Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why A Writer Must Take Notes

I wish I had the habit of keeping a diary or journal, looking back at each day before going to bed or recording thoughts and impressions as and when they came — of course, leaving out parts that no one other than me must know.

No harm retaining the parts the world shouldn’t know, as long as no one reads your diary or you know how to keep it safe — or if you have a family that is tolerant of your behaviour. Brutally honest diaries often make for good, even great, literature; only that they are usually published — quite naturally — posthumously. One such great work published: The Journals of John Cheever. Must-read.

Coming back to keeping a journal, I think it is very important for a writer or an aspiring writer to get into the habit for two reasons. One, the daily introspection keeps alive your ability to synthesise thoughts into words. Two, the matter you produce each night adds up to being a goldmine: you can create several masterpieces out of it, fiction or non-fiction, without having to invent a scene or a situation, because it is all recorded in the diary — raw.

The idea is to always look and listen, and instantly note down anything you find intriguing or interesting. For that you always need to carry a notebook and a pen — something I always ignore unless I am out for a story.

Recently, while dining at Koshy’s in Bangalore — and I had not gone to Bangalore for a story — I overheard a conversation between two old-timers which I thought was worth writing about. I was carrying a pen, but no notebook. So I quickly jotted down the conversation, before it vanished into thin air, on a paper napkin. Back home, the wife discovered the napkin in my suitcase and wondered, even though she is past caring about such things, if it was a love note. I explained to her that the scribbling was a conversation I had overheard between two old-timers at Koshy’s: one of them urging the other to keep coming back for dinner so that Koshy’s — the old Bangalore institution — remains alive.

Had I carried a notebook, I would have had no explanations to offer and got far more details to record. Memory, after all, is slippery and often fails you when you need her the most, but the written word is like a piece of rock — the more you write down your thoughts and impressions, the more rock-solid your story is.

That is why V.S. Naipaul is such a rockstar, especially when it comes to writing about places. The Granta magazine, in an issue devoted to India some years ago, had an entire chapter devoted to Naipaul: it reproduced the first four pages from the journal that Naipaul kept when he was visiting India — this was his second visit to the country of his ancestors — to write India: An Wounded Civilisation. Each handwritten page is faced by a transcribed version of the same so that the reader doesn’t have to struggle to decipher his handwriting, even though Naipaul’s handwriting is pretty legible. What the handwritten pages prove is that there was very little difference between Naipaul’s notes and the prose he eventually produced — and how important it is to take copious notes.

I now wonder if my books would have been richer if I too had meticulously taken notes while roaming the towns and cities I have written about. Not that I did not carry a pen and notebook, but the compulsion to take/make notes always melted away when I found myself in situations worth writing about. I wanted to live the situations rather than distance myself from them by taking out my notebook. But there is one way you can not only live your experiences but also write about them in a distanced manner: by writing a diary/journal at the end of the day.

Here is what Vinod Mehta (it’s so painful to prefix ‘late’ to his name) has to say about Naipaul’s style of functioning, in his autobiography Lucknow Boy: “Vidia (V.S. Naipaul) never carried a notepad, much less a tape recorder. One hot afternoon in Lucknow, after walking through the narrow, filthy lanes of Chowk… we came to our hotel ravenous and thirsty. Vidia skipped lunch and locked himself in his room to make ‘notes’. His memory was awesome. He could reproduce long conversations without getting a word wrong.”

After a long day, a lesser mortal like me would rather unwind with a drink or go shopping. It is too much of an effort to lock yourself up in a room and write down all that you encountered in a day. Had I done that, I would have taken half the time to finish each of my books and they would have probably read better. Memories are richer when written than recalled.

From now on I am going to follow Naipaul: make notes at the end of each day while working on a book. I have already purchased six new notebooks, all world-class, and four new fountain pens, all sturdy and India-made, so that I don’t fall short of stationery while visiting the city I am going to write about next. Just that I shouldn’t feel too lazy to makes notes. It is laziness, more than anything else, that stands between a genius and could-have-been-genius.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Beautiful Mind, Ugly End: One Simple Lesson From The Death Of John Nash

A Beautiful Mind, the movie, ended beautifully — you left the theatre with a tear or two.
But in real life, that beautiful mind has met with such a tragic end that you read and reread the news of mathematician John Nash’s death in disbelief.
Disbelief not because he died — he was already 86 and not very far from a natural end — but the manner in which he died. You expected someone like him to die peacefully in his sleep, having lived a full life, and not getting ejected out of a speeding taxi that hits the railing and to lay lifeless on the road.
Each year, a handful of bespectacled scientists are chosen for the Nobel Prize: they remain anonymous until they are named for the honour and, outside their fraternity, continue to remain anonymous even after they have got the Nobel. It is usually the Nobel-winning writers who get all the attention and, as far as I know, the only ones who get to make an acceptance speech.
In other words, very few people had heard of John Nash until 2001, when A Beautiful Mind, a movie based on his life, released, with Russell Crowe playing Nash. By then Nash had already won the Nobel for economics, in 1994, for his work in game theory.
The movie’s objective was, obviously, not to educate the public about game theory but to tell the story of the beautiful mind behind it — the story of a man who fights paranoid schizophrenia and goes on to make remarkable achievements in the world of mathematics.
And to imagine the man who won a Nobel and whose life story won four Oscars, lying on the road, lifeless, at the age of 86. And he had just landed from Oslo, after collecting the $800,000 Abel Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the field of mathematics. What a way to die.
The only consolation is that died with his wife, Alicia, 82. She too was flung out of the cab when it hit the railing. The accident spared them a lonely walk to sunset, because one of them would have certainly died before the other had they both not died together. Very few loving couples, who have spent five or six decades together and who would feel totally lost in case of them dies, earn that kind of an end. That way, the beautiful mind had a beautiful ending.
Only the manner in which they died was anything but beautiful. And that’s why Nash’s death, just as Nash’s life, has become hot news.
After I read about the terrible accident — on my Facebook timeline, where else — I immediately googled ‘John Nash’. This is what Wikipedia told me: “John Forbes Nash, Jr. (June 13, 1928 – May 23, 2015) was an American mathematician whose works in game theory, differential geometry, and partial differential equations have provided insight into the factors that govern chance and events inside complex systems in daily life.”
Insight into the factors that govern chance and events inside complex systems in daily life? I guess no one, except God, if there is one, is entitled to such an insight. Nash certainly did not have that insight when he and his wife took the cab in New Jersey to go home, having just arrived from Oslo. His death, even though his life was all about complicated mathematical equations, leaves us with a simple lesson: wear the seatbelt. Nash and his wife weren’t wearing seatbelts.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Bengali Woman

She walked out of the restroom gingerly, as if not to distract fellow diners with her footsteps, and took her seat noiselessly — as if she wanted her existence to be a whisper. "Please be very honest with me," she said, "am I boring you?"
"Boring?" I replied, "I am sitting with one of the prettiest woman I have ever known. Another beer?"
"Yes, please. But am I boring you with my stories?"
"I am a good listener."
"You don't have to be polite. Anyway, now I will tell you how I met Pascal."
"Pascal, who?"
"That French guy I was telling you about the other night?"

"Ah, your French boyfriend."
"I don't think I can call him a boyfriend. I met him only once, four years ago, but I can never forget him — never. I preserve his number, you know, even though I have changed phones. But I have never had the courage to call him all these years."
"What if he sounds different? Worse, what if he sounds indifferent? There have been times when I almost dialled his number, but I held myself back."
"Interesting or silly?"
"Very interesting. So how did you guys meet?"
"Oh yes, so coming back to the story. I was in Paris at the time — I had gone there on work. One afternoon, I was at an antique shop, just looking around, when my eyes fell on a guy who was looking around as well. He was tall, well-built, the first thing I noticed about him was the tattoo on his upper arm — it said Om Namah Shivaya, in the Hindi script. Our eyes met more than once; and even though I was curious about him because of the tattoo, I was careful not to keep looking at him."
"You could have said Hello and asked him where he got the tattoo from, no?"
"How could I make conversation with a total stranger? What if he wasn't interested in someone invading his privacy? You know how foreigners are."
"And then?"
"Well, he walked upto me and said, 'Hello, I am Pascal, you from India?'"
"Wow. And then?"
"And then he asked for my phone number. But I refused. How could I give my number to a total stranger? I quietly walked out of the shop. Later that evening, I went to a bookshop for a poetry reading. Some French poet had just published a book of poems, which had also been translated into English. The French part was read by a very handsome Arab — perhaps an Algerian. And the English part was read by guess who?"
"Pascal!" A tear escaped her left eye. "I sat at the bookshop transfixed. It was as if Pascal was reading those poems for me. How beautifully he read! I kept looking at him. I wanted to tell him, with my eyes, why he wanted to have my phone number when he could have me! You have no idea how magical that evening was."
"And then?"
"And then we went to a cafe where Hemingway is supposed to have got drunk often. You have heard of Hemingway?"
"Of course, I have."
"Like Hemingway, I too got drunk, really drunk, but I remember everything — everything. Pascal drank as much as I did, perhaps even more, but he was sober. That's the thing with Western men, they usually hold their drink and rarely get obnoxious even when drunk — unlike Indian men. Indian men put me off when they drink."
"I am Indian!"
"But you are a dear friend."
"I was kidding. I know I act silly when I am drunk, though I don't remember putting anyone off. Maybe I have — who knows — one doesn't remember things when drunk."
"But I remember that evening so well."
"So what happened next?"
"Pascal asked me to spend the night with him. He was staying a walking distance from the cafe, maybe a kilometre or two. My hotel was far off."
"So you went with him?"
"It took me a while to decide. At first I wondered, being an Indian women, should I spend the night with a stranger — that too a white man? What will people say? How shall I explain my absence from home to them? Then suddenly I realised that this was Paris, where I did not know a soul and where I did not have a home. It did not matter to anyone, including me, whether I spent the night in the hotel or with Pascal — and I had already fallen in love with him."
"So you went with him?"
“Of course. And you know what, one of my sandals broke as soon we came out of the cafe. I walked with him barefoot, carrying both the sandals in my hand. He offered to carry me home — in his arms — but that would have been too much, so I said no. But how romantic, the whole gesture! Once we got into his flat, he made coffee for both us — and then we made love."
"Was it good?"
"I am not going to give you details," she smiled shyly, taking a sip of the draught beer, "but let me tell you one thing: I am a small-made woman, even by Indian standards. I am petite. Pascal, on the other hand, is huge. He has a huge chest. And you know what I found on his chest?"
"A tattoo showing the portrait of Lord Shiva himself! That turned me on even more."
"And then?"
"Well, when I woke up the next morning, I found the sheets stained with blood. I cried at the sight of the blood, not because I felt scared, but because I was elated."

"Because I had been practising abstinence for many years. Four years, maybe five years?"
"But why?"
"You must put that question to my husband. By the way, he is also a Bengali — like you."
"What do you mean? You are also a Bengali."
"I am. But I am a Bengali woman."

Friday, May 22, 2015

Two Chief Ministers: An Afternoon In Chennai

The movements of Jayalalithaa, and the arrangements for her swearing-in tomorrow as the chief minister, brought traffic in Chennai to a grinding halt today. Fortunately I did not have a flight or train to catch or an important meeting to attend.

But I did miss work. I got into a cab this afternoon and had travelled barely 500 metres when, on G.N. Chetty Road, I found myself in a traffic jam. After 10 minutes of waiting on the road, the driver began to get impatient and suggested that I take an autorickshaw. I stayed put: autorickshaws don’t fly. But soon I figured that at the rate the traffic was moving, it would take me two hours to get to work — a distance of less than 6 km — and asked the driver to drop me back home.

Relieved, he turned into the first lane leading out of the road but soon, on Thirumalai Pillai Road, we again found ourselves in a jam. I decided to walk back home and got off the cab. Soon I found myself walking past a red building — a typical two-storey Madras bungalow. I stopped.

The old-fashioned bungalow has always been almost a stone’s throw from my home. In the 14-plus years that I have lived in Chennai, I have gone past the building countless times and occasionally thought of stopping by, just to take a look inside, because it always looked deserted and accessible. It was in this bungalow that K. Kamaraj, Tamil Nadu’s tallest Congress leader, lived after he became the chief minister — and died. It serves as a memorial now.

Today, I found the gate open and walked in. Not a soul in sight. I could have been the first visitor of the day — or, who knows, the first visitor in months, maybe years. The house has been preserved the way Kamaraj left it: a room with sofas and a single bed; another room with bookshelves and an easy chair at the centre; the hall with a dining table and a show case. A simple man’s bungalow. In a small room by the hall sat two men, perhaps the caretakers, who were chatting away. I looked at the enlarged black-and-white pictures hanging from the walls, obviously placed in the recent times, showing Kamaraj with dignitaries from across the world (including the king of Ethiopia). The captions seem to have been written by a semi-literate man: Leningrad is ‘Lenin Grat’.

The walls of the bungalow separated two worlds. Outside, the noise preceding Jayalalitha’s oath-taking ceremony; inside, the orderly silence at the home of a man who took oath thrice as the chief minister. Outside, the noise generated by Dravidian politics, where personalities tower over principles; inside, the gentle calm of the Nehruvian era. Outside, a woman was being deified (‘Amma, you are god!’); inside, a silence brought about by death — not just the death of its one-time occupant, but also the slow death of his ideology. To understand where the Congress stands today in Tamil Nadu, one should have spend this afternoon at Kamaraj’s home, like I did.

Travel Writing

This evening, coming back from work, I found myself locked out of the house. I had forgotten to carry the keys and the wife had gone out and was expected to be back in an hour. To kill time, I had idlis at Grand Sweets near my house and then walked down North Usman Road and walked into New Booklands, a basement bookshop that mainly sells Tamil books but also has a small collection of English books.
There, I found a book which had been missing from my collection for many years now (I have no idea how I lost it): a collection of short stories by Salman Rushdie called East, West, his only work of fiction that I found easy to understand.I had bought my first copy in Delhi, probably from one of those bookshops in Janpath, in 1998 or 1999. The price, I remember, was written in pencil on the opening page: Rs 80. This evening I bought it for Rs 399. I also bought, for Rs 895, Travels in Asia and Africa by Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Moroccan explorer, one of the greatest travellers (and travel writers) to walk on this planet.
Back home, I lit a cigarette and opened the Battuta book, and in two hours finished 200 of the 340 pages. My phone remained untouched as I raced through the book, finding it difficult to put it down having begun the journey across medieval Asia, including India. How vividly he describes the practice of sati! It is a marvel that such a documents exists, describing life in 14th century India (even before the Mughals arrived) — and a matter of great shame that I never read it before. Never too late, as they say.
I don’t know what exactly got me interested in travel writing — I am talking as a reader as well as a writer — but I guess it has something to do with the books I read (and reread) during my younger days: My Son’s Father and Never at Home, both by Dom Moraes, and An Indian Summer by James Cameron. These books, even though autobiographical, are mostly about places, and the writers combine observation with introspection to make you feel you have made the journeys with them — growing older with them, getting wiser with them. It is one thing when a writer takes you to a place, quite another when he takes you along.
Incidentally, the very first book I ever bought (discounting the books on improving your skills with the English language) happened to be a travel book: An Area of Darkness, by V.S. Naipaul. I bought it sometime in 1993, from Current Book Depot in Kanpur, barely months after I began my career as a journalist, with The Pioneer. Naipaul would not call it a travel book: he would like to call it a book of inquiry; but since the book was a result of his travels in a foreign land — India — I would call it a travel book. While in Kanpur I never bothered reading the book, even though I took great care of it.
In 1994, when I moved to Delhi, supposedly the Mecca of journalism, to join the Press Trust of India, the very first book I purchased there, from a long-defunct shop called Bookworm in Connaught Place, also happened to be a travel book: Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days. I don't remember reading it with great interest because it sounded like the script of a documentary — it was intended to be one.
It was only after I bought — and read — Dom Moraes’s My Son's Father that places started interesting me. I bought the sequel, Never at Home, soon after, and a few months after that, James Cameron’s An Indian Summer. The chemistry between the authors and the places they live in, in these books, made me want to document my own chemistries with places. And then I read a few more books: George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris, William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns and Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That. I became convinced that in order to extract the full value of your association with a place or places, you need to record your experiences and share them with readers — in the form of a book. Oh, how can I forget Hemigway’s A Moveable Feast, perhaps the finest portrait of Paris ever produced.
In 2001, after I moved from Delhi to Chennai, I fell in love with Somerset Maugham. Almost every story of Maugham has the protagonist travelling to a new land — and travelling in great style. For several months, I did not have a TV at home and I would invariably have my dinner — usually hot rice and arhar dal — over a Maugham novel.
And then one day I discovered Paul Theroux, and thought he was the greatest travel writer ever — this was after I finished reading The Great Railway Bazaar. Soon I was buying books by Bruce Chatwin and Colin Thubron. Great writers, great places to be written about. Wow. This was around 2005.
Today, 10 years later, when I am far wiser and have myself produced three books about places, I find myself worshipping a different set of idols: Ryszard Kapuscinski, Trevor Fishlock, Jonah Blank, David Yeadon. These gentlemen understand the soul of the soil they are writing about — and help you write better — but strangely they are hardly written about.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

What Piku Did To Me

And then Piku rekindled the longing, just when I had settled to the rhythm of my life in Chennai.

This evening, as I sat in the theatre to watch the film that almost everybody is praising, memories came rushing of all the legwork for Longing, Belonging, my Calcutta book. Today, for some strange reason, I feel the book was written many years ago, but the fact is that one of the characters featured in it was interviewed as recently as 10 months ago: Piku pinched me into realising that I was roaming the roads of Calcutta, looking for material, until only the other day.

I watched with delight and a bit of jealousy  as Amitabh Bachchan, playing a 70-year-old Bengali called Bhaskar Banerjee, bicycled around the city, visiting the same places I had visited while researching the book: Maidan, Dalhousie Square, Shyambazar.

Jealousy, because I now feel proprietorial about Calcutta: I also felt jealous when Irrfan Khan and Deepika Padukone were shown visiting St. John's Church (where I spent a chilly afternoon in December 2012 after having some difficulty in locating the church; where Job Charnock lies buried), and when they spend time by the river in old Calcutta (something I always do during every visit to the city; my friend Sajal and I always go to one of the ghats and take the ferry to the Howrah Station and back).

Piku reminded me of my resolve to spend my retired life in Calcutta. If things go the way I dream them to be, which includes luck intervening unexpectedly to endow me with riches so that I do not have to earn a living, I shall retire at the age of 50 and settle in Calcutta. Each day would begin with a walk in Central Park, in Salt Lake, and end with dinner in one of the restaurants on Park Street — and dusk always devoted to gazing at the river from one of the ghats. On Friday afternoons, I would pack my bags and take the train or cab to one of those fascinating forest destinations that I've only read about or seen in the movies: Jaldapara, Gorumara, Palamau, Chaibasa — and sometimes to Shantiniketan. Though I don't see the need to wait for Fridays because I would be leading a retired life anyway — it would be easier to find accommodation in these places on weekdays.

By then, hopefully, some of my sensible friends would also have relocated to Calcutta, and most of these trips would be made with them. Even if they don't relocate, they would, hopefully, come to Calcutta on holiday and travel with me. I would want my life to be a repeated rerun of Aranyer Din Raatri. After all, the whole idea behind wanting to retire at 50 is to devote at least a decade of my life to being totally carefree while I am still fit enough to savour adventure — and therefore savour life.

Adventure and the Indian way of life are often mutually exclusive. Indians are so often bogged down by duties and responsibilities throughout their lives that they rarely get to do what they want to do. Take the case of a woman, or even a man, who gets married at the age of, say, 25 and has a child at, say, 27. Until the age of 25, she or he is driven by the demands of parents; from age 25-27 by the demands of in-laws; and from age 27 onwards by the collective demands of the child, of in-laws and of ageing parents. If you are employed, then the demands of your workplace too. When does one have the time for oneself? Can one afford to go to the railway station one cloudy afternoon, just like that, and purchase a ticket to somewhere? The answer is a big no.

But that's exactly the kind of life I want to live: to be able to walk into the railway station on whim and buy a ticket, or tickets, for the next train headed in the direction of a forest. Basically I want to be my own boss and enjoy life.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Chai, Chai Chugs On

Uniformed vendors constantly walked up and down the aisle, selling snacks, as the double-decker train hurtled in the direction of Chennai from Bangalore. One man sold vadas, another sold samosas, yet another sold bread-omelette.

What makes snacks even more tempting is the manner in which the hawker calls out. Each develops a signature style over the years, and if his cutlets or samosas make you hungry even when your belly is full, you know he is a seasoned hawker.

But the most-frequently heard sound in the train that afternoon, quite expectedly, was: "Chai! Chai!" "Chai! Chai!" The hot tea seems to melt regional accents. No matter which part of the country you are travelling, you will find hawkers calling out in one particular manner when selling tea: "Chai! Chaaaai!" "Chai! Chaaaai!" This sameness is the same as the sameness with which arrivals of trains are announced at railway stations across India.

My train was crossing Ambur station when it suddenly began to rain and the window resembled a sweaty torso. I finally decided to have some hot tea. All this while I had had vadas and cutlets that were ice cold. The vendor, as soon as he had handed me a cup of steaming tea, cried out "Chai! Chai!" for the benefit of other passengers and moved on. I felt proprietorial about the sound.

More than five years have passed since I wrote Chai, Chai, and even though I wrote two more books after that, it remains the book I am best known for. Which is heartening and also sad. Heartening, because it continues to sell: it is very flattering to find praise still pouring in in the form of emails and Facebook messages even after five years.

One young lady from Gujarat is using the book for her M. Phil dissertation; another lady from Karnataka is using it for her Ph.D dissertation. I wonder how Chai, Chai, written so casually, is going to help them earn prestigious degrees. But if they find it worthy enough to be studied, who am I to compain? One housewife from Nashik recently wrote to me saying that if someone were to conduct a quiz on Chai, Chai, she would win hands down because she knew every sentence in the book by heart. Another housewife, from Cuttack, said she would sleep with the book placed under her pillow.

Men too write to me, though their number is fewer, and none of them, thankfully, talk about sleeping with Chai, Chai under their pillow. I can never forget a mail I once received from a man in Pune. He had bought Chai, Chai just to gift it to his father, a retired railway officer, but the father died while he was half way through the book. The book lay open, face down, on the father's desk until the son picked it up and read it — and wrote to me saying how much he loved it.

Now, the sad part. Chai, Chai overshadows my two other books, Tamarind City and Longing, Belonging, even though they are far superior in terms of craft and content. The writing of Chai, Chai was a stroll, the other two was like training for marathon. They may have earned respect, but Chai, Chai got love. Love that translates into sales.

When Chai, Chai came out, I worked with Times of India. One afternoon, shortly before its release, as I passed the Venkateswara Temple on Venkatanarayana Road while on my way to work, I told the Lord: "If the book sells 10,000 copies, I shall come to Tirupati and get my head tonsured."

The book had barely come out of the printing press when my mother died. My brother and I had to get our heads tonsured. The next time I crossed the temple, I told the Lord: "Since you have already made me shave my head, make sure the book sells 10,000 copies." I think he heard me this time.