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Audacity of Hope

As published in The Telegraph, on October 11, 2012

How do you choose to become a writer? From the moment we can wrap our fingers around a crayon, writing is a part of our lives. Just about everyone who has been fortunate enough to have some manner of education writes something. But to choose to be a writer still reeks of an audacity of hope, an almost arrogant cock-snooking at the question: ‘What do you have to say for yourself?’

Writing, for me, started with a simple act of plagiarism. I had a book, and I wanted to share it with my best friend. I must have been around six or seven years old and, armed with my copy of Basil of Baker Street — the tale of Sherlock Holmes’s rodent alter ego who resides in the cellar of 221B and solves baffling mysteries — I started typing it out word for word on our first real computer, an Atari, in the family room of our home in New Jersey. This was my first effort at working on a word processor — it was the mid-’80s — and I took hours completing the first paragraph, after which a quick calculation revealed that to finish the entire book would take months, maybe years. I also took a closer look at the copyright page and was filled with terror that the project would lead to my arrest. I quickly abandoned it.

And so, I had my first lesson in writing: it takes time, a lot of it sitting hunched over a keyboard alone in a dark room, to write a novel, and your efforts may not be appreciated by all. If I wanted to prettify my narrative, I would say that in that moment, my interest in novel-writing was cemented, as was my passion for crime fiction and my fear of being nothing but a cheating hack who could only produce something so un-novel it was worthy of a jail term.

Through a move from one world to another, from the US to India, creative writing continued as a rewarding part of school, but somehow not one I set much store by. Of all the career choices suggested to growing children, is writer ever one of them? I wasn’t sure I even thought it was possible. Writers were like parents: a whole different, alien breed of person altogether held up to impossible standards of perfection and wisdom.

This was my state of mind till I reached adolescence and started reading romance novels. These weren’t tomes such as Gone With the Wind or miracles of wordplay such as Pride and Prejudice; these were products that even I could write. Couldn’t I? The back sheets of exercise books left over at the end of the school year received these outpourings. I found it wasn’t the romance that was hard to imagine — that was formulaic enough, and at that age, the stuff of dreams. It was everything else about my heroine that was the challenge. What would she do for a living, for instance? I decided upon sculptor. The problem was, I had no idea how bronze was cast, and in the age before Google, however was I supposed to find out?

Cast aside once more, I discovered those early scribblings again in high school. To my surprise, they weren’t as bad as I thought they would be, and I started on them again. This time, on a typewriter with a half-dried ribbon, I made slow progress beyond the first 10 pages. It still felt like my dirty little secret, one I chose not to share with anyone, till one day, I confessed to a friend’s older sister. I am not sure why I chose her as confidante — possibly because she was a literature student in college already and might know a thing or two about writing. Possibly because she wasn’t close enough to mock me. Either way, I remember her words to me clearly: ‘But to be a writer, you have to read a lot!’

I had always read a lot. Not always the kind of reading an aspiring novelist would admit to in the newspapers. But read I did. And it wasn’t a fact that bothered me overly. I thought: ‘But what if I didn’t want to write like James Joyce?’ I was still at least a year away from Araby in college, so perhaps it was a different writer I had dismissed, but it was something to that effect.

Then the dream went into hibernation again, except for the occasional, forgettable rambling of a young adult intoxicated by love and other unmentionables. All I know is that I always wrote. Something.

When journalism happened, almost by accident, I found a more structured outlet. It satisfied the need to write for a while, and helped me write better. Till a couple of years later, when I found a boy whose story was only half-known. It wasn’t a story meant for the news; it was a haunting one that I wanted to tell, in my own way, in my own voice. And that is when I started on my first novel — in dribs and drabs at first, and then, when I grew more serious, I started coming to work before anyone else (which, thankfully for being a newspaper office was still a decent hour), turning on the lights, sitting at my desk and typing away. In those days, my fingers flew like the wind, 2,000 or 3,000 words a day was no big deal.

Through it all, there were always doubts. Wasn’t all of the best writing literary? My work was hardly that. Weren’t all the best writers suicidal alcoholics? What if I was not self-destructive enough, not depressed enough? Wasn’t I too normal?

I soon had my second experience of failure. I couldn’t get that novel published, despite much trying. But I had got a taste for it, and I knew, at last, 20-odd years after the Basil of Baker Street event, that I would write again, and I would write something that a publisher would love, would see flying off the shelves and that readers of all kinds could enjoy. I knew by then I did not necessarily harbour literary aspirations; I simply wanted to write. Whatever that meant.

I very practically weighed my options. I thought writing a book that fit into a genre would make it easier to find a home for my work. Chick lit was at its peak, but much of it was just bad. So I turned, once again, to crime.

This time, the detective was of my own creation, a woman, not mouse, and I could type a whole lot faster, and think a whole lot smarter. Thanks to a move from Calcutta to Shanghai, inspiration was all around me, and since I was only working part-time, I had the first draft worked out in six months. A few months later, the second. It was off to the publishers once more.

The wait began anew. I waited, and waited, and when I got sick and frustrated with that, I waited some more. It took months for a couple of editors to get back with the news that they liked my initial submission — which usually involves the first few chapters and a synopsis — and then I waited again. Over a year this continued, till I got a glimmer of good news. Pan Macmillan was interested. And then came those three sweet words I had not dared to hope for: Two-Book Deal. Not only would Reema Ray, private eye, see the light of day, she would have a second lease of life. At least.

Finally getting published feels like the end of a journey, but I know that in narrative terms, it is only my back story. In reality, I stand at the beginning of a very long road: The Masala Murder now goes out to stores and into the world. It will hopefully be read and, most importantly, enjoyed. Almost none of that is in my control and I have no choice but to sit and watch and hope.

The questioning continues, even more frantic now, on the cusp of the first true litmus test. Neck deep in manuscript number two, I am still asking what I have to say for myself. And maybe it is not a bad question to ask — as long as I never dare to attempt an answer.

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