This is one post I am writing more for myself. I wish to record a debate raging in my mind because thoughts, unless you put them down in words, can evaporate or change colour in no time, leaving you to scratch your head.
This is an exercise in seeking clarity, being convinced and arriving at a conclusion. Unless the debate is resolved, I am going to find it difficult to proceed with my next book, and I better find an answer by the time I finish writing this post.
The debate is: should the book, a portrait of Chennai, be written in the past-tense format or the present-tense format? On the face of it, it is a silly conflict: after all, what you write is more important than how you write. But how you write is very crucial in conveying what you write.
In case of a 500- or a 1000-word piece, the format, in my opinion, is quite irrelevant. But when you are setting out to write 60,000 to 100,000 words, you have to decide beforehand on a tone that will suit you narrative as well as hold the reader's attention.
I am still wondering what the reader will like:
The first rays of the morning sun burst through the curtains like flames leaping out of a dragon's mouth. I looked at the watch: 6 AM. I had set the alarm for seven. Ah, never mind. I just earned an extra hour of the morning freshness. I jumped out of the bed and walked to the door, still naked, to get the newspaper.
The first rays of the morning sun are bursting through the curtains like a dragon spewing fire. I look at the watch: 6 AM. I had set the alarm for seven. Ah, never mind. I have just earned an extra hour of the morning freshness. I jump out of the bed and walk to the door, still naked, to get the newspaper.
Both versions create vivid images in your mind, yet there is a difference. In the first version, the past-tense format, there is a sense of action. You are following a man who has been there, done that, and you want to know what happens next. In other words, you are always on the edge of the seat while reading.
But in the second version, the present-tense format, you, the reader, are very much a part of the narrative and therefore you don't feel compelled to be on the edge of the seat. On the contrary, you lie back and soak in the experiences of the narrator at your own pace, as if you were the narrator -- what more can a writer ask for!
Both formats, if the narrative is gripping enough, can pull readers. But you have to make a choice. I wrote Chai, Chai in the past-tense format, and it worked. But then, there was no other way of writing it. I wrote the book long after I had finished my travelling, and since the places I'd written about about were so faraway, geographically as well as in terms of the time that had elapsed, a past-tense description was the only honest way of presenting them.
But Chennai is the city where I live: the first few thousand words I have written so far for the new book have instinctively been in the present-tense format. That had me worried, though: is it possible to be lazy as well as racy? Shouldn't I replicate the past-tense format of Chai, Chai, which most people I know have read in just one sitting?
I sought the opinion of two trusted friends -- the only people I turn to for literary advice because they have good taste when it comes to good writing and tell you off politely if you don't match up to their expectations. Past tense or present tense, I asked them.
One of them said the present tense worked the best for her, but in case I had a doubt, I could always write out a passage in both the tenses and compare. The other friend turned out to be a big fan of the past tense, but she thoughtfully added that since I was writing about a city I was living in, the present-tense format made sense.
So that settled that. I was going to write in the present tense. But as a conscientous writer, you don't merely go by what friends tell you -- no matter how trusted or well-meaning they are. Their opinion adds to your conviction of course, but in order to be convinced, you need to find your own devices, your own reasoning.
Past-tense or present-tense format?
Almost all books documenting travels within India, including the ones I so admire, are written in the past-tense format. But that's mainly because the writer in question -- usually a white man -- would have typed out the manuscript long after leaving India. India, for him, was past tense. But one book which I have always considered as my Bible, Ved Mehta's A Portrait of India, turned out to be, to my immense relief, in the present-tense format.
I must have read the book about half-a-dozen times during the past 10 years, without caring about the form of the narrative. But this evening, I dug out the book and wiped off the dust and read a few passages all over again. I realised the present tense can be as gripping as the past tense, provided you know how to tell a story.
Ved Mehta is one writer I have always aspired to be. He is a blind man, but the way he describes sights, sounds and smells makes you feel jealous of his craft. A Portrait of India, which solved my dilemma in a matter of seconds, is long out of print and happens to be my only ill-gotten wealth. I got the book issued from a government library 12 years ago and chose not to return it. Why should I, when the book was acquired by the library on "7.X.1970", that is October 7, 1970, a good three months before I was born, and nobody bothered to get it issued for three long decades till my eyes fell on it?