Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Story of My Writing and the Novel

(சாகித்ய அகாதெமியின் யுவ புரஸ்கார் விருது வாங்கும் நிகழ்ச்சியில் எனது ஆங்கில உரை)
I never reckoned to be a writer till my late twenties. Occasionally I wrote, but focused on reading. The more I read the less I felt the confidence to write. That is the paradox of writing! Reading is essential for the maturation of a writer, but too much of it could choke creativity. I realized that too. The initial phase of voracious reading helped me gain a foothold on writing, and later helped me to develop as a writer.
As a teenager, I wrote poetry. And I grew up writing stories. In my college days, I was thrilled to find that I was able to present argumentative answers. I immensely enjoyed writing examinations. I started to see it as an exercise in creative writing. But I did not venture into prose after six years. And there was always a reluctance to publish my writing. For 12 years since I began writing. I did not have the confidence to publish. For me, reading was the only way to understand the world and learn to live happily. It seemed to offer a means to engage with my misery and hopelessness. Writing, for me, was deeply personal and I did not want to share it with anyone.

 I started writing articles, reviews and opinion columns after 2005. Little and Middle Magazines in Tamil provided me space for my writing.  Otherwise publishing was a great task. Writing prose was an excruciating process, involving the process of synthesizing data with emotion and transforming it into an argumentative piece. I was still leaned towards fiction and was struggling to evolve a style of my own. There were days I would sit in front of paper and struggle to jot down a word. Sadly I had to drop my first attempt at novel writing as the story meandered like a snake gone crazy. At times I would translate stories and poems from English to Tamil. I also tried to translate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Born to Tell a Tale. I finished around hundred pages but gave it up. Translation gave me a chance to keep in touch with writing. I also had a miserable and forgettable experience of working in BPOs, which is known for making a de-personalized modern, who feels as alone and alienated as a nut or bolt in a machine.  I began to move towards larger questions, which drove me towards scientific and philosophical writings. It shaped my later writing focusing on human evil.
I had translated a hundred modern Western haiku and attempted to publish it. I approached the editor of Uyirmmai publications, Mr.Manushyaputran. He readily agreed, but for almost a year passed without any word. I thought the book was shelved, but wanted to give it a final push. I met him in his office. I was much more decisive this time talking about the book and shook off my shyness. It was a stroke of luck since at that time the publisher was mulling over an idea to begin a website in Tamil. He asked whether I could write articles on a weekly basis. He also offered to publish my translated haiku along with the weekly column. I was unsure about my ability to write a weekly column since I was neither a political analyst nor a scholarly writer. I reckoned I had nothing new to say to the world as a writer. ‘Am I any more knowledgeable than a reader?’, I thought. I knew I was not. But I did not have the heart to say ‘no’. I did not want to miss the media space.  In a few seconds I said ‘yes’. That ‘yes’ changed my life!
The weekly column was very difficult to pull off. I was like a comedian asked play the villain role. I would struggle the first five days of a week trying to pick a topic. Reading magazines and books was of no use. Adding to this misery, my job hardly afforded me time to prepare. I was not naturally intelligent or knowledgeable. I thought you have a right to say anything about life only if you are a god or a fool. I took the fool’s role, and I would comment on anything from science, society, politics, literature, psychology and so on. Like other writers I did not worry over readers’ opinion or whether what I wrote was right and sensible. My writing was quirky and opinionated. Once convinced over the view point I would take in an issue I would formulate a system of logic to support my argument. On instances where I would not be able to do so, I would make the write-up controversial. I always enjoyed raising a few heckles over social issues. 

My opinion column was an instant hit. I would have written over hundred articles in a few years. Gradually I began publishing in print magazines too. The range of topics I dwelled on helped me overcome the weariness and boredom in writing. I made sure I would mix up topics so that the reader would be pleasantly surprised by the unpredictability and newness. Writing regularly became a habit, and once a habit it just flowed from me. Writing became as naturalized as speech. Writing gave a sense of stability and moments of bliss in an otherwise life of fluctuations and hopelessness. I felt I belonged to this society only through writing, and made me confident. Writing regularly inculcated a sense of discipline and I learnt I could stretch myself to any extent in work as long as I enjoy it. I also realized that happiness could be achieved only through work.  
The book of translated poems with which I approached the publisher was published in 2008. The book was well received. My second book was my writings on cricket. At that time I had shifted my profession to college teaching. I immensely enjoyed interacting with students.

 Teaching opened another channel to communicate to the society and enter into a world of subconscious experience. Writing and teaching became an addiction. I would hate to come back crashing into the realm of boredom and drabness of day-to-day life. It was at that time, a friend of mine made a mention of an offer from a little known publisher to publish a novel. Draft of the novel must be submitted in a week. I knew it was a long shot. Still I wanted to give it a try. I wrote about a teenager, his friends, and a disabled girlfriend. After writing around 50 pages I realized that the plot was developing like a giant creeper and I had no chance to finish it even in a few months. I accepted the defeat and wound up. But the character of the girlfriend lingered in the mind long since then.
 The scene I wrote last was that of the girl being laid on a wooden cot, and applied medicinal oil on her paralyzed legs. It was a dull and sultry evening. She felt sticky and depressed. Yet she was defiant as her mother offered help in walking. She limps about by herself and peeps out of the window to watch people going to take bath in a nearby pond. The window is her only channel of vision towards the outside world. Her life would change immensely once she learns to ride a modified bike. She would meet more people, encounter strange experiences, and later grow into a more confident and stable individual as she realizes that her physical condition is an anomaly caused by the chaotic nature of life. The events have no meaning as such, and thus her disability does not need to be explained or justified. Towards the end of the novel she claims that neither her parents nor she herself need to be held responsible for her fate. Her crisis, the peculiar impediments she faces, the stereotypes she has to overcome, her almost hysteric loneliness, delusions were until then unrecorded in Tamil fiction. I knew I could unsettle the trends in Tamil novel. So I deleted the initial fifty pages and rewrote the novel with the girl as the protagonist; the male protagonist of the earlier draft became a secondary character.
 The novel gave me a chance to relive my past as a child and a teenager at my native place. As I set the plot in my native place, I realized how much I missed the place and the people having settled in the city for almost a decade. I always wanted to forget my painful and lonely past and re-establish a new life in the city. Writing this novel allowed me to go back to my childhood memories, heal the wounds of the past and come to terms with it. I became more at peace with myself. During the two years I spent on writing this novel, I was always worried about the shape of chapters and it helped me evolve a form-shaping vision. I was also reliving the past. It was much more painful than living!
One of the challenges of novel writing is sustainability. It is difficult to write on a daily basis when you are not a professional writer, and have a job. You could write only during the free hours. To do it you have to give up travel and meeting friends, attending family functions and so on. Writing is a lonely activity, and there is a possibility that others would misunderstand that you are shunning them and living in a shell. By the time a novel is finished you would have lost touch with a few acquaintances. Also I was also attending to my other writing assignments. I was contributing a minimum of two articles every month to magazines, and somehow found a way to squeeze in time after spending a few hours for the novel. Sometimes the novel would get struck, and I won’t find words to fill. Still I would sit in front of the computer and wait till I could at least put in a sentence. Sometimes I would just edit what I had written on the previous day, and that would help to keep in touch with the rhythm of the novel. When I was too tired to write I would still persist. There were days I would fall asleep over the keyboard. During unavoidable travels I wrote on my laptop. By then I had developed an ability to eliminate the outside world while writing even in a crowded, noisy place. I could write with the TV blaring awfully at one end and I could even hold a conversation with people and write at the same time. Once I had to write ten short articles in a week for a Diwali special issue of Times Now. It was a tough assignment by itself. But I still managed to squeeze time to persist with my daily novel writing session.  

Meanwhile I fell sick with fever and nausea. It lasted two weeks. One day I struggled for my breath and suffered immense stomach pain. I lost consciousness that night and slipped into a coma. Unfortunately I was admitted to a hospital where I was not given necessary treatment for three days. My condition worsened as my internal organs began to degenerate and my brain developed edema. On the brink of death I was shifted to another hospital, where with proper treatment I stabilized. I woke up from coma after eight days. Happiness was all I felt initially, though a little confused why I was lying in the ICU of a strange hospital. When my family members explained the last eight days I lost track of, I was upset and angry. I had lost eight precious days of my life, and I could have done so much on those days. Once I realized that I had no reason to be alive after all that had happened, I knew I was very lucky.  Realising that life and death are too irrational things to be explained, I started to think that I was kept alive only to write. Literary and serious writing does not pay, especially in Tamil Nadu. So whenever I felt that writing does not reward for all the work put in, I would remind myself that life is the biggest reward one could gain, and I was given that to keep writing. It has continued to be my belief till today. From being a passion, a hobby, a means to express and face the larger questions of existence, writing for me became an almost spiritual calling.

Coming back from the brink of death, it took almost six months to recover physical strength. Even walking a few steps was tiring and lifting a bucket of water was painful. Still I gained energy from somewhere to write the novel. Initially I suspected that I would not find the flow due to the sickness and break. But my publisher kept on encouraging, and claimed that the novel is still inside and it will unravel itself once I venture into it. His confidence in me was a huge boost, and he was right. I found my flow back. The depressing experience of the in-between months made the second part of novel more serious and somber in tone. My regular writing helped me continue the novel. Though prose and fiction are generically wide apart, the feel of the language I derived with consistent writing shaped my narrative.  

After the publication of the novel, I wanted to write a book of prose again. I was always hugely interested in biographies. A biography is a factual kind of novel. Or a fictional life in facts. I incidentally read a book on Bruce Lee and became interested in him. He was a martial artist as well as a philosopher. He stretched himself to the extreme to achieve his dreams, and while doing so he developed his own philosophical vision and adapted it as a unique form of Kung Fu. His rise and fall and his untimely death made for an interesting narration of a rollercoaster journey in the cruel and inhuman world of media. He was an ordinary person and a great achiever at the same time. I wanted to analyze how a man who had managed to reach the peak could contrive his own fall and death. This was the theme around which I wanted to weave the life story of that legend. No such biography of the star had been written in Tamil till then in the philosophical mode, and I thought I could fill that space. I joined a martial art class for six months to get a feel of it. The experience of learning martial arts, watching numerous videos of Bruce Lee and other artists, analyzing stunt choreography in his films and writing about it was deeply satisfying. It made me grow as a person and it shaped my own outlook of life.
My next book was a collection of my poems. It was ironical that though I wanted to be poet at first, my book of poems would come out much later after I have been established as a prose and fiction writer.
 Online writing, blogging and other forms of media came to exist at the time I took writing seriously. These new platforms of writing encouraged me to write prodigiously and lucidly. They shaped the style and tone of my writing, though my viewpoints are shaped by various forces. I belong to the generation of the Little magazines of the early nineties, the middle magazines of early 2000 and the blogging and networking atmosphere of the present time. The sixth book Rasigan, published on Jan 1 2015, is a novel about how a serious left intellectual of the early nineties falls prey to the mainstream media. In a sense, it is a critique of the nature and function of the present literary-political situation in Tamil.

Winning the YuvaPuraskar award for Tamil in 2014 was a huge surprise for me. I had never even won an award before and thought I had no luck for one. Writing in Tamil is unrewarding financially, and so winning an award like this is like a blind man being given a day of vision and then being pushed into darkness again. It took me a month to come to terms with the announcement of the award. I would have kept on writing for another 30 years even if the award hasn’t had come my way. I assume I am like the Christian missionaries during the colonial times who traveled to Asia and Africa, knowing very well that they may not survive the life-threatening conditions there for long. Still they lay their life down to spread the word of God. This life is my god and I am to serve through writing.  

1 comment:

jude raj said...

"The more I read the less I felt the confidence to write".
I think most of the readers would come across this layer.

"I thought you have a right to say anything about life only if you are a god or a fool."
What an example of expressing the freedom of speech and writing?

Life is the biggest reward one could gain, and I was given that to keep writing.