“He,” I said. “At least get the gender right even if you don’t know that last night he won The Hindu Prize 2016 .”
When I relayed this conversation to him, the septuagenarian, fit and nimble Doshi, laughed heartily. “My name is a lifelong gift. It has got me so many friends.” We settle down for breakfast at Madras Pavilion but order filter coffee. It is served South Indian style, in aa steel tumbler and dabarah . “This is how it should be done. This is how it tastes just right,” he remarks pouring some for himself. Having reviewed his novel Jinnah Often Came To Our House and interviewed him over many email exchanges a few weeks ago, I had noticed his insistence on the smallest detail. Now, I realise, at the heart of his craft is this judicious sense of proportion and balance. It applies to food but also to life and even more so to his handling of language when he retells the history of Partition through a personal-political prism.
Doshi came to writing after a lifetime in foreign services and almost a decade as the chairman of Atomic Energy Education Society. He wrote his first novel Birds of Passage after retirement from the Indian Foreign Service and the second one now, almost 15 years later. “Many bureaucrats wait for retirement to begin writing. My job as an educationist kept me closer to textbooks than fiction. Yet, I learnt two things in service: one was the ability to concentrate; to focus on the task at hand and nothing else. Second, unlike other services, detailed report writing is an essential part of the diplomatic corps. The focus is on setting up the context and the exact details of what transpires. One learns how to arrange the material. So, in many ways I have always been writing.”
He is already at work on the sequel to Jinnah... “It is around the life of Kashmira, the orphan granddaughter from Jinnah... The book starts in 1947 and ends in 1971. Horrors are horrors and we must not compare tragedies. Yet, the casualties during the creation of Bangladesh are, in many ways, even more gruesome than those of Partition.” I ask him if he would categorise his books as allegories. “Even Ekta school in Jinnah... was an allegory. Yes, an allegory. But not yet the unknown.”
“I am now past chapter three but even before I started I had it all planned. I know it will be 30 chapters. I wrote the first sentence of each chapter. The lines will change but they serve to launch into the chapters and keep me on track.” It strikes me as a brilliant strategy, something from a creative writing workshop. Can writing be taught? “The gift of story-telling is innate. But the mind can be tamed. Must be tamed. Each of us needs to find our own method.”
Doshi gets up to get breakfast when his wife, the petite, gentle and ever-smiling Razia joins us. She is busy with phone calls. In between them, she impishly declares, “All congratulatory calls. The foreign service-walas are a big family. They all love him.” Then in a deadpan tone, “I wonder why they don’t call him. He must have annoyed the ladies with his previous novel. Not this one, this one is good. But can you give me Hansda’s number? (Hansda Sowendra Shekhar, also nominated for The Hindu Prize ). I want to speak to him.” The young staff is serving her at the table. In two days, she has made friends with everybody. A young girl from Delhi approaches, greets her, and wishes her happy journey. She turns to me and says, “She is missing her hometown. Tell me, who can miss Delhi?”
While I am seeing them off to the airport at the elegant hotel porch, Doshi asks when I am leaving. I tell him I will take a train to Bengaluru. His kind eyes light up and he utters the name ‘Katpadi’. He lets it roll on his tongue. “That is where I used to go to meet Razia when she was studying at the Vellore Medical College. Those were the days of the chuk-chuk trains.”
Amandeep Sandhu is working on a novel and a non-fiction book on Punjab. His novel Roll of Honour was short-listed for The Hindu Prize 2013 .