Sunday, April 08, 2007

Confessions Of A 'Novelist'

Ten years ago, inspired by Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, I began writing a novel – my first. The character, obviously, was based on me – not loosely, but fully. I named him Shankar. The story begins with Shankar, who has just shifted to a new house, waking up to the sound of the alarm clock. He gropes for the clock in the early-morning darkness and only then it hits him that he is in a new place.

The opening scene ran up to about 1000 words or so. I rewrote it about a dozen times, and showed it to friends, who were all very polite in their feedback. A couple of them who wanted to appear well meaning suggested a few changes. I carried them out. What next?

I was clueless. It is easy to wake up a sleeping person, but once the person is up, the real story begins. Ok, I had a rough story in mind. But how to go about it? I began to look for inspiration. I bought John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, which was the byproduct of his writing of East of Eden. On the margin of every page of East of Eden’s manuscript, he wrote a letter to his publisher Pascal Covici about the progress of his day’s work. The exercise helped him clear writer’s block as he went along. So I too drew vertical lines on the pages of my diary: on the left were letters written to myself, and on the right the story of Shankar. Subsequently I also bought the voluminous East of Eden. But soon after I read an article in the London Times which quoted some famous writer – I can’t recall the name – as calling Steinbeck a “third-rate novelist with tenth-rate philosophy”. I junked the two books. Shankar’s future continued to hang in balance.

I turned to Hemingway for inspiration. A Moveable Feast begins with his account of a café in Paris, where he sitting and working on Up in Michigan, which was celebrated as one of his most famous short stories. His words: “… in the story the boys were drinking and this made me thirsty and I ordered a rum St James. This tasted wonderful on the cold day and I kept on writing…” While he is still writing, a pretty woman walks in to sit on a nearby table. About her: “I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for… You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and pencil.”

I spent many afternoons in the Delhi Press Club, drinking rum while others drank vodka with plenty of ice. No one disturbed me, because no one had ever seen anyone so engrossed in a place where you are supposed to drink and laugh and discuss the state of the nation. I wrote a lot about Shankar’s childhood, as in my childhood; but there was nothing concrete to take the story forward from the point Shankar had been woken up by the alarm clock. The story had a strong past and a strong future, but no present. The present was sitting and drinking in the Press Club.

I decided to turn to Graham Greene. The protagonist of his The End of an Affair, Maurice Bendrix, was a disciplined lot: “Over twenty years I have probably averaged five hundred words a day for five days a week… When I was young not even a love affair would alter my schedule. A love affair had to begin after lunch, and however late I might be in getting to bed – so long as I slept in my own bed – I would read the morning’s work over and sleep on it.”

But those days, love affairs mattered a lot for me while the bed didn’t. As a result, my alter ago could never get out of his bed. Ten years have passed, and now it hardly matters. But I do look for a place to hide whenever a friend from those days asks: “Has your Shankar woken up yet?”


Janani said...

You should try nanowrimo.

Anonymous said...

when a writer bases a character on himself, he cannot be more honest. The moment he starts sketching himself, the two destinies become entwined.

The way you find it tough to find out how to proceed from chapter one, similaly your Shankar doesn't known what to do after waking up.

Maybe you would know the "future" of your novel too, once Shankar is awake. Or is it the other way round?

Anonymous said...

firstly.. thanks for posting this art, or would have never commented.

secondly.. Shankar is too busy spinning for sunday, what else do you want him to do?? 'the tango'??

Vidwata said...


I like your blog (I say this after having read just two posts).

Now you have a Shankar. I have a Yatharth and a Reena. I started on a short story, on a whim. It has stuck. I tried to fabricate the characters, a little bit of me in them and a little of my imagination. But I am stuck.

What strikes me here is how beautifully you captured this state where Shankar doesn't know what to do and how to live beyond waking when the alarm rings.

Shall wait till he fixes a cup of tea for himself.

Anonymous said...

i am looking to become an aspiring writer..ur blog just tells me a great writer like you also goes through a "block". it can either be too easy writing about urself or it can be too confusing..

but keep up gangsta!!