R.K. Narayan’s novel The Vendor of Sweets, set as always in Malgudi, is the story of Jagan, the sweetmeat vendor, who is torn between his Gandhian ideals and the demands of his business. He also has an imperfect relationship with his wayward son, Mali.
Mali makes his way to the U.S. to join a creative writing course and returns a few years later, totally Americanised. In Malgudi, Mali comes up with a grand money-making venture in the form of a story-writing machine. It’s a machine in which would-be writers have to only enter a few details, like the number of pages, the number of characters, the place, time and atmosphere, and the machine will churn out the story for them, or so goes Mali’s sales pitch.
The romantic image of the writer crouched over the desk, pouring his heart out on paper, with crumpled pages strewn around the room has become clichéd. It was perhaps this image that Mali sought to change.
Mali’s story-writing machine is, of course, fictional, but it is interesting to examine how authors have used technology to aid their writing endeavours.
Historically, writers used longhand. Many, like John le Carré, still put pen to paper (John Steinbeck swears by pencils), choosing to voluntarily forgo the mediating medium of the machine. A few lucky ones in the past had the benefit of a scribe ( à la Veda Vyasa and his Ganesha), but composing a text in the mind and then dictating it couldn’t have been a cakewalk either.
And then came the typewriter. In 1874, Mark Twain purchased his first typewriter (a Remington) for $125. Seven years later, a typed manuscript of Twain’s Life on the Mississippi was sent to his publisher. Twain did not type it himself. In 1875, he had written to Remington saying that the machine corrupted his morals because it made him want to swear.
So he gave the machine away. Life on the Mississippi was dictated to a typist from a handwritten draft and was in all likelihood the first typewritten book.
The typewriter was succeeded by the word processor. Among the early adopters of the word processor was Stephen King. In the January 1983 issue of Playboy, he actually published a story titled ‘The Word Processor’, where the machine is capable of altering the past and, in effect, the future. Its discovery changes the lot of a frustrated, middle-aged writer.
Faux pas no more
Now, writer Vikram Chandra, of Sacred Games fame, hopes in the second or third quarter of 2018 to have a beta version ready of Granthika, a digital tool for writers. While its first version will be designed for fiction writers, he plans a version for non-fiction writers too, with all the features necessary for that genre such as footnotes, endnotes, citations and the like. Eventually, the goal is to build specialised versions for domains like legal writing, journalism, corporate documentation, scientific publishing and more.
Granthika’s website lists its many components — a ‘spreadsheet’ to keep track of dates and events, and to calculate the age of characters; ‘index cards’ to give the structural outline of the document; a ‘timeline’ — perhaps drawn on a wall — to visualise the relationship between events.
By keeping a tab on all the logistics of writing, Granthika seeks to minimise errors. Among the instances of mistakes it cites to make its case are those from the Sherlock Holmes stories — Dr. Watson’s travelling injury (shoulder to leg) and his changing first name (John to James) — and more recently, an oversight in J.K. Rowling’s The Prisoner of Azkaban.
Granthika is, on the face of it, as cutting edge as it gets. The creation of a writer who understands both writing and coding, it might just become to the early 21st century writer what the typewriter was to the late 19th century writer and the word processor to the late 20th. With Granthika, Mali, Twain and King would have been fused together.
The Bengaluru-based author works in publishing.