Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How I came to writing

This post was written as a special essay for the AuthorTV blog.

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer. And this wasn’t because creative writing or writers weren’t valued in my family.

My maternal grandfather, Ali Jawad Zaidi, was a scholar and Urdu poet. His day job was to serve the Indian bureaucracy in one capacity or the other, often in posts that were related to communication or culture. On a small civil servant’s salary, he brought up seven kids of his own, as well as a series of long-term guests who stayed with the family whenever they needed to. Actually, I should say that my grandmother, Safdari urf Shehnaz somehow stretched his small salary almost to breaking point.

By the time I was born, Grandpa had retired, but he continued to work with the Urdu Academy in Lucknow. And he wrote.

Grandpa wrote from about 4:30 am to 8 am. Then he went to work. He returned at about 5:30 or 6 pm, and then wrote again until dinner-time, which was about 9 pm. He had, effectively two full-time jobs. I did not yet know this, of course.

He had a study and his books lay in stacks on open, metal cupboards. He had a large writing desk, the drawers of which were filled with paper, pens, ink, pins, stamp pads, letterheads – his grandchildren stole from him quite often.

Because we messed around with his papers and stole his ink and paper, we had been warned against playing inside this room. But the more it was forbidden, the more I wanted to. So, I would go in and climb on top of his desk when he wasn’t around.

I was not yet interested in his work, and I couldn’t read Urdu. But I have a vague memory of opening and shutting boxes, peeking into drawers. What did I find there? What did I know of his work?

Nothing. Nor did the other adults in the house. My mother and her siblings also read. But mainly in English because they went to English medium schools. Some of them could fuddle through Urdu texts, and while they did appreciate the sound of it, they did not have the felicity of language to really enjoy a book in Urdu, or buy much literature. It must have been sad for Grandpa, but there it was.

All I knew about him was that he was a respected man. He was also a very tired man. At night (later in life, in the afternoon) he would lie down and want a gentle massage before he could fall asleep. His children did this when they were younger. Now it fell to the grandchildren, and we were awfully lazy and easily bored. It was hard to make us stay beyond a couple of minutes.

Except, he told us stories. As long as we pressed his back and limbs, he would keep drawing out a narrative. The wonderful thing about Grandpa was that he wasn’t afraid of diversity. And I don’t mean that in a clichéd ‘all Indians are brothers and sisters’ sense. He didn’t try to tell us stories from the Urdu world, to which he must have had greater access. He knew that we read Tarzan and Phantom and Mandrake the Magician stories. So he told us stories about Phantom.

These were not stories he himself had read in comics. He just told us whatever story happened to pop up in his head, and allowed Phantom to be the protagonist. I have to confess that I don’t remember any of these stories. But then, I don’t remember any of the Phantom comics either.

I also have a dim memory of cooking up stories when I was very little – Five? Six? Seven? – and telling them to cousins who were close to me in age. I didn’t try to write anything down. My cousins tell me some of these were quite shocking and I have no idea where I came up with the ideas. Perhaps, from forbidden films that I managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of.

It couldn’t have been books because my reading material was rather tightly monitored. For children, comics and Enid Blytons were allowed. Besides, I wasn’t much of a reader yet. I liked things to be read to me, especially rhymes. But it was taken for granted that I would learn to draw my entertainment from reading, or films (TV was still a new beast and did not give off any subtle scent of art).

To be honest, I would rather have watched TV, or films, than read. But when I was eight, I had a rather serious fracture. I was bedridden and hospitalized for a long time. I suppose I must have been bored, or in pain. I don’t remember all that.

What happened was that my mother began to buy books rather recklessly, going far beyond her limited means as a school teacher. I remember the books clearly – it was the Noddy series by Enid Blyton, brightly illustrated. I read rather fast. Soon, I was reading a book a day.

Mom couldn’t afford to keep buying a new picture book every day. She bought a couple of slightly more complex books. The more I read, the better I got at reading and comprehension. Within months, I had graduated to reading other Blyton books, like the Secret Seven and Famous Five series. There were some Russian books too. I remember When Daddy was A Little Boy. There was Heidi, which was being read to me initially because it was a fat book with a small font.

Even at home, I remained bedridden for some months. So, a TV set was allowed into the house. Mainly because mom felt guilty, and there was no way of helping me pass the time if mom had to hold down a job as well. There was only Doordarshan yet, and though I did end up watching a lot of programs – including Chaupal and Krishi Darshan – there wasn’t enough to keep me hooked. Books were more fun.

It took me nearly nine months to get back on my feet. But those nine months changed my personality completely. I was a firm ‘reader’, and I read quickly, almost indiscriminately. So hungry was I for reading material that I read my older brother’s text-books (only the Hindi and English literature ones). I didn’t understand a lot of what I read. At ten, I was on Charles Dickens. At thirteen, I was attempting Victor Hugo (and failing), at fourteen James Joyce and Virginia Woolf (and failing). It frustrated me to have to give up, but I did return to these books when I was older and in the meantime, I went around swallowing anything else I could borrow from anywhere. I was reading almost every waking minute. Except when I was watching TV.

TV was controlled for a long time in the house. After cable TV arrived, I was only allowed to watch about an hour a day, and I could choose what to watch. I preferred Hindi shows (such as Banegi Apni Baat) and films to American soaps (like Santa Barbara), but I saw anything and everything if given a chance. On Sundays, we could watch cartoons and animated He-Man type of shows in the morning, and a movie in the evening.

As restrictions fell away, as I graduated and then found a job, I could have returned to TV. I still do watch TV occasionally – in hotel rooms when I travel alone – but I have given up a cable connection at home. Not because I disapprove but because it is an easy distraction that clogs up the imagination if you don’t take regular breaks from the visual bombardment. I often wonder if people who only watch (TV or films) and do not read end up re-creating rather than creating.

Perhaps, I am wrong. Perhaps, my imagination is not really expanded but circumscribed by my reading. I don’t know. But I do wonder what would have become of me if my leg had not been broken, and then messed up for such a long time. What would have happened to me if that hospital room had a TV set and 24 hour programming on 200 channels?

I cannot say. But I do think that I wouldn’t have become a writer, not a very good one anyway.

1 comment:

Manali. said...

I wouldn't say that your leg being fractured was a good thing, but then, we would have missed out a charismatic author like you in my life :)

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