Write about what you know to give your writing an authentic feel.
In the last week of February, I was writer-in-residence at Pondicherry Central University. There, during one of the lectures, a student asked: How should a writer live? Should a writer be a hermit? Or live out in the world?
As far as I am concerned, a writer must live out in the world. It is only when you engage in the world that you gather its sights, sounds and smells; that you get to experience its various paradoxes. Experience, as the great Latin American writer Roberto Bolano reminds us, is the seed from which great writing sprouts. A hermit can only write from memory, or what he or she can glean from books. The only current experience that he or she has to share is that of being a hermit, which most of the world does not care about. True, you have to retreat into your cave from time to time to be able to write. But a cave is not the place to live.
After coming home from Puducherry, I attended a discussion between the novelist and short story writer Bulbul Sharma and V.K. Karthika, Editor-in-chief of HarperCollins India, at the Alliance Francaise in New Delhi. It was a telling reminder of how enjoyable a literary conversation can be when the moderator and writer are in concert. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, the two often seemed to be on different planes. More often than not, that occurred because the moderator had not bothered to acquaint himself with the writer's body of work, and was clearly winging it. Thankfully, there was no chance of that happening here. Karthika is Bulbul Sharma's editor, and, therefore, knows her fiction intimately.
Bulbul's fiction illustrates the value of writing what you know. Bulbul, who is currently 60, got married at 19. In her stories, she deals chiefly with women in families. These are ordinary women, drawn mostly from her generation, who live caged lives within the confines of a traditional Indian family. Many of them only get to see the outside world after they are widowed. One of the stories from her collection My Sainted Aunts is about a character going abroad for the first time at the age of 70.
Listening to Bulbul read from her work, I was reminded of how compelling simplicity can be in fiction. Bubul's characters are ordinary people. Her prose is pared back rather than purple. Her stories deal with the small defeats and victories of people living a run-of-the-mill existence. They instantly evoke the iconic Hindi writer Premchand, who Bulbul mentioned as an influence. To me they are also reminiscent of Jane Austen in the way they hone in on women in family situations. They exemplify how resonant simplicity can be even in an age where writers are known more for their bag of tricks than what they write.
Two weeks after Bulbul's event, I wandered into the amphitheatre of the India Habitat Centre where Penguin India was holding its Spring Fever festival. That night Rahul Bhattacharya, who won The Hindu Literary Prize last year, and acclaimed fiction writer Anjum Hasan were in conversation with the critic Sunil Sethi. Regrettably, I could not stay for the entire discussion. But I did hear Rahul Bhattacharya read from his first book Pundits From Pakistan which has been re-issued by Penguin.
Characters come alive
Pundits From Pakistan is a cricket book dealing with the Indian team's historic tour of Pakistan in 2004. The passage the author read from dealt with an instance in the first Test match where Rahul Dravid, filling in for an injured Saurav Ganguly as captain, declared with Sachin Tendulkar close to a double hundred. While describing the reaction to that momentous declaration, the author effectively mimicked the voices of Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman, Imran Khan, Ian Chappell, and other well-known cricket personalities. He was using ventriloquism in a bid to enhance the audience's enjoyment of his performance. In the same way, a writer can employ his or her ability as a ventriloquist to bring various characters to life in a book. Many of the great writers are superb ventriloquists. Salman Rushdie gets into the skin of his characters in that manner. So does J.D. Salinger. The best ventriloquists in literature, though, are the playwrights for whom writing dialogue is their chief stock-in-trade. Most prose writers use dialogue in its most basic form, which is to move the story forward. They lack the ear to do anything more with it. Playwrights, on the other hand, utilise it as a key ingredient for building character, as well as negotiating between status shifts. As one of my old professors told me: If you want to learn how to write good dialogue, then read a good playwright.