Thursday, June 2, 2016
You start out with a lot of hope. Hope is integral to your belief that you can write. But the world thinks otherwise. The first thing they tell you point blank is that you can’t write. The truth, of course, is that the world doesn’t like the idea of writing. But they don’t tell you that. Instead they tell you will never make it good as a writer, so do something else. The second thing they will tell you is to choose a trade; tapping toddy, or something.
That something for me was selling space. I had set out to become a journalist as a first stop on my way to become a writer. I thought the Times of India (TOI) was the paper. I was wrong, of course. Ah, well, I have been wrong so many times. Well, anyway, TOI wouldn’t have me, in spite of the learned letters I wrote in its letters column starting with “Apropos of Mr. Hard-to-comprehend’s article of November 5, 1980.” And I thought, what the hell, I’ll become a space seller in publishing. It’s easy to get a job as a space seller because nobody wants the job. Nobody wants the job because it’s the hardest job in the world. Imagine walking into an office and asking them to advertise in your newspaper. “Tell me, why should we give you aadvertishment? From where do we get money to aadvertishe in your rag?” Suddenly you feel very small as if it would have been better if you were selling brooms, toilet cleaners, or, door mats.
I stuck it out for a while, worked for various publishing companies. It’s not difficult to retain a job in space selling, and, even rise to be supervisor. All you do is bribe your mole in advertising agencies to let you know when an ad is coming. You go there, collect the release order and wave it around in the office saying, “I did it. I sold a full page.” They applaud your patience and courage in doing a peon’s job. But deep down I was still looking for a break as a journalist.
Then wandering through life, by fluke, I become a journalist. O tempora o mores! I was sub-editing proofs in a fortnightly when the features team quit en masse and went to another fortnightly. Don’t ask me, such things happen in publishing. I was recruited to writing features. Ah, this is my dream job! That is when they say the most subversive thing that can be said to a writer. They say you can’t write to save your life. I found that it’s more difficult to hold on to feature writing than space selling. For example, sources will not talk to you, people who matter will avoid you, the high and mighty will not return your calls, and they only talk to people who are in their old-boys network. As if applying chilli paste over your wounded ego, you have a nit-picking features editor, who insults you in editorial meetings.
But I go on writing, thinking one day the big break will come. It never does. Then I switch professions. Seeing as to how much my copywriting friends are getting I switch to copywriting for corporations. I discover that I am in a vacuum, and I sense emptiness. Nobody in the organisation knows how to write a straight clear sentence in English. Yet, they all presume they are Shakespeares waiting to be discovered.
I write copy for them to approve. I wait quiveringly for their approval and their pay check. I correct their atrocious English, gritting my teeth and cursing my fate. See, they are guys who don’t know the difference between “loose” and “lose” and “your” and “you’re.” And, anxious as I am for their approval, they put me down in the worst manner possible. “It doesn’t have flow.” Pray, do tell me what is flow? Does Ginsberg’s Howl have flow? Does Kerouac’s On the Road have flow? And, you, who can’t write a decent sentence, are telling me about flow? Every time they say that the writer inside me dies a little. The writer in me fails. The dream clock ticks in reverse. I get funny demands on my time. A website has to go up in four days, a brochure has to be written and printed in two days, a brand manual has to be completed in a week. These are laborious works requiring days of proof checking. I race against time, I forget to eat my food, I binge on fast food, I drink to drown my recurring nightmares of the sales going down because the copywriter screwed up. I take my work home on Sundays and on holidays. I can’t believe I could be blackmailed into doing all this.
They heap the worst indignities on me. Even the IIT/Ms can’t write, and they lecture me on grammar. They send me emails from their blackberries, emails such as, “I thk u hv gt t ‘ll wrng. Tis don’ hv no flo.” What’s the great flow of words you are talking about? Ilyad? The Upanishads? I suppress a scream and sit in their cabins with my head down. By the time I get my pay check I am a wreck. And, I realise my pay check will not pay for lost pride, and, most importantly, will not last for the month. It won’t pay my son’s fees in engineering college. No, I don’t want him to be a writer, engineering is better. The world doesn’t need writers, they need engineers more. They give me a miserly increment while my colleagues in sales get bonuses and trips abroad. I cry silently, I despise what I have become. I become a number in their employee list, I become an inhuman resource. My teeth fall off, my head becomes bald, my skin is sallow, I get cramps in the night, and I spend days in hospital ICUs.
When my son gets a job, I give up. I have failed, but not completely. I have some fight left in me and this is what I want to salvage. I sit for hours and write, trying to get back my skill, get back myself, get back what I believe in. I pick up my pen and write and write and write; writing is my revenge. I pick up the wasted skeins of my thoughts and feelings and shape them into words. I write poems, articles, plays, short fiction, and work on a novel. That’s when I am convinced I can do it, that I can write again.