If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, 25 July 2009

A real writer? Quel rat!

“My chosen tools of trade, that is, written words, are fast becoming adjuncts to pictures.” – Pico Iyer in 2009

At the age of 23, a poor, insecure Gabriel García Márquez decided not to earn his living through any means other than writing. At that time, he had shown sparks of brilliance, but was nowhere near the epoch changing author that he would later become. (His first novella, Leaf storm was published five years later.) His earnings from writing were meagre, and he went through tremendous privation and hardship. "There are stories of his collecting bottles in the streets of Paris in order to pay for food." [Gabriel García Márquez - Raymond L. Williams, Twayne Publishers, Boston, p. 10] Marquez says that he could support himself financially only when he was 46! [Living to tell the Tale]

So if you are a young man or woman aspiring to become a writer, relax! It is going to take a while, there is no need to rush.

And for someone like me, who has taken up writing seriously a little late in the day, this significant fact is reassuring. There is no shame in not being able to make a living through writing. If it took a genius like Márquez twenty-three years, I guess if I can hang around for another, say, five hundred years, I will have become a successful writer.

But would I ever become a real writer? Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s begins with a hilarious encounter between an unnamed narrator – presumably the author in his youth – and an attractive young woman, who, in today’s parlance, can be called a freelance sex worker.

The narrator was a struggling author in the 1940s; Holly Golightly lived in the apartment below his in a brownstone building in New York. They hadn’t met each other yet. One night, she entered his bedroom from the outside through the fire escape, and started chatting as if she was an old friend. She explained her inappropriate entry by the presence of a particularly beastly client in her room, who had started biting her after consuming “eight martinis and enough wine to wash an elephant”. Unimpressed by the drab décor of the room, she asked, ‘What do you do here all day?’

Her host said he wrote “things”.

A little later, Holly enquired, ‘… Are you a real writer?’

‘It depends on what you mean by real.’

‘Well, darling, does anyone buy what you write?’

What a charming definition!

If you accept that definition, I might call myself a real writer (albeit of non-fiction) now. Last month, the publisher of my book Who says you cannot learn English? gave me a royalty cheque for all the copies of the first print-run. Yesterday, he delivered some complimentary copies of the second impression.

It is a self-learner’s manual for English written by someone eminently un(?)qualified for the job. I have had no formal training in English since leaving my school, which, incidentally used Bangla as the medium of instruction.

My father had taught me the basics of the language. But that was about all. Later, when I realized that the little English I knew was thoroughly inadequate as a survival tool in my job, I started teaching myself English. And I fell in love with this beautiful language .... But it was a long process, acquiring bits and pieces over a long period of time from authentic sources and from friends / colleagues ... and the process continues to this day. I wish someone had given me the book I have written now when I was 23.

A minor success, but a source of unalloyed joy all the same. I would like to share my happiness with you. The first five readers who wish to use the book and tell me so, will receive a free copy, delivered at their address. Please email me at santanusc@gmail.com if you are one of them.

But there is a catch, as is usual. You will have to write a review of the book!

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

A misunderstood beauty

It happened long ago, before flashy cars started zipping around on our pot-holed roads, before glitzy shopping malls dotted our cityscape, before the Internet and mobile phones, before enterprising journalists coined acronyms like the PYT.

When I boarded Doon Express for Kolkata in a murderously hot summer evening at Lucknow and took my seat by a window, the girl sitting opposite to me was indeed a pretty young thing. She was twenty-something with chiselled features and captivating eyes through the corners of which she surveyed the world from time to time. She was the kind of woman who would keep her man on tenterhooks. In the times of epics, when men fought on horseback and on galleys, such a face could have, rather, would have launched a thousand ships.

I settled down while she was having a violent tussle with her little son. Sonny was sleeping like a happy log, but mom insisted that he change into a proper nightdress, a pyjama suit. The child battled valiantly even in his sleep. If Kumbhakarna could do anything similar, the Ramayana might have ended differently.

The heat and dust, the tumult of the railway station, jostling porters, and catering staff rushing with precariously poised food trays on finger-tips provided a perfect backdrop for the mother-and-son combat. Suddenly, the lady declared a brief ceasefire and yelled, ‘Didn’t I ask you to fill the water bottles!’ whereupon a young man got off the bunk above and rushed out, bottles in hand.

Things improved as the train rolled out of the station; a cool breeze blew in. The passengers fell silent. The lady was quiet too, except for occasional commands to her husband to fetch this or that.

It was a gorgeous moonlit night. Through the window, I saw whiteness dripping from trees and thatched roofs and flooding the fields slowly. Within the coach too, peace had gained a toehold: lights switched off, passengers gone to bed, a magical moonlight streaming in, and my beautiful companion, now silent, wistfully gazing at the world beyond. An irrational question kept disturbing me: how could Nature create someone who looks so delicate and behaves so aggressively? …

I would have dozed off. When I opened my eyes, I saw her writing something in her diary with deep concentration, oblivious of the world, her face radiating warmth and eagerness. Obviously, they were tourists who had taken a few days off the humdrum of the city and spent some blissful time in the quiet lap of the Himalayas. Perhaps she wasn’t really as bossy as I thought her to be. Perhaps it was the thought of going back to the drudgery that her life was that made her snappy. She possibly had a sensitive mind and at the moment, was reminiscing the wonderful time they had just left behind, and was penning down the memories she didn’t wish to consign to the junkyard of forgetting. Or perhaps she was just writing about the moonlight? I ought not to have passed judgment without knowing her! It had indeed been unfair.

Then the penny dropped. She stopped and, turning towards her half-asleep husband, shouted, ‘Ei, how much did we pay for the breakfast?’

Saturday, 11 July 2009

A journey called childhood

Not many outside Bengal know that filmmaker Satyajit Ray also wrote exquisite prose, particularly for children and young adults. In the preface to his memoir Jakhan chhoto chhilam (When I was a child) he says: “No one can say beforehand what among their childhood experiences will be retained, and what will be erased from memory forever. There is no rule that tells us what we will remember and what we won’t. That is the magic about memory.” (The translation is mine.)

In my early childhood, our family happened to visit Agra and Bombay, but trips to these famous / happening places are just faded sepia pictures in my mind. On the other hand, vacations to an ordinary, nothing-special-about-it village near my hometown fill a large space of my childhood memories. I have written about our first visit to the village in my previous post. But one cannot slight Agra or Mumbai. They should find a place in my memoir, even if as an afterthought, a postscript.

Cousins are referred to as brothers / sisters in Bangla, as we don’t have a synonym for the word. So is it in many other Indian languages. This simple linguistic fact says much about our relationships. Shyamal Kaku was more than a brother to my father in many ways and although he never said so, while we were at his house in Agra, his message was clear and unambiguous: Mi casa es tu casa. (My home is your home.)

He was the manager of a government art and craft emporium located in the Taj complex. And his house was just a few blocks away. The compound of his house was hidden behind a high, rampart-like wall. The building must have been a few hundred years old. It was a circular structure with a dome as the roof, with hardly any windows. But it didn’t matter, the family spent most of the time in the open courtyard, which offered privacy thanks to the boundary wall.

We almost lived in the Taj Mahal for a week. We walked down to the place immediately after brushing our teeth. My sister and me ran along the fountains, lost ourselves in the halls and chambers of the mausoleum, and jumped off its stairs. If subsequent memory hasn’t turned it into a palimpsest, the Yamuna was dry even in those days.

In my childhood, there were clear indications that I would grow into the unrefined and unsophisticated person that I am. I didn’t have a jot of appreciation for the architecture of the Taj, its aesthetics, or its maker’s love for his wife. Its compound was nothing more than a lovely park to me. The only thing that impressed me about the Taj Mahal was the calligraphy on its walls. (Possibly because I was struggling with handwriting at the time.)

What I found most interesting in Agra was the making of malai. There were several dimly lit sweetmeat shops nearby, where huge flaccid bare-bodied men would fan boiling milk on enormous woks upon equally big open ovens. I would watch with fascination as thick layers of cream formed on the surface of the milk.

The Taj might have failed to impress me, but the Arabian Sea didn’t.

We were staying with an uncle of my mother at Dadar. A colleague of hers too was with us. One morning, we took a bus to Juhu. We got off at the Juhu terminus and started walking towards the sea. We went for quite some time and were wondering if we were on the right path: the roads were empty; there were neither vehicles nor pedestrians whom we could ask for directions.

Suddenly, as we turned at a corner, I saw a vast endless something that was also making a guttural growl. I hadn’t seen a sea before and before I knew what it was, it attracted me just as a powerful magnet draws iron filings. I forgot everything and ran, leaving my mother, her friend and my sister far behind.

For some time, I stood awestruck before the sea. It was one of those rare moments when we are face to face with the enormity of Nature, and when our utter insignificance becomes obvious through our futile attempts to contemplate the unknowable.

My mind, which had gone numb, was woken up when my mother’s colleague boxed my ear with all her might. She was a teacher and an NCC instructress to boot. The tetchy lady brooked no indiscipline.

The public humiliation hurt, but it didn’t dampen my spirit. For many years since that morning, I often closed my eyes and tried to recreate that sense of awe and wonder of my first tête-à-tête with the sea.

Besides the sea, what I remember of that trip are the BEST buses. They were clean, red, and efficient, just like the CSTC buses back home in Calcutta. But the people were much more disciplined. They would stand in a queue to get onto buses and bought tickets before sitting down. On a trip to Mumbai in 2007, I found that neither the Arabian Sea, nor the BEST bus has changed. I wish I could say the same thing about the public transport system in Kolkata.

The day before we were to leave Bombay, I went out to buy something from a shop at the corner, and lost my way. As I wandered around in Dadar, each of the thousands of buildings looked the same. In my efforts to get back, I only managed to move farther away. If my memory isn’t playing me false, I was not scared. After some time, my cousin, Budi-di rescued me from a place almost half a mile away.

Later, while I was reading Shankar lose his way in the South African veldt in Chander Pahad (The Mountain of the Moon), it reminded me of my experience in Dadar.

[Photo courtesy The Wikipedia]

Saturday, 11 July 2009