In 2001, immediately after I moved to Chennai, my daily evening routine would be like this: I would get out of office at around nine in the evening, buy a quarter bottle of rum on the way back, come home and make some rice and daal in the rice-cooker which my parents bought me, and then sit down with the rum to work on my 'novel'. It was a plot I had been nursing for a few years -- and which I still do -- and every evening, I would write a fresh opening. I was so obsessed with the opening paragraphs that I never got around to digging into the plot which, till date, remains a virgin.
After the night's writing, I would eat the rice and daal, still steaming hot, and read Somerset Maugham. There were nights when I would be so drunk that I would indulge in this quirk: I would look at the back cover and keep gazing at Maugham's hypnotic eyes, hoping they would come alive and give me some insight into the art of writing. So desperate I was, to be able to write well. The effort didn't pay off.
In October 2001, on the eve of Ayudha Pooja day, I sent my first three chapters along with a synopsis to a publisher, by courier and all, and a few weeks later, got an email saying they were pretty much packed for the season and would not be able to entertain my manuscript.
Now, as they, say, whatever happens, happens for the good. The other day, I found a copy of what I had sent to the publisher -- yellowing A4 prints, tucked away in a clipboard. I knew they must be around somewhere, but had never bothered to look. Then, the other day, looking for some old issues of GQ magazine, I found them. Reading what I had written almost eight years ago, I realised why it was rejected -- simple because it was written eight years ago. Even if the publishers, in a rare moment of gullibility, had decided to publish it then, I would have disowned the book today. So bad it was -- the art of telling a story in those three chapters. But at the time, I had thought of myself as a junior Maugham, who couldn't have been wrong. I had cursed the publishers when I got the rejection email.
This evening, I went through the yellowing printouts once again and decided to start the story afresh. I can do it now. There is a world of difference between the me of then and the me of now. Back then, I drank rum. Today, I drink whisky. Back then, I was a reporter. Today, I can tell stories. Back then, it was my burning ambition to be a published writer. Today, I have a book scheduled for publication.
Yet, there is something in that old manuscript which I will like to retain or which I will have to retain, for the simple reason that I cannot better it. It is those opening paragraphs. Which I wrote and rewrote week after week, drinking the rum and waiting for the rice and daal to be cooked. I am not saying it is a flawless piece of writing per se, but it is a flawless beginning as far as my 'novel' is concerned.
How come the opening became flawless when I found the rest of what I had written as crap? The answer is in rewriting. Rewriting is a ego-puncturing exercise, an exercise in self-education: each night, it tells you what a fool you've been the night before and that you can do better. Maybe, Somerset Maugham's gaze helped, after all.