I have not won the Pulitzer prize. I have not published a book. Yet from time to time readers ask me why I write or how I started to write or whether I can teach them to write.
Alas, writers seldom write about the writing process. It remains a mystery, a personal experience unique to each writer. When asked how she came to write a great novel, the writer inevitable falls back on some cliché about her characters appearing before her like phantasms, perhaps because the truth is so very unglamorous.
Recently, I came upon a lecture delivered by the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. And suddenly, for the first time, I understood what it meant to be a writer. A writer, Pamuk says, is someone who digs a well with a needle. A writer is someone who shuts himself in a room and tries to tell his own stories as if they are other people’s stories, and to tell other people’s stories as if they are his own.
And suddenly what I have been doing all these years began to make sense to me.
When we write, he says, we are in the company of the words of those who came before us, of other people’s stories, of other people’s books. Literature is the most valuable hoard that humanity has gathered in its quest to understand itself. So when we write, we stand on all that history, all that tradition that is embedded in our psyches.
The writer’s secret is not inspiration or even talent, Pamuk says, but patience and hard work.
V.S. Naipaul, a totally different kind of a writer with an entirely different background, says pretty much the same thing in his Nobel lecture; that writing requires luck and much labor.
Pamuk and Naipaul, two men raised at two extreme ends of the world, one in the heart of the old, the other on the peripheries of the new, speak similarly of the internal process of writing. Naipaul invokes Proust in asserting that the beautiful things we write are inside us, indistinct, like the memory of a melody which delights us, though we are unable to recapture its outline. Pamuk believes that a writer writes of things that everyone knows but do not know they know.
Pamuk and Naipaul both agree that a writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, a self different from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices.
Pamuk talks about the sacrifice a writer makes of normal life and social interactions, of his compulsion to escape crowds.
Naturally solitary, Naipaul does not speak of his social life but of his intensely painful solitude during the writing of his great epic A House for Mr Biswas, so much so that he never wanted to visit the memories of his Trinidadian family again.
Both authors speak of their fathers. Naipaul’s dad, a correspondent for the Trinidad Guardian, attempted to write fiction; Pamuk’s father wrote a suitcase full of notes he handed to his son.
Both writers experienced the sense, while growing up, of not being at the center of the world; of knowing that life, important life, was being lived somewhere else. The provinciality of their backgrounds was both a bane as well as a gift to them.
So there we have it; three elements that perhaps make a writer; the need to discover a self; a parent who dreamt of writing; and a provincial upbringing that drove them to find meaning in the marginality of their worlds.
Ironically, these exact same elements have prompted me to write as well.
I had a father who understood the importance of literature. He did not read a lot but he made me aware of Dickens, of Maugham, James Hilton, Frank Moraes, and Nehru. I too came from a place so provincial that the only thought I had growing up was that of escaping it. And because of my mother’s unhappiness, I felt the need to delve deep within myself to find that other self that would give my life some meaning.
So that is why I have been shutting myself in a room and stopping the flow of life to stare into a screen. That is why I have been escaping crowds and forfeiting pleasures to create an inner life running in parallel with the one I live on the exterior.
To create an alternate reality is after all what a writer does, one way or the other, even though, often, that alternate reality is molded out of places she first opened her eyes to. For Naipaul, it is Trinidad, for Pamuk it is Turkey. Ironically, both have not lived in their native countries for decades. For me it has always been Nagpur, which I left 36 years ago. Not that I am so presumptuous as to compare myself with these great writers. But asking why I keep drawing the portrait of the people of Nagpur is like asking why Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote about Mocando, a fictional town based on his childhood.
By connecting Nagpur to 21st century America, we boil life down to the essence of humanity.
For Latin American writers, the creation of an alternate reality has not been an idle exercise but one fraught with the very struggle for survival. In their Nobel acceptance speeches, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, and Garcia Marquez speak of continents plundered, of deaths wreaked for minerals and gold, of legends created out of colonial greed. They speak of solitude, not of the writer, but of entire nations and continents. No wonder then that it is in Latin American literature that we find the most daringly innovative form and content; it is, after all, drawn in blood.
Like the Latin writers, I too write to overcome the shackles of my past and my present. I cannot remember when this urge came upon me but I feel I am on a voyage, a journey like any other but in this case not focused on geography but on the human condition.
Whether one publishes the great American novel is beside the point, as long as one is in the company of souls like Marquez who speak of creating a new Utopia, of giving a second opportunity to the races condemned to hundred years of solitude.