In the INDIAN EXPRESS, 1 January 2012
He didn’t have enough time with his children, Johnny Depp complained in an interview, he was always at work. So why not make fewer movies? At this Depp’s eyes took on an ever so subtle manic gleam. He explained that if he did — if he did slow down — he felt himself starting to go “y’know — sideways.” The eyes gleamed more, you sensed that there was no telling what Depp would do if he went sideways, perhaps right then, in the studio.
2011 was meant to be my year of liberation. I had finished a second novel, I would no longer need to think about it, it was publication year. Some writers gripe that their book promotions take months, eating into the time for their next book. They have to travel too much; drink too much; sleep too little; do book tours, signings, and suchlike. Sounds hellish. Luckily for me, I was going nowhere. I was just going to sit on my hilltop watching the woodpecker tap the deodar. Doing nothing. Going gently sideways.
“Doing nothing” is more or less what my life consists of, even to people in Ranikhet, who do even less. I live there much of the year and my version of going sideways is long walks, partly because I like walking, partly because walking untangles my confusions when I’ve driven myself or my novel-in-progress into a dead end.
Almost the only other people out in the wilds are cowherds, who view my wanderings with condescending indulgence. “Bacche-kachhe nahi hain?” asks one, implying I’ve failed as a woman. Another observes that for women who have time to kill it’s good to stroll away the days. As for herself, she has to graze Lalli and her calves although her old legs ache.
If the world thinks I am doing nothing, it isn’t that inaccurate. I feel fraudulent if I ever tick “writer” in the box next to Occupation. Is mine a real Occupation? As real as being a cowherd? To retreat into a place you have invented, to write something nobody is asking you to, nor waiting for — is that work? Lives wouldn’t be lost without the book. The libraries wouldn’t shut. Nobody would know or care if it weren’t written.
I have a sense that it is to convince themselves that they are at work — at important, real work — that novelists devise grandiose versions of masochism:
“On [Jonathan] Franzen's desk sit a pair of earplugs that he wears when he writes, over which he places noise-cancelling headphones that pipe ‘pink noise’ – white noise at lower frequency. His computer has had its card removed, so he cannot be tempted by computer games. The ethernet port has been physically sealed, so he can't connect to the internet. While writing The Corrections, he even wore a blindfold as he touch-typed.” (The Guardian)
And here is Nadeem Aslam:
“Writing absorbs all his concentration, thus he saw not a single human being during seven months writing The Wasted Vigil. The book is dedicated to his brother and sister-in-law, who left food for him whilst he was sleeping. After turning on his mobile phone he received an old text message and only then realized that a new year had begun.” (The Independent)
I can’t afford physical imprisonment of this kind. My spouse and I run a small publishing house – that is, we publish books from our small house. Our days are a muddle of printers, typesetters, authors, couriers. And telemarketers who ask for “Your company’s Human Resource Manager”. Between all of this, and obeying the commands of our dog, we scrape together our human resources to publish books. Some of these are so scholarly that not even the scholars can fathom what’s going on in them.
But writing is a form of incarceration for me as well. I don’t need a curtained, padded cell because my own mind is cell enough.
Comparing weavers to writers in The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald says: “It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.”
After some months contemplating the woodpecker, I condemned myself to my cell again. My characters had already moved in: they existed as yet for nobody else but they had taken up residence in my head. They scratched the sides of my skull to wake me at night. And then they had nothing to say. I started the process of weaving the fabric of their lives, kept getting hold of the wrong threads.
I read a stack of learned books, took notes. Opened new folders on my computer. Then I found therapy in Geoff Dyer’s funny, sarcastic literary memoir, Out of Sheer Rage. Because it also grew sideways: from his paralysis with the book on Lawrence that he intended writing. The book isn’t new, it came out in 1997. Yet Dyer had foreseen my strategies: “All over the world people are taking notes as a way of postponing, putting off and standing in for.”
Resolving not to fritter away the entire year, I decided to make some effort to help my publisher sell my book: I took copies along to a hotel near my house. I showed the manager his hotel’s name—it was in the novel, I told him, as were many other Ranikhet landmarks. Look, there’s even a hand-painted map of the town in the book – okay, not accurate, but enough. The tourists were sure to buy it. Would he sell it? To egg him into agreement I reminded him he sold locally-made jams from his hotel, and my book had a whole jam factory in it. Gingerly, the manager picked up one book from my proffered pile. “Shuru mein ek kapi hi bahut hai,” he said. Then he took shelter behind his computer.
Anxious as a stockbroker gazing at the NASDAQ, I circled the hotel every day, not daring to enter. National bestseller lists were as nothing, I wanted that one copy to sell. A week later I went into the hotel — casually — as if to buy a bottle of jam. The manager looked compassionate, shook his head. Another week went by. I saw tourists come and tourists go. Did I dare enquire again? I stamped on my pride and went in. In despair, I asked him to return the book – where was it? Was it displayed in the dining room or the corridor? Why not in the lobby?
The manager unlocked a drawer hidden beneath the lobby’s teakwood counter. Extracting the book, he handed it to me with the smile of one who cannot be reproached. “See, I kept it safe,” he said. It was indeed pristine, down to the paper band my spouse had put around the book with a ballpoint scrawl saying “Bestseller! Set in Ranikhet! 25% Discount.”
On my way back from the hotel, unsold book in hand, I encountered Lalli’s keeper. “Out for a stroll again!” she shouted. “Look at my Lalli, happy every day! It’s a good way to pass the time.”