Continuing the Dream
A new chapter
It’s a new start. Let’s go all the way to the beginning.
In Bandra, Mumbai there used to be restaurant called Great Punjab. I don’t believe it exists any more, but back in the 90s, it did. It was a place my parents loved to celebrate — dad’s big deals, and sometimes (if mom got lucky), it would be preluded by a shopping spree at Shopper’s Stop next door. On one of those ‘outings’ — as they were in my head — Dad led me to Crossword. It was a stall really, with a giant bookshelf behind the one salesman manning it.
As has been my way, I knew what I was there to buy: It was Harry Potter. The first book I’d ever read. No, scratch that. The first book without pictures that I ever read. I’d been reading books, inhaling stories much before I got to Harry Potter. From the talking monkeys in Tinkle to mysteries that Tintin unravelled and the picture books of snake charmers and Nagins, I’d been a reader. I’d found my joy and I’d keep reading. But Harry Potter (fortunately or unfortunately — whichever way you lean) is the first proper book I picked up to read.
With the first two books in hand, I waited for my parents to finish their shopping and for us to get home so I could dive into this story. But we had to get through dinner first—the tradition of going to Great Punjab. We ordered some food, but it all too slow. From the bag below my feet, I noticed the cover of Harry Potter jutting out. I pulled it out with an air of someone examining something curious. I read the first page. Then the next. Before I knew it, I was reading the first chapter, right there, sitting on one side of the dinner table.
I think about that day often.
The next time we visited the same Shopper’s Stop, I found the crossword had moved. It had a sprawling section on the first floor, on the prestigious women’s clothing floor. I wandered in. Dad promised to buy me one book and I picked up a book with a dragon on the cover, a book that would eventually change the course of my life.
Over the years, Crossword evolved into something that isn’t a haven for discovery it used to be back in the 90s. Now it has clothes and only sells the books that sell (thank you, capitalism) and not the ones you’d accidentally discover. The fantasy fiction that I so loved is always tucked at the back, clubbed in with Young Adult, always in a corner, where you’d see harried moms with two or three children having an argument over what they should or should not read. I recognised that argument, it was similar disdain Dad had when I picked up that book with a dragon on the cover.
Even to this day, when I visit a bookstore, I’ll go find that little corner and see what’s being written, what’s out there and there have been many occasions when I’ve been happily surprised by a book nestled in there, forgotten. That’s where I found one of my favourite books of recent years: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.
Over the years, I’ve accepted that fantasy fiction is shoved into the corner. It wasn’t serious enough. I’ve met writers and readers who’d have the same disdain my father held on his face when I carried the book with the dragon on the cover with such delight. Each one has the similar argument, you have to grow up and read grown up books. But no one is able to answer me this question: are there any grown ups in this world or as Neil Gaiman puts it, are we all kids in larger bodies?
I’d argue that those who write stories are simply trying to bring the same joy reading brought to them when they first picked up a book. For most it would be their childhood, but you can start reading at any age. The first spell of words, the mysteries and the fantasies, the romance, whatever genre that first hooks us casts a magic spell and you’re in.
Before leaving for London to pursue a MA in Creative Writing, an editor from a big publishing house told me that the writers and publishers in UK will pigeon hole me to conform and write like a South Asian writer. There is a certain expectancy that you must write like that, given the colour of your skin.
I hated that comment. I didn’t say it, but a sentiment from the movie 3 Idiots rang in my head. “I’ve worked too hard to sound like myself, and they aren’t going to bend my way to theirs.”
That was almost a year ago. I’m here now, in London and my words are being read by a whole lot of Britain’s writers. Maybe it’s the safe space within a university that is currently protecting me, but most of my fellow writers are enjoying my stories, the kind of stories I write and tell, the kind where there are no names, there is no context, only people being people, as they are across the borders. With a sci-fi twist, of course, a little bend in spacetime.
But at the fringes, I still hear the question. Why do I not write like a South Asian writer? My partner sometimes mentions how I should lean into it — it’ll open a plethora of opportunities for me. She isn’t wrong; there is a huge push by the indie press for South Asian writers to tell the kind of stories only they can tell. And I’m not averse to it either. I love the kind of stories they tell — they are so distinct — and yet, would I write like that? I am South Asian Writer here, am I not?
Well, technically yes. But is that my tradition as a reader and writer?
A director friend had once offered to convert one of my stories into a movie. He said, “Just shift some of the location context to India and we’ll do it.” I never got around to it. That story has now grown into a novel and I’m working on completing it. While finishing the first draft, I tried. The final chapters of that story take place in a city that’s near the sea. What better city to model it after than my hometown, Bombay? So I tried to think how I could tweak the story. Could I fit it in?
But that’s the thing about trying to fit something in — it’s not seamless. It’s not made to measure. It’s forced and forcing a context into a story that wasn’t made for it felt wrong and also wasn’t fun. It felt restrictive. I’m the kind of writer, I’ve found, who enjoys the process of creation. If the context is missing, I’ll go ahead and just make a whole new world to fill up that context. I do borrow from the real world — all writers do — but I take the raw material, run it through a blender, let it set in the fridge, and bake it in a preheated oven at a temperature I think is right for the amount of time it needs (and sometimes more). I make it my own and I think therein lies my strength as a storyteller.
I’ve had a similar discussion with Chandrima Das, Author of Young Blood. She is out there telling some amazing ghost stories set in India. Over a coffee, she told me how much the Indian ancient stories inspire her. She’s grown up listening to them, exploring parts of India and listening to their tales. And through her stories she wants to recapture the magic of her childhood.
I guess that’s what all writers are trying to do, trying to recapture the magic of the stories they found fascinating in their childhood. I know it’s true for me.
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My childhood was filled with stories of magic. Most of them set in London or Ireland, but my favourites were always set in a far distant land that did not exist. A world unto itself where the baggage of this reality we live in could be discarded and you had the liberty to start the entire world from scratch. The question “What if…?” took on a much bigger meaning. Those are the kind of stories I grew up with and those are the stories I try to capture in the ones I write.
A week ago, one of my professors who also runs an indie publishing house said he started the indie press to publish and bring to light the kind of poetry he enjoyed. Publishing poetry, as anyone who reads will know, is mostly a no-no. There is no money to be made and only until you become famous does your poetry ever sell. But he still did. Why? Because he loved Poetry. When he started, people asked him whether he’d publish the poetry they expected he’d enjoy. His context was an South Asian African British citizen and the people around him always asked whether he’d enjoy South Asian poetry. But no. He enjoys modernist poetry about life in the UK, the kind he grew up with. Poetry, the kind of modernist poetry he enjoys, is his tradition as a reader and writer. The context people expected wasn’t important.
I never could articulate it before but now I can. Making things up, creating worlds distinct from the one we live in is my tradition as a reader and writer. And I’m going to continue down this path as long as I can.
Maybe somewhere, at a distant dinner table, a child will pick up my book and be transported to a distant world, hopefully with dragons. Until then, I’ll continue to dream.
Keep your pens inked,
PS: What’s your tradition as a reader and writer? What stories did you start with, where did you find the most joy, the most ‘oh-this-is-excellent-I-want-more-of-this’ feeling? And most importantly, did you allow the world to bog you down with age? Let me know. I’d love to chat with you.