keenly alive impersonally.
The poetic personality can be irritating for one who fails to see the restlessness of the creative soul. Of course this feeling can be mutual for the creative other who may wonder why the world is so insensitive to such vital matters.
Those days fade from memory;
Every moment had a new discovery:
What came out of a mysterious snail’s shell?
What caterpillars turned into, how a yell
Could return rolling back in an echo.
What sound was emitted from a gecko.
Imaginations soared, swam, sank to where
The mind refused to reach. God was there,
More palpably; there was magic in a prayer.
Nothing was impossible; a fight with a bear,
Aladdin’s lamp was real. A story had more weight
Than gold or silver; could keep awake till late
The mind, with its hook. A song could instill
Feelings of bliss, fulfillment and excitement until
Another came in its stead. Mother and father,
Emblems of light, hope and faith, or rather
That without which nothing remains, were there.
Giving, relieving, not simply talking in the air.
Childhood! Why did you desert? Were you
No more than a wench that comes for a day or two
To finally ditch and depart? Why could you not stay on?
Why did you come to leave me lonely, aging and forlorn?
Now when THE TAILOR’S NEEDLE is about a year and half after Penguin India bought it from my British publisher, and has reached readers I could never have fancied it would, I can sit back and put together my thoughts on it in retrospect.
I little know how it all happened, how the stories I had heard in my childhood came together in the master narrative of the novel. But it does seem now that I was destined to write such a narrative and take this phase of Indian history (garbed in fiction) to the global reader. I had to do it because few apart from me knew about the events as they happened and those that did were anything but authors.
I had initially planned to make the size of the novel at least double of what it is but during the course of the novel I read that publishers do not accept such long manuscripts from unknown writers like me. And so I quickly cut it to size.
The novel virtually wrote itself and I became the author of a story that was inside me in a very fragmented form. When I now consider how it all happened, it is quite a mystery. I can say from my experience that an author gets a vision in a flash; a pattern comes to the mind that then gets chiseled out into a plot. In my case it all happened rather unconsciously or should I say, magically. I have become a fatalist, seeing how things happen, by chance, rather than by design. We all are a part of a larger design that the Creator has in His mind. We work out His design, it seems to me now. The novel is also full of such magical happenings that have fallen into the plot so unintentionally that they hardly seem to have been fitted into it deliberately. They show how life is more than what it seems from the outside. It is a magic show operated by a magician. The Tailor’s Needle has been considered a work of #Magical #Realism.
I never realized while I wrote the novel that the plot would be governed by things so distant from the rational and yet it never seems to contain anything that could not have happened. The real and the unreal have come together as the real. Both the fabrics have been stitched together by the needle of the imagination. I find it so flattering when readers tell me that everything in the novel seems so real, as though happening before the eyes.
The second half of the novel is a murder mystery. This is about the most deliberate part of the novel. I did this as an afterthought after writing quite a bit and suddenly being gripped by the fear that the reader could need more excitement than the mere story would provide. But strangely even here things fell into shape themselves without my real intervention.
I have received some wonderful comments from readers all over the world. There is nothing more gratifying for an author. The good thing is that the sales of the novel have picked up greatly in the last six months and are only increasing. I am indebted to my readers and of course to my real companion, the one who created me and has guided me at every step.
On a Dark Night of Pain
On a dark night of pain, it is normal to gloom
Over what’s in store; what uphill roads,
What grey landscapes, what marshy fields,
What thorny paths. You, like a ghost,
Just out of ash, walk looking back with doubtful glance.
Spend not your courage on fearful things, look not
Towards the graves that lie, silent in their eerie haunts.
Remember just this one thing; even the darkest, dumbest
Night will yield to unerring morning bright.
Just wait for morn to follow dawn and knock at your window, with a smile.
The morning never fails to come even if it be after doomsday night.
Ramchandra Guha is a wonderful historian. One is struck by the clarity of his thought. Only one who knows as much as he does can speak in such an uncomplicated manner and with such stark simplicity. One reason for his supremacy in his field is that apart from everything else he has a youthful enthusiasm for whatever topic of the recent past as well as the not so recent past he handles. He is able to make his subject seem living as a writer of fiction does. To an excellent sense of the past he continuously adds an awareness of the present. He sees the past as one who has not lost his bearings in the present. For a historian of his stature an age or a phase of history is as living and as people are. He can feel an age on his pulses. Like a writer of fiction Guha shows as he tells. No wonder he can be so different. His style makes the man.
Chiki Sarkar and the New Crop of Indian Editors
Chiki Sarkar who has been named the Publisher of Penguin Random House India in March 2014 is indeed a wonder girl. I have seen few women in India rise the way she has risen and I write this only because I have had the chance to interact with her as an author of Penguin India. Why did she rise the way she did? I will try to analyze the reasons. The chief reason for the meteoric rise is her efficiency. Whenever I sent her an email I received her reply within a few hours if not minutes. Her replies were always positive. They always made the other feel good and wanted. She has that personal touch in her dealing without which people seem officious and standoffish.
She has real caliber. An editor who brought some of the best known Indian and Pakistani books into publication and that with a leading publisher in India, books of authors no less than Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Vikram Chandra, and Amit Chaudhuri, and then picked up new talent of the class of Mohammed Hanif, Basharat Peer and Daniyal Mueenuddin, is rare indeed.
The most successful publisher/editor is one who has the ability to recognize talent and that within good time, before another has picked that author up. Sarkar has that quality which will one day make her a much bigger name than publishers/editors in the Western world. One could never have dreamed that someone in India will emerge so quickly as such a towering genius in the publishing world. There has been a crop of wonderful editors in India, the kind of people one did not come across easily about two decades ago. David Davidhar and Ravi Singh were already very fine editors but recently we have a new brand that works, works and works. Some of these are Milee Ashwarya, Meru Gokhale and some really young ones who are working wonders within the very first three or four years of their careers. It is so wonderful to see this younger lot do so well. Without them we would hardly get authors such as Anees Salim and Jerry Pinto. This is all very heartening for those who would like to see India advance at the cultural front effectively.