I have put it off long enough but it is now really time to tell you how I came to try to be a writer, and nothing else. It’s a long story, and a not uncomplicated one, so bear with me a bit. I shall try and make it as brief as I can.
Flashback: Bhattacharya’s book takes us to the narrator’s days in London (top – Carl Court / AFP); the author.
I had done quite well in the school-leaving examination for what that was worth; well, it was worth something; it meant that I could pretty much choose to study what I wanted afterwards, my results were good enough to guarantee me admission at even the most competitive of universities. Once I had got my results, the friend of my father’s with whom I had grown up had a long chat with me.
I was getting used to Bombay, to idling around in the city where the successful—or those wanting to be so—seemed to have little idle time: I was watching plays at the Prithvi Theatre; spending hours in its tiny but quiet café with a book; eating bhelpuri on the Chowpatty and savouring the tang of the tamarind against the crispness of the white puffed rice; walking on Marine Drive, the highrises across the bay strung across the Queen’s Necklace, clustered together like boys of varying heights in a group photograph, watching the sun go down in a sky streaked with the afterthoughts of barred clouds, a plane like a sliver of silver lancing through them.
Bombay was resolutely squalid. More than half of the city’s inhabitants lived in sprawling shanty towns. Reclaimed from the sea, Bombay was for its inhabitants continually a stage for battles for reclamation, usurpation, survival and succession. More people poured into the city every day than the city could ever hope to properly accommodate. But they kept arriving because here is where one came to make the improbable real, to chase and grasp and shape one’s destiny—as an actor, a model or as a construction worker who helped erect the thousands of prohibitively expensive apartment blocks that were coming up in the city every day. In Bombay in only those moments, looking up at the sky with a stretch of the sea in front of you could you get a sense of space, a suggestion of something expansive, and feel the sense of daily constriction and claustrophobia that came with living in this city lift a little.
I was still living with my father’s friend and his wife; it seemed inevitable, it had never occurred to me to think of anywhere else as home. Over dinner one day, he sat me down and said: ‘Look, we love having you around but have you wondered what you are going to do next?’
I hadn’t, of course. I didn’t have a plan of what I would do next. Not having a plan seemed like a nice plan to have. It suited me perfectly. Most of my friends, when I heard from them, were viewing this period of their lives like being in a waiting room before they continued on their journeys of having careers. For me this seemed like a destination. I had arrived where I had to, almost by chance, and I liked the view from around here. I had nothing to work towards. I had as much time to myself as I could possibly want. And I was reading all day, anything that I liked, and all that I could.
‘No, I was thinking…’ I pushed a piece of chapatti from one side of my plate to the other. The vegetables, disturbed from the neat mound in which I had been served them, scattered.
It soon became clear that I wasn’t really thinking of anything much.
My father’s friend then told me, in his kindly-but-firm tone, that my father had left behind a not inconsiderable sum of money for me. Should I choose to do so, I could go abroad to study. With my results, he didn’t see any problem in being offered a place. The money that had been left would take care of the expenses.
‘So will you think about that? At least about whether you’d be keener on going to the UK or the US?’
Over the next few days, I did. It sounded like a stroke of unexpected good fortune.
For many people of my generation, those of us who had grown up in the ’70s when India’s economy wasn’t quite the powerhouse that it is now turning out to be, the idea of foreign travel itself had a tremendous allure. For some reason, the choice of where you’d want to go as a student was fairly unambiguous: if you wanted to earn a degree in literature or history (or any of the liberal-arts disciplines), you tried for England; if you wanted to study computers or engineering (or something useful), you went to America.
I had little wish to really study hard for any degree. The idea must have been with me for years now, but it had grown into a sharp desire—and then gradually into a conviction—over the past months in Bombay; a writer was what I thought I should be. Going to England for a university degree was a means to that end. I was as yet unclear about exactly how it would work out. But I assumed that once I got to England, the rest would follow. (With hindsight, I now feel I was thinking about the careers of many writers: Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Amit Chaudhuri. They had all gone to England to study, and they had all become writers. To me at the time, the cause-effect link between these two events was irrefutable.)
Thanks to my school-leaving results, being accepted by universities in England turned out to be easy. I chose to go to London, not so much because I fancied studying there but because London seemed to me where young men went to be born as writers.
On the plane, I read Letters between a Father and Son, the moving correspondence between Naipaul (then a student in England) and his father who lived in Trinidad. The book ends with Naipaul becoming a published writer, beginning to make a little money from what he saw as his only vocation. Could that still be possible, I wondered. Could that happen to me?
I went to London to become a writer. I had of course no idea what I should write about. Neither, I’d read, did Naipaul and Orwell at first. That seemed reassuring.
I hardly attended lectures at university. I mooched around Bloomsbury as though merely being in that area would transmit to me certain writerly qualities. I spent a lot of time at the museums, sitting on the steps of the Tate and looking out across the river at the crawling barges. I read lying in parks. I went to strip shows in Soho, five pounds a pop for a whole day. I travelled, when I could, into the country. All the experiences were new, and oddly visceral in their intensity. Yet, they all seemed somewhat familiar, somewhat expected. England was a construct of my imagination, a place made vivid by literature. And being there myself, it seemed to me that I wasn’t so much a real person in a real world but inhabiting the world of books that I carried around in my head, behaving like a character in a novel, the ingenue who has finally turned up in the city he has read about all his life.
I also eventually began to write: essays, poetry, stories. I sent them out to the literary magazines or to the review sections of the papers. Usually, they were not acknowledged. For months after I had sent something off, I would watch out for it—in case the editor had really liked it and had published it without having told me (perhaps he was in a hurry and had about exactly as much space left as my poem took up). I would go to bookstores and newsagents and leaf through the magazines, holding my breath, taking my time, postponing the disappointment of not finding it there.
Soumya Bhattacharya is the editor of Hindustan Times, Mumbai. He has written two non-fiction books, and this is his first work of fiction.
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