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Firsts

Firsts

I’m about to devour From Heaven Lake, Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet, the first book Vikram Seth ever wrote. I’ve only gotten through the foreword as of now, a foreword Seth wrote for the 1990 edition to put the contents into perspective. This is going to be an important book for me, because in the past one month or so, my reading has gone for a toss. You can probably blame it on being homeless. I have several books that I intend to read and haven’t gotten around to. I’ve chosen From Heaven Lake, for two reasons – first, I’ve never read a travel book before, second this is Seth’s first ever published book and I have a certain soft spot for the first books of great authors.

Every book is a labour of love, but surely there’s a special spot reserved for the first. Especially when you consider the space, both physical and mental, from where they came. From heaven lake came from the pen of a much younger Seth, not the spry old guy we know now, but a wandering college student who was growing his hair and not really doing what he was supposed to do. Seth was being a typical 20 something – questioning his decisions, his path, buying time, writing, struggling and thinking. The book came out of a road trip and it’s interesting to note that Seth who has a profound insight into human character, and an astounding knowledge base about everything under the sun, started out by publishing a frikking journal he wrote while on a road trip.

On the other hand, take The Bluest Eye, which in my mind set the tone for whatever fiction Morrison was to write in the coming years. I don’t like to put writers in boxes, but there’s a strong activism in everything she writes. It’s kind of fitting that she started out by exploring the wrongness of what America believed with the whole black is beautiful phenomenon. In every book that followed The bluest eye, there was a theme that was at odds with the nice things people were saying, or the judgements people were casting.

Whenever I daydream about my first published book, I wonder what it will say about me. Will it come out of pain? Will I be in a space in my life where I’m happy, or restless or content? Will I write as a woman, a lover, an orphan? (That sounded scarily Alaniss Morrissette, but you know what I mean.)

Just as Art can’t be viewed in a vacuum, the artist can never be totally divorced from his work. There is a lot of weight attached to a created work. For starters, it means you’ll forever be referred to as so and so of so and so fame. It also means that for all eternity (that is if you produce something good enough to last for all eternity) no one will read your book, listen to your song or look at your painting and not wonder what you were thinking at the time of its creation. Art can make you vulnerable and your first may end up defining you forever. And if that’s not pressure, then The Wire is not the greatest show on earth.

In which we get incredibly self-indulgent

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In which we get incredibly self-indulgent

Let me take a moment here to pat our backs, raise a drink, and generally discuss how awesome we are.

Project Small fry is now a full four months old. *A million hi-fives all around.* And yes it’s a huge deal. As writers, Sheena and I are two terrible things, lazy and arrogant. I can tell you from experience, that you cannot start out like that.

The wonderful thing is, the PSF you see and read now is actually a continuation of a tiny idea we had a year ago. One day, we were stuffing our faces with cinnabon at Pali Naka and we had one of those “where are we going conversations” that were becoming all too common. We were feeling extremely hemmed in at our jobs and life had lost its sparkle and charm. We are in our 20’s dammit! We should be doing kickass things like writing plays and going to Assam! People at coffee shops should be talking about us! The president should be inviting us to tea!

As writers we had forgotten about writing for us. At work, it was work. We started saying meh at each byline, we pitched story ideas that got shot down. We read constantly and felt envious perpetually. We were restless and bored with company. Partying and alcohol had lost its flavor. We needed a 180 degree whirl of epic amazingness.

After whining and crying and hoping that blank word documents would show us the way, we decided to do something about it.

Let’s write! For the love of writing and for the discipline we lacked. We wrote down rules.

Basic Rules

Must write 5 articles in a week.

Articles 1, 2 and 3 must be submitted before 12pm of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Articles 4 and 5 can be submitted anytime between Friday and Sunday (12am)

Minimum word count: 100 words

Fiction and non-fiction may be submitted.

No poetry. Nobody wants to read that.

All posts must be marked ‘read’ by the other member. Feedback is optional.

If any of the co-founders want to add a rule, a mutual consensus must be arrived at by discussion.

Exemptions

You are allowed to slack off three times in a month, no questions asked.

An extra two can be taken in case of death or displacement.

Punishments

If articles 1, 2 and 3 are not submitted before deadline (a half an hour margin may be kept), the defaulter will be charged 50 Rs.

On slacking off more than three times a month, a fine of 100 Rs will be levied.

If either member backs out mid-month (due to de-motivation, extreme cynicism or any other reason) the fine levied will be 800 Rs.

We were pretty broke at this time, so having to pay money seemed like good motivation.

We started off superbly, we were eager and this little secret project of ours made us feel incredibly cool. I came up with the name Small Fry and it seemed like a great idea to call it Project small fry, like it was an important mission like Project Manhattan or Project Chicago. What? It was a big deal for us.

We wrote stories filled with angst and philosophy, about moon gazing and navel gazing, our fickle lives in this fickle city and about the illusions of passion and the hollowness of existence. Little vignettes that tried to be dark and funny. Short fiction that we would break up into series to take the pressure off. Gosh, we were cute.

For the first month, we sent in our stories way before deadline and discussed it excitedly the next day at work (we shared a desk). And by the end of it (4 months it lasted. Kind of poetic, no) we were writing it 3 minutes before deadline.

When it became a chore, we gave it up.

Six months later, we were back to our emo gtalk conversations about our lives and where we were heading.

Then randomly, one day, Sheena sent me an outline for a website. A tribute, two columns….

We both had the same guidelines in our head, don’t write for the lowest common denominator (we do that at work anyway and we were inspired by David Simon’s “Fuck the average reader” philosophy.), don’t explain all your references, if they didn’t get it, they were not our intended readers anyway. And just like that, this website began.

Every Sunday, we sit down with our laptops for about 5 hours, 3 out of which are spent talking or playing scrabble and writing.

It’s been four months since we started. We figured out wordpress, asked all our friends for opinions and masthead designs and even if four months is nothing to get nostalgic about, what the hell.

Okay now for the next bit. We are changing things up here a bit. The Dr. Deman column is now defunct. No, we haven’t run out of heroes, hero-worshipping comes naturally to us. But there will be a whole new thing to look forward to next week and you guys are going to love it. YAAAAAAY. Already, so much excite.

 

Picture by Nikhil Chalam

Ruskin Bond and what he embodies

Ruskin Bond and what he embodies

It was the summer of 2000, (I’ve always wanted to write a sentence like that) and the three siblings D’Lima and their mother were making their way up a slope, destination Landour. School was out and we’d all spent a lovely couple of days in Simla before arriving in Mussourrie the day before. Now we were off to see if we could visit Ruskin Bond and being a reading family we were all (my mother included) in a fever of excitement.

Ruskin Bond, of the unbelievable Dust on the mountain fame. Not to mention The Blue Umbrella. Bond’s home is a tiny, tiny place lined floor to ceiling, wall to wall with books and papers. The furniture sagged and was shabby in bits. And children. I remember lots of children everywhere. I don’t know whether they were neighbours or adopted grandkids but they peeked out at us from behind doors, played outside and ran in and out gleefully, for all the world. When he met us he was quiet but affable. He posed for pictures and autographed our books. He didn’t have to do all that, and even if he was just tolerating us it was still pretty great of him.

I’ve been flipping through Landour Days, a published complilation of Bonds journal entries categorised into the North Indian seasons of Summer, Monsoon, Autumn and Winter. (I say North Indian because in Bombay we have only two seasons –monsoon and not-monsoon.) It’s a comforting read. Comforting because there is something steady and solid about the image of an old writer-story teller living in the mountains, among the flowers and the snow frosted deodars. Personally, it calms me down. The business of writing has changed. No more the dream of living like a hermit on a hill or by the sea and scratching away in notebooks. Among amateurs, the fact that you write is an attention-seeking, jealousy-ridden rollercoaster. Among professionals, it’s how well you spoke at the Jaipur Lit Fest. Self publishing. Crowd sourcing. Former newspaper journalist’s who’s bylines we don’t remember. It’s cutthroat and permeated through with the restless, rushing spirit of urgency. I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t want recognition. That will never change. But writing isn’t the peaceful, patient business Landour Days makes it out to be. Subjects and themes have changed and become darker. The grimy underbelly of a metropolis. Poverty. Narcotics.

Landour Days has one entry, which I read with mixed feelings. It’s some assorted advice to young writers. “Are you observant?” Bond asks the amateurs, “Can you tell the difference between a sparrow and a sparrow hawk?” As I read that sentence, I say WHUT! The way I usually do when deeply moved. What if I don’t care about the difference? My book isn’t going to be about a bird, it’s going to be about life….life, and longing and passion and despair and about the human condition and it will chronicle the pathos and spirit of this generation. It will. My righteousness sputters itself into silence most times. Maybe he has a point. Have you ever noticed how every good book you’ve read names at least one tree? Ever noticed how if there’s a bird in a scene, the writer will name it. Details are what will make the great novel about the human condition work. We’ve got to learn the names of those trees!

If I ever do make it on the other side, I’ll have a well of inspiration and an army of heroes to thank. But they’ll always be a corner of my memory saved for that trek up a mountain and a wizened writer at the top of the hill.

 

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