On Becoming a Writer in India

Everything I write is nourished by my childhood years. I have a clear memory of the beginning of my ability to remember when I was three plus a few months. My father who had joined India’s freedom struggle was to become the Chief Minister of the small Union Territory of Coorg (now Kodagu). I climbed the steps to the house which was to be his official residence, nervously holding on to the edge of my mother’s sari. I was awestruck by the electric lights in the house, and terrified of the fluttering moths thicketed around them. In our village home that was only thirty miles away, we were using oil lamps then, and for the next decade and a half. The newness of the rural town that I had just entered must have awakened the sensibilities of being a person. I was seeing my own reflection in the mirror for the first time and thinking, “That’s Me.” It was a moment of surprise and realisation, a bonding of the physical self with my three-year-old mind.

What happened even earlier is what I pretend to remember, it is of being born in the small, dark bedroom of my mother’s village home, with my anxious father peering through the window. He told me about it a few years before he died, at eighty. My mother pretended not to know.

I like to think myself back to that moment when I fell off my mother, and then carefully onward to when I became conscious of myself as a person. I struggle to waken my infant memory and try to catch what is surely, surely hidden in the sulci and gyri of my brain.

About writing, the most fortunate aspect is that it demands solitude. I am a lover of the state of aloneness, and unthinkingly, I have sought it at every stage of my life. My surgical career comes without this particular form of nourishment and so I willingly escape into the world of words. There are many other worlds that can give you solitude but in writing I can converse with myself; I can argue, fight, disagree and doubt. In a world where debate and doubt are not encouraged, where to agree with the majority opinion is the sure way to team-work and success, I feel stifled and scared for my own sanity. But the thoughts and the debates that rage inside my skull are my own and with luck, when I create fiction, I am able to put my words where my thoughts are.

Having decided to devote my life (half my life, actually) to writing, I had to make up for lost time while all along pursuing my other passion. Surgery. My childhood consisted of few books, mostly Kannada periodicals, our epics, folk tales, a popular children’s magazine called Chandamama, a few good English novels, and some biographies of military greats besides a much-thumbed collection of mildly pornographic short stories which every precocious child gets hold of at one time or the other. The fewness of books and the paucity of choice were actually to my advantage because I filled the rest of my inner world with dreaming.

My reading now is more informed, objective and entertaining. But it is not prolific. I might read a dozen or so novels in a year and I do a lot of rereading of favourites. I love reading the newspaper, a weekly magazine (a rare publication with a mind of its own) and some gossip columns for salacious news. There is the medical and surgical reading of course. I find it easier to learn new trends as I get older, perhaps experience allows me to sift through knowledge that’s coming at me with great speed. (The trash that gets written in the world of science far exceeds the trash that gets published as fiction.) The habit of reading good prose or poetry to help open the clogged pores of one’s own creativity is common to many writers. I reach out for the poetry of Yeats and Auden, the clear and graceful prose of Orwell, Kipling, Graves and Thoreau and almost anything that came from the genius quill of Shakespeare, as also some gems from Indian writers, living and dead.

This essay was written in preparation for the Silk Routes Symposium, held in the Maldives, March 2014.