It is hard to write about oneself. It is hard because memory is– well, it isn’t anything, is it, at least not until we turn out attention to.a place and time? Memory then weaves us an experience and we are content to imagine we have retrieved the past. In Jean Santeuil, where Proust perfected the techniques he would employ in his opus, the narrator remembers how he would bring his nurse to a particular hotel on rainy days. He remembers these trips now, says the narrator, without feeling melancholy. However, he had expected then to remember the visits with melancholy. His memory can retrieve the sensory elements of the visits but not their emotional texture, precisely because they are his memories not those of the remembered self. “His” memories are reconstructions drawn in the present, in the now. The other’s memories have been irretrievably lost, not for want of retention of factual details, but because when we are young we have expectations of the future, and it is this futurity that cannot be retrieved.
How then should a writer approach the autobiographical experience? Perhaps by first surrendering to the inevitability of loss. Tabish goes further. He approaches the earlier self as someone quite different. Tabish’s essay takes this dual point-of-view approach. There is a Tabish-then and a Tabish-now. The double-conscious narrative gives a stereoscopic perspective on events, giving us a sense of how the person became the writer. Tabish will probably continue to have misgivings and doubts about this strategy, but without doubt, we are the fortunate beneficiaries of his endeavour.
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
He is fascinated by the terminus. It is the first truly big and old railway station he has experienced. He is fascinated by the fact that cars drive into the terminus. He notices the architecture too, the vast glory and extent of it, and he knows that in some ways its construction marked the height of the British empire in the 1880s, and the building still bears the imprint of that moment. He notices the octagonal dome, a ribbed structure with a colossal female figure holding a torch in one hand and a spoked wheel in the other. This, he vaguely remembers, is Progress. But his mind and eyes do not linger particularly on the architecture or its quaint and ironic symbolism. What he notices most in the flow of life, the taxis driving in, the uniformed coolies; he is not an anglophile. His English, which he uses to write and which has brought him here, has not seemed to him to be a colonial inheritance. It was just the language of his education. It was not superior to Hindi, which was spoken around him in Gaya, or Urdu, which was supposed to be his family tongue; it was just easier to negotiate for him. With English, you knew where you stood. That was not the case with Hindi or Urdu. His Hindi teachers at Nazareth Academy marked him down for using Urdu words and constructs, and this got more pronounced in Gaya College. Urdu, which was taught to him desultorily at home, mostly by his mother, as the Urdu tutor had been fired for twisting his ears to make him learn better, was less of a problem, as it was not attached to exams and grades, but it still left him feeling uncertain, for seniors could sometimes correct his ‘talaffus’: that ‘k’ was actually a ‘q’ in Urdu, though it was only a ‘k’ in Hindi. Unlike many of his Hindi-speaking friends, he got the Urdu ‘s’ and ‘sh’ and the Urdu ‘z’ and ‘j’ right, but he still had to watch his tongue. English laid no landmines, because it was not in a state of civil war as Urdu and Hindi appeared to be with one another. Or maybe they had sibling rivalry, but then neither recognised the other as born from the same womb. Which made it worse, because, in his eyes, or rather his ears, which no one had yet discovered to be hard of hearing, Hindi and Urdu resembled each other enough to be almost twins. But most guardians of these two sister-languages thought otherwise. With English, you knew where you stood: it was not in a mine-infested field.
And it was English that had brought him to Calcutta, with a sheaf of badly typed poems.
The next morning he heads for, I think it was Lake Gardens, a posh part of Calcutta, leafier and less crowded than the part in which he had stayed overnight. He has an address written on a piece of paper by his English professor at Gaya College, Dr Ivan K. Masih.
Gaya College is where he has studied for the past few years. That is where he did what would be called the final two years of ‘high school’ elsewhere, except that in Bihar, unlike in Delhi and some other states, it is still called ‘Intermediate.’ Intermediate in Arts (I.A.) and Intermediate in Science (I.Sc.). He had done I.Sc., after ten years of schooling, until senior secondary (or ‘Matriculation’) exams in Nazareth Academy. There was no other choice. His father was a doctor. His grandfather and great-grandfather had been doctors. Almost all the close male members of his family – his mother’s brothers, his father’s cousins – were engineers or doctors. He was interested in theoretical physics, but the rest of the sciences bored him to death: it seemed to consist of learning matters by heart. Not that, to be honest, he minded learning things by heart: he could recite many poems by heart. He had taught himself those poems. They were mostly poems by the major Romantics, and by Tennyson, as well as dohas by Kabir and more recent poems by the more vernacular Hindi poets, such as Harivansh Rai Bachchan. A smattering of Auden and Yeats. Nothing, at least in English, that was more recent. So learning things by heart was not really the problem – in later years, he suspected that it was the strange divorce that the sciences, as they were taught, offered from life as he saw it lived. This was strange, he knew later, for science was all about life. But that is not how it was taught. Even geography and history were taught as if they had nothing to do with lived life, with animals and humans and societies and the climate as they clamoured around him. Only literature – and that strange subject the nuns of Nazareth Academy had taught, ‘Moral Science’ – had something to do with life. Even when he had discovered, some months ago, a small tattered book called Dead Souls by a (to him) unknown Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, and had read its extremely removed narrative set in another century, another country, another age, he could not but feel how it connected to him and his small town of Gaya. He had noticed this about the Russian classics he had devoured, about Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, even about Jane Austen or Victor Hugo, unlike the sciences he was taught, the geography and the history he had been taught, they came back and connected in deep ways, some visible, some vaguely sensed, with life around him, with people and places in this small circumscribed space that he had inhabited for around two decades now. This, he sensed even then, was weird, for these were not Indian writers. He could understand relating to stories by Premchand and Tagore – he was yet to discover Urdu writers like Manto and Chughtai, or contemporary writers from outside Hindi, like Mahasweta Devi, that he would later swear by – but how was it that stories set in feudal Russian towns or the semi-aristocratic English countryside still spoke to the life around him, and the sciences – which surely had everything to say about life, ranging from gravity to evolution – failed to do so? He knew it was not a failure of the sciences, but of the way in which his society approached the sciences. Later, many years later, he would call it an instrumentalist approach. The mystery, the wonder, the brilliance at the core of the sciences were left out, mostly, and what they were turned into were instruments of professional success – becoming successful engineers and doctors. Somehow, literature escaped this conscription – maybe because, as his father thundered at him and his family noted, “You will starve with literature!”
Because after struggling and finishing his I.Sc. – he had managed a first class – he followed a group of his friends to DAV College, Chandigarh. It had caused the first great rupture between him and his father. His father did not believe you had to leave Gaya to do anything. It was, by then he had begun to understand, a complex bolus of deep love for his family and an urge to control everything around him. He had demanded to be allowed to accompany his friends to do a B.Sc. at a better institute, in a larger city. His father had refused and warned. But his mother, who until then had never in his memory differed from her husband, had backed him resolutely. His father had given in to the mother’s insistence, sullenly. So he had left with his friends on a train via Delhi to the sculpted city of Chandigarh, designed at Jawaharlal Nehru’s behest by Le Corbusier. His father had refused to go to the station to see him off. He had been the only boy seen off only by his mother. He had brooded over it. He had been unhappy – he cared deeply about his family – and he had lost whatever confidence he had drummed up the farther the train chugged from Gaya. At least in the train, surrounded by the boys he had known in Nazareth Academy and then Gaya College, he had been distracted: this was the train of dreams for all of them. They would become engineers or doctors; they would enter the civil services. (Only one would become an engineer. No one would become a doctor; no one would enter the elite civil services. The others would fashion decent careers, though mostly of the sort that diligent small town middle-class boys from ordinary institutions achieve.) But at that moment, over those almost 24 hours of journeying, they were all riding their dreams.
But what was his ‘dream’? He knew what it was. He had known them since secondary school. He wished to be a writer. He was on this train – riding his friends’ dreams to a career in engineering, medicine or the civil services – as a secondary means to achieving this ‘dream’. He had already written and published a bit. Jayanta Mahapatra had selected some of his poems to include on the prestigious poetry page that he edited for the Telegraph Colour Magazine, published from Calcutta. His family, especially his father, took a lot of pride in his writing. They were cultured people. But, of course, there was no question of his becoming a professional writer: the only careers were through the sciences. He did not know how one became a writer, or even, for that matter, a journalist. He had never dreamed of claiming that he wanted to abandon the sciences for the arts.
But the three or four days that he spent in Chandigarh increased the confusion in his mind. His father’s refusal to see him off, to accept his decision, left a hole in his heart, for he was no longer angry at his father; he was sad. He was sad because he was afraid he would fail in the sciences in this alien city. He was afraid he would fail because he did not really want to succeed in the sciences. He did not share the enthusiasm of his friends for their dream careers. He just wanted one because he had been told all his life that they were the only careers, and he had told himself that once he had one, he could continue to write “on the side.” That is what his father wanted for him. That is what everyone advised him. But now, in this city of wide streets and tidy parks, so different from his Gaya, as his confidence diminished with the friends who set up on their own here and there, he wondered what would happen if he failed to get a career. Where would he be? Neither fish nor fowl. Was it not better to fail trying to achieve your ‘dream’, than to take a shortcut, and get lost on that path?
He made up his mind, and went back to Gaya. It was also true that he was missing the comforts of his house, and the presence of his family; he had never lived away from them, not even for a day. He wondered if he might have coped better with homesickness if his father had supported his move? In later years, he was grateful that his father had not done so; it might have left him lost in that endless detour forever.
His father was there at the station to receive him. But their conflicts were not entirely over. Because now, he informed his family that he wanted to study in Gaya, but would study the arts. He would do a Bachelor of Arts: in English, History and Sociology. He would ‘major’ in English. His father was unhappy. He protested, but less than expected. His father was relieved to have his son back in this mansion he had built, and that would always remain partly incomplete. His father was prepared to believe that his son would now study for the elite civil services – after all, you could take the competitive exams with different subject options. And he, the youth, started enjoying his studies for the first time.
Gaya College was no elite institution, no matter what the people of Gaya claimed. But it did have a handful of dedicated teachers: Dr Ivan K. Masih was one of them. It was to Masih Sir that he had shown his poems, for Masih Sir had published a couple of books from Writer’s Workshop in Calcutta. In those days, with international houses yet to flock to India, Writer’s Workshop was a haven for Indian English writing. Even writers who became famous later on, such as Vikram Seth, had first published from this house. It was not a vanity press, because your manuscript had to be accepted by the highly respected scholar and poet, Professor P. Lal, and he would only publish what he liked. But once it had been accepted, you undertook to buy a certain number of copies of your own book (I think the number was 50 in those days). This defrayed the expenses of publishing the beautifully hand-bound books. It was to Professor P. Lal that Masih Sir had written a letter of recommendation, and it is on the door of Professor P. Lal that our timid youth, with a badly typed manuscript of poems under his arm, now knocks. He had called earlier to fix an appointment.
He entered a tastefully decorated sitting room. TV had come to Gaya only a few years ago, and, given his father’s total refusal to travel, let alone go on vacations, he was not used to living in the imaginary spaces of the idiot box and later the computer screen. Still, he had read enough by then to know the difference between what existed in P. Lal’s sitting room, and what existed in his parents’ sitting room. His parents’ sitting room was probably four times larger, and it was tastefully decorated too. But here, he knew, there was authentic culture – the statues, the paintings, the furniture – not the replicas and the modern placebos that existed in his home in Gaya. The difference, in some ways, was similar to what he experienced when he went to the lower middle-class homes of some of his classmates: what they had on their shelves and walls often appeared to be cheaper replicas of the more authentic stuff in his parents’ house. He had always thought it was a difference of taste: his father and mother were tasteful people. Or it was a difference of money: his father was more affluent. But, perhaps, he vaguely felt now, it was neither: it was a difference of place, or, more specifically, place of birth. That is why, many years later, when he would write his PhD, he would switch ‘bourgeoisie’ to ‘babu’, for a ‘babu’ was born more into his privilege than a European bourgeois could imagine. This, he knew, applied to him in ways that were different than they were for the people living in this cultured home in Lake Gardens. It applied to those of his classmates who had more crudely imitative culture on their shelves in a different way too. Interestingly, he felt then and discovered later, the differences were bridgeable between these babu classes, if one were capable of sufficient acrobatics of remembering and forgetting. But it was almost impossible to crash into any of these babu layers from the outside.
He waited for a while. Professor P. Lal was busy elsewhere in the house. He waited a while more. Professor P. Lal came in. He mentioned Prof Ivan K. Masih; handed the letter that the professor merely glanced at, while enquiring, politely, after Dr Masih. Professor P. Lal was unfortunately busy. He could spare only a few minutes. The youth handed the renowned poet, scholar and editor his badly typed manuscript in the kind of flimsy cardboard folder that lawyers used in the Gaya court: it had been the best option. He tried to discipline both his gestures and his consonants, but he also did not want to sound like he was cultivating an accent that he did not actually have. Prof P. Lal was elegant and imposing. Later, he remembered the professor as very tall, taller than him, but as he was himself six feet tall, it could not really have been so: the professor could not have been as tall as he remained in his memory. Surely, the tallness was a reflection of something else: elegance, achievement, confidence, ease, status? Prof. P. Lal was cool, kind, gracious. He took the folder and flipped through a page or two. He said, “Can you come back tomorrow evening? I need to look at it.”
When he came back, the professor was waiting for him in (what I remember as) an armchair. He handed the youth a thick sheet of handmade paper, covered with elegant handwriting. It was the professor’s critique of the manuscript. It said the poems showed promise, but were not ready for publication yet. He needed to get on with his studies and keep writing. In a few years, perhaps. The writing was too “uneven” right now.
The professor was right; the youth knew that, and, despite the urgings of unjust hope, he had known it even before coming to Calcutta. But he also knew that much of what the professor had published – he had procured and read some collections – was just as uneven, and some of what was not uneven was simply bland. The exercise of academics. Why was it that the Professor did not notice the blandness of collections by academics, retired officers and senior managers, mostly from big cities? Why is it that his unevenness – despite the “flashes of promise” the professor had noted (a phrase he latched on to with the desperation of the drowning) – showed more than the obvious unevenness, to him, of many books already published by Writer’s Workshop? At the moment, though, he was less distracted by the rejection – the disappointment would come later – than by Prof. P. Lal’s incredibly calligraphic writing: poised, balanced, elegant, assured. His own handwriting was atrociously uneven. He wondered: how does one ever learn to write in a hand as beautiful as that, the time, the nib, the paper, the space that it demands?
On the train back to Gaya, he read the sheet again and realised that the professor had not told him anything he did not already know about the limits of his writing. Yes, it was uneven.
In later years, he realised that this was a feature of writers who had not sprung, full-grown, into authorship. They were not children of Zeus. They had to cobble themselves together, from bits and pieces, over the years, and even after they had become something passingly like Athena, there were moments when their pitted, quandaried past caught up with them, in the shape of a request from a less prestigious magazine that they could not refuse, or a cause that mattered for them even if it meant nothing in the world of literary gods and goddesses, and this left a new dent in their “oeuvre”. They could never achieve, except at the risk of losing themselves, the smoothness of an Athena sprung, full-grown, from the forehead of Zeus. In later days, he learned and chose to live with this – for he also realised that it took very little to erase such dents, if one wished to do so. You just needed to turn the screw on the odd consonant, spread a bit of polish here and there. It was easy to achieve after a certain point, but he did not want to achieve it: he did not want to pass himself off as identical to Athena.
On that day, though, he was not yet fully aware of these matters. So, he looked at that page of paper, covered with calligraphic writing, and he felt a sinking in his heart. Back in Gaya, Masih Sir read the paper and smiled. “He would have published you if you had been a lecturer or professor,” Masih Sir said, “He just doesn’t want to take the risk with a youth from nowhere.” But the boy was not upset at the letter; he saw the justice of the remarks. Perhaps Masih Sir was right in suggesting that the same strengths and weaknesses would have resulted in a different result if the author had been a different person. But it did not really matter. The boy knew he had to keep writing. There was still Jayanta Mahapatra in The Telegraph Colour Magazine, there were small, uneven magazines all over India, one of which, run by the Urdu-English poet, Baldev Mirza, from Aligarh, had started taking a deep interest in his poetry. This had pleased his father, and the boy still wanted to please his father, partly to prove to himself that his decision to study literature had not been a blunder.
But even these did not matter, because the boy felt that Professor P. Lal was right: his poetry was still too full of dents, not all of which were advertent. He needed to get back to the drawing board, and he needed to read more – but he was afraid that, in a place like Gaya, his reading would always be two decades behind the times. Still, writing, the boy told himself, was not like athletics or sports; you could keep improving yourself as long as your mind lasted. You did not necessarily hit your peak at the age of 24 or 30. Time was on his side in this line. It was just a question of going on: reading, writing, re-writing, revising, typing it out on a dilapidated typewriter, and then walking or cycling to the post-office to buy stamps or international reply coupons for SASEs (self-addressed and stamped envelopes). Finally, carefully, posting it all off in as crisp an envelope as Gaya afforded, neatly sealed, and then pretending not to wait for the postman on those slow and warm afternoons that followed one another unblinkingly, obdurate as hope.
A lucky break came his way, and it came unexpectedly, further cementing his belief that all you could do in life is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, aimed, vaguely, in the direction you wished to go. He had started teaching a class in his old secondary school, Nazareth Academy. It was a school run by Roman Catholic nuns, and, in those days, it only ran classes until grade 10; after that, the students moved to local colleges to do the final two years of what would now be called ‘high school’ and was then called ‘Intermediate.’ It was an English Medium school – the only authentic one in town, where all subjects, except Hindi and Sanskrit, were taught in English. But the nuns were also strict, and by grade 7 a handful of students had dropped out, moved away or been rusticated. Grade 7 was the rustication year, especially for boys who were, by then, getting big, and the nuns had no wish to deal with the rougher elements in the final years. So, in grade 7, a bunch of students – around ten – were taken in from other schools. These were bright little girls and boys, but they were from Hindi Medium schools, and they needed help in English. The school, for various reasons, could not provide that kind of help officially, but it could get a good ex-student to offer private tuitions that year. That was what he was doing: teaching English to a group of seventh-grade boys and girls in the afternoons in one of the classrooms of his old school.
He enjoyed doing it. In later years, when he became a university teacher, he still thought that his best experience of teaching – if he had to select just one episode – had come from those months. He had been teaching Longfellow’s ‘Daybreak’, which was prescribed in one of the course books. It is a simple poem. A wind comes “up out of the sea”, hails the ships, sweeps across the forest and farms, whispers to the corn, rings the bells in the tower, urging them all on to life. But then, in the final couplet, it crosses “the churchyard with a sigh” and says, “Not yet! In quiet lie.” He was teaching it to a bunch of students, three or four boys and as many girls, diligent, hard-working, intelligent pupils, happy to have gained entrance to the best school in town. But they could not understand the poem. He realised then that not one of them was Christian. So he explained to them that a churchyard would also contain graves, or be attached to a graveyard. There was a quiet, wide-eyed girl at the back. As he mentioned graves, she uttered a loud, involuntary: Ahhh! It was an expression of understanding, of appreciation of the poem. Of course, a couple of the boys laughed. But he always remembered it as the best response – better than high grades or PhD successes by other students – that he had ever had as a teacher.
It was one of those afternoons, as he was finishing the class, that Sr Ann Palatty, the principal, walked by. She would check on the class once in a while. That day, as she was leaving, she said to him: “You know that The Times of India recently opened an edition in Patna, don’t you?” He did: he was already writing occasionally for various publications, though he was more used to rejection slips than publication. “They are looking for a stringer in Gaya. Why don’t you apply?”
He did, and he was called for an interview. That surprised him. He was still doing his BA, and he knew that there were senior journalists in town. What surprised him even more was that he got the job. The pay was meagre: about Rs 400 a month. His father did not like the idea. “I can give you that much in pocket-money: Why do you have to run about town for them?” But it was not the money that drove him. It was the running around. He had realised that while he could work on his language, to an extent, by reading widely, he had to work on something else, perhaps even more urgently. He had to cross the borders of his inherited privilege, his middle-class safety. Running about covering agitations and crimes enabled him to do so, no matter what his father thought. And his father, too, learned to take some pride in it when, after six months or so, he started getting the occasional by-line. His father even started discussing a career as a journalist, not as the best possibility – that was still the civil services – but as a second option. But he knew that this was a danger too: he had to humour and comfort his father, he had to learn what he could as a ‘stringer’, but getting lost in journalism was just a bit better than getting lost in medicine, or the civil services. He wanted to be a writer. He knew that. He felt he had taken a step closer to it. But he still did not know how one became a writer. He still did not even dare confess it as a “career” plan. He did not come from those circles; he had not been born in those cities.
Gaya changed for him. There were so many nooks and corners he had not noticed. He met people who would never have crossed his paths otherwise. It was not just a three-layered town, which was the way his parents had inadvertently brought him up to think of it: the old families and professionals, who were mostly doctors or professors, and could be befriended; the transferrable officers and bureaucrats, some of whom were cultured but most were (increasingly) political and hence, as a category, to be kept at a distance; and all of the rest, who were to be treated in myriad different ways, true, depending on their demands on you, but who seldom penetrated further than the front veranda of the house. Now layers and layers peeled off Gaya, an onion-town.
He had suspected the existence of these layers. Initially, when visiting his father’s clinic, where he would not just meet people from all classes, mostly poor ones, but also (fleetingly) such alien beings (in his family circle) as women in complete purdah, men with two wives, circus artistes, and hijras. Then, a bit older, he had also suspected their existence when visiting his Phoopa, Kalam Haidri. Kalam Haidri, married to his father’s oldest sister, was the only writer in the family. He had been a lecturer in Urdu, but soon after his marriage, mostly due to the pressures of marrying into a very affluent family, he had quit his job and taken on half of the family businesses. But his heart was still in literature, and diverting a bit of his profits, he had founded an organisation, the Cultural Academy, which published a newspaper and magazine in Urdu, and occasional books. Kalam Haidri was not just the only writer in the family – he mostly wrote short stories, apart from journalistic articles; he was also the only communist. The latter made him slightly suspect in his brother-in-law’s eyes. But Haidri Sb proudly carried a party card, and was associated with the Progressive Writers Movement: friends with some, like Joginder Paul and Rahi Masoom Raza, and on visiting terms with Ismat Chughtai and others.
Haidri Sb’s house, called Reena House, after his only daughter, was one that our youth had often visited. Apart from family rituals – for instance, Eids started with breakfast at his grandmother’s place, lunch in Reena House, and dinner at his parents’ place – he would stop there on his way back from school, as it was exactly halfway between his school and his house. He would leave the cycle at the gate, and run up for a glass of lemonade, which his aunt rustled up immediately, and then a quick browse through the books and magazines lying about. If he liked one, he would borrow it. He would, on such occasions, encounter people – reporters, young students, political figures, cultural activists – downstairs, where Haidri Sb had his editorial office, and vaguely sense the existence of other layers of existence in Gaya.
But, now, working as a stringer for the Times of India, these layers multiplied. His father was perturbed by it: he did not trust either the bureaucrats who ran the town or the new upwardly mobile middle-classes, some recently educated, who were muscling into property and affluence. He saw both as essentially uncultured and criminal. The only people he felt comfortable with were members of the old families, who were fast disappearing, moving away to bigger cities, or working-class poor people, whose failures of trust, for instance when they lied to borrow money from him, he was able to forgive as a consequence of their circumstances. He was much less forgiving with the middle-classes, ranging from his upper middle-class circles to the lower middle-classes: from them he demanded both culture and honesty, and he, rightly or wrongly, mostly found them lacking in both. Now his son was talking to, dealing with all these people. Reporting on conflicts and criminals. Covering caste and land disputes. Going to, good Lord, law courts! What was probably worse, he was speaking to bureaucrats and officers – policemen and criminals were the same in the father’s eyes, the former were simply empowered to break the law. And, most disturbingly, he was meeting that alien species the father detested and always avoided: politicians! He had arguments with his son: “Why do you have to do it for, what do they pay you, 400 rupees a month? I can give you that much as pocket money!”
But the youth was adamant: he knew that he had to do it. If he were to be a writer, he had to not just read as much literature as he could, he also had to experience as much life as he could. It was all patchwork; he was stitching himself an armour. This was his way to learn to write. And that is when, late one night – the youth had been out on his Yezdi and the father would never go to bed until every member of his family was back under his roof – the matter finally came to a head.
“You will starve with literature! Why do you have to do this?” demanded the father.
They are on the veranda. The lichi trees outside are spottled with light falling from the house. The father has been stalking up and down the veranda, waiting, looking at his watch, grumbling. The son comes up, dreading the argument. And that is what the father asks him, directly: “You will starve with literature! Why do you have to do this? Why can’t you just write your articles from home? Why do you have to go out and meet these untrustworthy, uncultured people?”
And the son replies, honestly, “I have to.”
“Why,” asks the father, “Why?”
And the son gives the real answer for the first time: “Because that is the only way for me to become a writer. I want to be a writer.”
There is very little light on the veranda. They cannot see each other’s faces clearly. His father sits down in one of the wicker chairs. The son keeps standing.
The father says, in a bewildered voice, “But no one can survive as a writer! There is no money in writing. Do you think your Phoopa would have managed his Cultural Academy if he had not inherited wealth?”
There is a silence. Bats cascade into the lichi trees. It is late summer, and some lichis are still hanging from the topmost branches.
Then the son replies as clearly and carefully as he can: “Whatever happens, I will manage on my own as a writer. I won’t ask you for money.” He means it well; he means it as assurance. But he can see that his father hears something else. His father gets up and leaves the veranda. The son locks the door, and goes up to his room. He has just changed into his sleeping clothes when his mother knocks.
“What is it that you said to your father?” she demands.
It takes the son a few seconds to recall his reply. He does not feel that he has said anything offensive. He repeats it to his mother.
His mother sits down next to him, holds his hand, always a gesture of persuasion on her part, and tells him: “Go down and apologise to him.”
“But, Ammi, I did not say anything bad.”
“You might not have meant anything bad, but what he heard was terrible. He had tears in his eyes. He said to me: If a child does not ask his father for money, what use is the father?”
It took the youth a moment to understand this. It was, I feel, at that moment that the young man, struggling and confused, achieved a minimum of clarity about what he had chosen, and what it might entail. It is now that I can, with some justification, say that he became me.
I went down and apologised to my father. But I never asked him for money to be a writer, and he never offered me any. He knew where we both stood, and he was proud of it. Both the fact that I would ask him, if I were ever so desperately pressed, and the fact that I wanted to and could manage without his support. He never again said anything about me being anything other than a writer, even though he often reminded me, indirectly, that a “real” job on the side was always good policy.
It was at that moment that I finally became a writer, but given my background, given my father, I could never be a full-time writer, as some put it. A fragment of his suspicion of the viability of the writing career stayed in my mind, and I always had a job on the side. I still retain that splinter of suspicion. When I read others who claim that they have always or mostly written full-time, I know that they do not belong to my tribe. I know that I cannot write for them.
Those of us who do not spring, full-grown, brilliantly armoured, from the forehead of our parent, have to accumulate our armour in any way we can. We grow slowly, haphazardly; we stumble and regain our feet. It is a fearful process, and it never ends. The godly committees that want finished “oeuvres” can never really see it. They want the kind of evenness that our trajectories do not permit. That, finally, is the reason why someone like Mahasweta Devi would not get the Nobel Prize, why someone like Charles Bukowski would not be allowed into the literary mainstream during his lifetime. It is a long list.
The so-called high literary world, despite its occasional coin of condescension tossed to a beggar, is yet to name the kinds of divinity that do not spring, full-grown, from the forehead of a Zeus. Athena is not the name for them. Not all of them achieve divinity, but some do. What they never achieve is evenness. It is in the nature of their kind of divinity to be uneven, to be varied: if it hampers them at times, it also makes them reach unusual heights, achieve what would not even be attempted by an Athena. To know and accept this is to become a writer, despite not springing from the forehead of Zeus.
At that moment, I became a writer in more ways than one. I had decided to live with what I had, and make the most of it. I had to be true not just to my ‘dream’ (What an awful word from the world of Zeus!), but, above all, to its different trajectory. I had assumed responsibility for my decision, and my father both knew and respected that. And I had learned that most important of literary truths: there is always a gap between what you say and what others hear, what even those very close to you hear. You become a writer at the moment when you determine to work with that gap.
Lychee tree. © Mojijung/ Adobe Stock.
At one point in the essay, there is a significant quarrel between the narrator ‘Tabish’ and his father, and it takes place within sensory reach of some lychee trees. The lychee species is native to China, not India. It crossed over sometime in the 17th century, and flourished in the Northern latitudes. We thought it ironical that one of these trees, the child of migrant, immigrant, and refugee trees, should have witnessed a father and son disagree over exit, voice and loyalty. This tree too deserved a representation, in image as well as word. Ergo.
Born and educated in the town of Gaya, in Bihar, India, Tabish Khair is the author of various books, including the poetry collections, Where Parallel Lines Meet (Penguin, 2000) and Man of Glass (HarperCollins, 2010), the studies, Babu Fictions: Alienation in Indian English Novels (Oxford UP, 2001), The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness (Palgrave, 2010), The New Xenophobia (OUP, 2016) and the novels, The Bus Stopped (Picador, 2004), Filming (Picador, 2007), The Thing About Thugs (Harpercollins, 2010; Houghton Mifflin, 2012), How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (Interlink and Corsair 2014), Just Another Jihadi Jane (Periscope and Interlink, 2016/17), which was published as Jihadi Jane in India (Penguin, 2016), and Night of Happiness (Picador, 2018). Other Routes, an anthology of pre-modern travel texts by Africans and Asians, co-edited and introduced by Khair (with a foreword by Amitav Ghosh) was published by Signal Books and Indiana University Press in 2005 and 2006 respectively. He has also edited or co-edited other scholarly works.
His honours and prizes include the All India Poetry Prize (awarded by the Poetry Society and the British Council) and honorary fellowship (for creative writing) of the Baptist University of Hong Kong. His novels have been shortlisted for 16 prestigious prizes in five countries, including the Man Asian Literary Prize, the DSC Prize and the Encore Award, and translated into several languages. Two of his books (one fiction and the other non-fiction) have also been shortlisted for India’s main book prize offered by the National Academy of Arts, the Sahitya Akademi Award.
His writing has appeared in various anthologies of poetry and fiction, including The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poetry, The New Anthem, and Penguin’s 60 Indian Poets. A prolific contributions to journals and magazines, Khair writes regularly for The Hindu (India), and for Wasafiri (UK) and the Massachusetts Review (USA).
Several recent books on contemporary Indian writing, including Bruce King’s Rewriting India: Eight Writers (Oxford UP, 2014), discuss Khair’s work in detail. Two collections of essays on Khair’s poetry and fiction have also been edited and published by Om Prakash Dwivedi and Cristina M. Gámez-Fernández.
Khair now mostly lives in a village off the town of Aarhus, Denmark.