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Portrait of the artist as a young drifter: Roshan Ali on writing his first novel

When I quit college in 2008 to write what would turn out 10 years later to be Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction, I didn’t really know what I wanted to write. The truth, which terrifies me when I think of it now, is that I wanted to write a novel before knowing what novel I wanted to write. But the question of why precedes the question of what — why did I want to write a novel? I can think of a few answers.

Opening the flood gates

First, two years earlier, the design college I was attending at that time, perhaps in an attempt to include liberal arts in its purview, offered a myth-writing elective. I took this course only because I liked reading mythology and fantasy. But I soon found that I enjoyed writing them too, and, surprise, surprise, people seemed to like what I wrote. The confluence of these two very important experiences — pleasure and giving pleasure to others — gave me the first clue that maybe I could ‘write.’

Second, exactly a year after that, the same design college offered a poetry elective. The fact that I didn’t opt for the course and only attended because another technical elective was filled up is testament to how quickly that ‘good feeling’ faded.

But this poetry course was what caused, in the words of our professor, “the flood gates to open”. Soon I was furiously writing page-length poems, inspired by T.S. Eliot and Leonard Cohen. Of course, these poems were utterly rambling and terrible but they made me realise that perhaps there is something inside me that wants to say something.

Demon driven

These two courses couldn’t be the only two reasons I wanted to write: there were almost certainly some deeper reasons, more mysterious and subconscious, that led to these decisions I took. It was almost as if I wanted to be a writer all my life but didn’t know it (“Writing is spooky,” said Norman Mailer). Once the subconscious is involved it is difficult to say with certainty what resulted in what — if the subconscious is involved, one could even say that everything moved me to be a writer.

One thing is clear: I was never ‘inspired’ to write. It was a feeling more akin to an obsession, an unsettling and restless urge to put something down, to make my feelings known to myself, to discover, rather than invent, a sensibility that seemed to lurk inside me.

These lines from George Orwell’s essay, ‘Why I Write,’ stumbled upon many years later, struck me: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

To the lighthouse

Back to the novel: my early attempts were insipid, blatantly derivative versions of the first great books I read. There was one version in which all the characters spoke like Irishmen — there was a lighthouse and a classroom and a stream-of-consciousness narrative. Then there was the stream-of-consciousness story about a young boy in school who was bad at sports. A epistolary novel followed in which the character wrote a long and purple letter to a character named Ada.

I was clearly struggling with voice and style but what I found was that quite unconsciously, all these bland, copy-cat versions (except the one which was a shameless rip-off of APortrait of an Artist as a Young Man) were about a young man in a city in search of something which could be called, if one is desperate for labels (or book titles), satisfaction. Thus, I found, the struggle was not for content but for honesty and authenticity of voice. The content came naturally — there was never any question what I would write about.

So without much intention my subject material became myself: I had taken to heart (again subconsciously) that old writerly adage, ‘write what you know,’ and the only thing I knew, being in my early 20s, was what I was living. My circumstances then were living alone, broke, purposeless, struggling with this monumental task of writing a novel, searching for, one could say, ‘satisfaction’. But how would I write this story? What voice could I use?

My research was, as it is for most who have waded blindly into the swamp of words and letters, reading. My temporal lobe was occupied by ‘Western’ literature, avoiding, because of a mixture of insecurity, jealousy and frustration, any sort of Indian writing. All the numerous early versions reflected, very unimaginatively, the different styles of the authors I read: James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, Henry Miller.

Meanwhile, my life was a stagnant pool breeding all sorts of diseases, chief among them loneliness. One time, I went a week without uttering a single word. At the end of that week when I went out to buy fruit, saying the word ‘papaya’ felt like I was forcing a dead baby out my throat. Hope itself was a faraway hope. My girlfriend of four years, my family of 22 years, were deeply worried.

Unmagical boy

At some point I found The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. Here was a story of a boy growing up in a city, shunted from one place to another. It was the perfect concoction of style and content, a picaresque masterpiece, a capsule of terrific energy and intelligence. I was in love. Very consciously, I copied this book, knowing of course, that I, being many times less talented and ingenious than Bellow, would produce something very different. But importantly I had found a voice that resonated with the wavelength of my inside state.

I could now begin in earnest to put down a book. Many themes were important to me: the hypocrisy and weakness of religion (“That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/ Created to pretend we never die,” as Philip Larkin put it); the hypocrisy and weakness of authority; the weakness and hypocrisy of magical thinking. It was also important to me to be as ‘realistic’ as possible, to portray the ordinariness of the character’s life. At one point, in an uncharacteristically optimistic and ambitious frame of mind, I envisaged the book as a sort of ‘anti-Midnight’s Children,’ a story of a most unmagical boy who had nothing to do with the fate of the nation. (Remnants of this delusion of grandeur linger. For examples this is from Chapter 1: “And in the event that you are still hoping for magic and mystery: No, there were no signs of my birth and allied to tedium and every expectation, I wasn’t born any time even close to midnight.”)

Darkness visible

But still I struggled. Loneliness and a lack of discipline had left a dark soot-like material in the insides of my soul — thickening to a film, it blotted out light and weighed down the lightness of being. Seven years after starting a novel I was nowhere close to done. I was not happy.

That soot, I soon learned, was depression. It clung to everything and coloured it dark.

Things began to change quite suddenly. One day I almost burned down my kitchen. One day I was caught for driving under the influence of alcohol. These were inexcusable lapses of judgment that I felt indicated that I was not well.

The first psychiatrist I went to had forgotten me the second (and last) time I went to her. But she gave me pills that made me better. My girlfriend moved in. Soon we got married. She made an appointment with a better psychiatrist, one who was a writer too, and he helped me work through my natural laziness and the parts of my mind that got in my way.

The stuff of dreams

Towards the end of 2017 I finished the book. I was not happy with it, nor do I think I ever will be (“every book is a failure,” said Orwell in the same essay). Relief, rather than a sense of achievement, was the regnant mood in our household when I announced its completion.

A few months later it was accepted by the publisher. If it had been rejected, there wasn’t much hope that I would have tried again.

I gave up many times, but in the end it was one time less than too many. This book broke me, but the cracks that formed it filled with a better material, a more substantive, meaningful and satisfying composite — the stuff, one could say, that dreams are made of.

Now a handsome hardcover copy of Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction sits on my desk. To me it is already a fossil, formed of the pressures and forces of a self-indulgent decade. But a fossil is better than nothing; it is evidence at least that the artist, once a young, lonely and miserable man, created something. That, in the end, is the only thing that matters.

The writer is a novelist based in Bengaluru.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 3:53:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-drifter-roshan-ali-on-writing-his-first-novel/article29230117.ece

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