The Writer’s Curse — And Blessing !

It’s a tough time to be a writer or wannabe author in India these days. If you write against the government you are likely to be stripped of your citizenship, and if you support it you’ll be in Arnab Goswami’s B team, or sharing a room with Sambit Patra in Gujarat Bhavan.. Or , even worse, you could end up like Ms Tavleen Singh whose sacerdotal efforts at the altar of the presiding deity of Indian politics didn’t pay off- her son lost his citizenship anyway. So what is one to do? The safest course, I feel, is to do a Chetan Bhagat and write only about ” The Girl in Room 105″ or pen motivational stuff with misleading titillating titles, like that other bestseller ” The Subtle Art of not giving a “F–k.” You will, of course, find neither the girl nor the “f–k” but your persistence in trying to do so till the last page will ensure that a couple more million copies of the books will fly off the shelves, quicker than you can say Man Force.

The other problem I’ve encountered is this: what does one write about ? History is a prohibited zone, because the RSS and Mr. Dinanath Batra have already started re-writing it, with novel inputs provided by the Supreme Court, no less, in its recent Ram Mandir judgement. Mythology is no longer available as Mr. Amish Tripathi has already mined this seam till there is nothing left to explore there but the question: was the live feed of the battle of Kurukshetra conveyed to Dhritrashtra via Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hulu? Sardar jokes are a no-go area, like the area around Parliament Bhavan, as those poor chaps from JNU found out this week; the mountains have been denuded of all their tales by Ruskin Bond; the British era has been subjected to repeated biopsies by Shashi Tharoor and William Dalrymple; nobody reads about sports these days because everyone is hooked on to biopics; romance is nowadays confined to Twitter and Instagram and has to be compressed into 140 words: who has time for a novel? War books are unlikely because even though Messers Modi and Imran Khan both threaten it nobody is actually pressing that blue button anytime soon. Moreover, no two Indian generals can ever agree on whether we won or lost a war, including Haldighati. One potentially promising area is memoirs by bureaucrats, and quite a few are now rushing to the printers, having suddenly remembered their stellar contributions in pushing us onto a 8% growth path. But they are bogged down with their training, confusing “penal” with “penile” ( as in the Indian Penile Code), conclude each chapter with ” submitted for approval, please” out of sheer habit, and think that “analogy” is the study of assholes. Their tomes do seem to bear out the unkind observation of Christopher Hitchins that everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay!

Writers Curse

Why do chaps persist with writing, given the hardships involved? You just have to attend every literary festival to be noticed, which is pretty tough considering that they have now started organising them even in dumps like Jhumri Tilaiya and Kotkapura where the infant mortality rates are probably higher than the literacy rates. Nobody there will recognize you anyway because they are too busy either drooling over Shashi Tharoor and “Pyjamas” Dimple Kapadia or shouting slogans against Salman Rushdie. You’ll never make it to any best seller list because of Amish Tripathi: he’s the BJP of the Indian literary universe with an almost two-thirds stranglehold-last week, in the Hindustan Times best seller list, six of the top ten books were by him, for Godsakes! What is the Competition Commission doing, and why is he not being hauled up for monopolistic practices, or at least for forming a cartel with Chetan Bhagat who takes up most of the remaining slots? Both should be banned from writing for at least three years so the rest of us can keep the wolves, if not the cows, from our doors.

Ruskin Bond once said that India has more writers than readers, which explains why the publishers act like capos. Influenced by our TV channels, they insist on the seamier stuff. One guy in Daryaganj I submitted a proposal to did to my manuscript what dogs down the ages have been doing to lamp posts, and then advised me instead to write a kiss-and-tell book about politicians I have worked with, replete ( he suggested with a wink) with awards of dubious contracts, girls in rooms other than just 105, booth capturing techniques ( this was before the age of the EVM which has rendered all previous practices obsolete) and other such staples of governance. It would, he assured me, sell like “Hot Kates”- I presume he meant hot cakes but I’m not sure: maybe he wanted a hot Kate in there between the pages if not the sheets. It appears that my books are as popular as ice cubes in the North pole: the royalty cheques I receive once a year look like Yogi Adithyanath’s compensation cheques for UP’s farmers, rarely exceeding double digits. Sometimes I wonder, did they even print the books ?

But maybe I’m being too harsh on them, going by my own family and friends. Now, I have a fairly large extended family, even if I were to discount the guys who are either in judicial custody or have jumped bail, and they can also read though writing requires more effort. Members of the social circle are more law abiding and some of them even pay their taxes. But very few of them want to buy my books- they expect them to be dished out as gifts, never mind that it’s nobody’s birthday or wedding anniversary! I guess it’s the effect of this new Amazon/ Swiggy culture of getting every thing at discounted prices or totally free, and I should be happy that nobody is demanding “cashbacks” ! But really, I don’t mind giving them away- nobody’s buying them anyway- but then I rarely get any feedback either. Nobody tells me whether they liked the book or used it as printed toilet paper. Except, of course, from the good wife who is never lacking an opinion or the urge to express it. I asked her about my last book and Neerja replied:

” Uh, you really want to know?”
” Sure,” I replied cheerily, though not very truthfully, ” I’ve always valued your advice.”
” OK, then, two comments: one, there are far too many conjunctions.”
” What’s wrong with that?” I queried, “the idea is to stitch the story together. Conjunctions are good.”
” Nope, the road to Hell is paved with good conjunctions.”
I digested this Sadhguru type statement: ” What’s your second observation?” I asked, hoping for a more positive review this time. I was about to be disappointed.
” Your style belongs to the coitus interruptus school of writing,” she intoned.
” Huh? What exactly is that supposed to mean?” I shouted.
She was calmness itself, like a school teacher talking to a naughty child.
” See,” she explained,” you use too many punctuation marks, especially the exclamation mark. It disrupts your rhythm, interrupts the flow, and delays the gland- sorry, I meant grand- finale.”

I’m still trying to figure that one out. Was she talking about my writing style, or did she have something else in mind? You never know with women ! ( Sorry for that exclamation mark, sweetheart).

So why do I keep writing stuff that no one reads and not seek reemployment as an Advisor to the Minister for Open Defecation Free Himachal? Well, its partly because my net-working skills resemble those of Obelisk, and partly because the queue of retired Chief Secretaries lined up for the job is longer than the line outside the Moolchand metro’s Sulab Sauchalaya, but mainly because, as some wise man once said: You are what you write. He was spot on, you know: writing bilge is better than advising about it!

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at

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