I’m reminded of a story I told myself once upon a time.
I was in college, sitting on the steps of the playground and wondering about how writers wrote brilliant stories. I was more in awe than thinking about the craft or its motivations. I think I was reading Julian Barnes when this awe hit me. It goes like this. You read a page, a story, again and again, without any slump in the excitement. They are just words, you wonder, simple words, arranged in a way that transcends the meaning they carry, stimulating a distinct kind of aesthetic pleasure. Yet, you can’t pin point at exactly what it does to you. You ought to believe there’s a magician, an extraordinary presence behind it.
It disheartened me too because the sad part of this awe was the realization that there is no trick or technique to it. Plot, characters, structure, theme, and so on, all these can be taught by MFA and workshops and books on writing. But the way words form themselves into marvellous sentences! That comes to you (from where, I don’t know). Or it doesn’t. We always try though, and hard work helps one improve. You can go from bad to average, average to good and so on. But that exceptional talent every great writer carries in their pocket like loose change, I felt, was an unfair advantage.
However, I didn’t lose hope. Can gods put something so special in some people’s genes that separates them from the rest of humanity, making the vast majority a superficial mediocrity? I didn’t believe so. I believed in gods that were fair and just. Therefore, I had to figure out how great writers were born.
I was young and stupid. Convinced that I was born in the wrong place, I packed my bags and left my house and that damned city, and travelled the length and breadth of this dry and dusty country. Not so that I would come back and write about it all. I was fully convinced that I could never write such lines. No matter where I go and what I do I will never be able to write a page with Barnes’ precision. I wanted to see and feel more, to know more, to relate to words I was reading and to people I was meeting in books, to know for myself how real the adventure was. I wanted a peek behind all the stories I was reading.
There was no adventure, a decade later, I understood. Half the writers I thought were great were not great anymore (you dare not think Barnes). So many of them were actually assholes and worse than the average humanity I had once called a superficial mediocrity. The stories, the characters, the world I saw were very different from the ones I had read about in books. I couldn’t find my own life anywhere in those pages anymore. It was like reading the lives of others. Rather than asking how the great writers wrote great stories, I asked myself: where is my story, the story of people I met in factories and farms, of those who were termed minorities because of the language they spoke or the religion they followed, where are the stories of people who have been exploited for centuries because of their gender or caste or race?
Theirs were the stories that I read the last. Why? They were the least translated and promoted and published, and hardly any of them were in the bestseller lists. Literature did not remain a fantasy or an alternate reality to jump in and dissolve myself for some time. It became real, a window to the very world I was inhabiting and it changed how I understood myself, others, this world and the great writers.
The great writers I was infatuated with were a hype created by writers themselves, a form of propaganda and as with most other propagandas designed and sponsored by privileged white men. What and who is called great is politics. Like those paid cringy articles we skip so furiously that tell us the 50 most handsome actors and the best 100 movies of the century. The great writers and their excellent prose and imaginative story telling creates great works of fiction but there was something more important and urgent that I had missed.
Yuri, the main protagonist in The Education of Yuri by Jerry Pinto (2022), struggles with himself and people and events around him on a daily basis. He is an orphan who lives with his socialist-Christian uncle, by virtue of which he traverses those socio-political spaces his privileged college peers couldn’t. However, he is also frustrated with the moralistic lifestyle and worldview of his uncle since it accompanies a limitation on material comforts; he had begun to feel insecure about this in college around his rich friends. On the other hand, he was irresistibly drawn to his uncle’s simple and stain-free way of existing in a world that appeared complicated and convoluted to him.
Yuri fits the profile of a loner. The tribe of those who don’t belong, his girlfriend remarks. This coming-of-age novel is essentially a story of the becoming of a writer. The novel climaxes with the death of his uncle, end of his college degree, at his efforts to live alone by taking responsibility of himself, and a job offer from Adil Jussawalla at the Debonair.
He receives the job offer because of a piece he had submitted which tells the story of Daseshwar, an adolescent boy from Bihar who gave people ‘full-body massages’ at Chowpatty. The story gets published but Yuri did not stop there. He helped the boy get an office-boy job because that’s what Daseshwar’s uncle wanted for him. But, very soon, he goes back to his previous work at the beach. This is the last conversation between Yuri and Adil Jussawalla when he goes to accept the job offer:
“‘Were you trying to save his soul?’
‘Are you speaking metaphorically?’
‘I just thought he might want a better life.’
‘You gave him that shot at a better life. He found the one he already had suited him fine. He went back to it. That’s called freedom.’
‘But he’s going to grow old and then what will he do?’
‘We are all headed there. And yes, he won’t make so much money. But he’ll have to find that out for himself, won’t he?’
Yuri braced for a lecture but Adil simply ordered another peg and asked if he had considered the job.
‘I think I’d like to give it a shot,’ he said and then raised his glass. The whisky burned its way down his gullet.”
The education of Yuri, of his transformation from an adolescent to an adult, occurs throughout the novel but the most important transition of becoming a writer happens when he’s given a life lesson from Adil Jussawalla in the conversation mentioned above. Here, Yuri comes out from under the shadow of his socialist uncle and begins his journey as a writer. The lesson is about how a writer coexists with his fellow humans, how they can both nurture and protect their sensitivity, it tells them how to act or to not, a way of engagement with the world, about freedom and free choice, empathy and indifference.
How to be is a question we all face and for a writer the question is more urgent because it decides his vantage position from where they observe, process, and create. Yuri’s interest in Daseshwar’s life brings him close to a world he did not know about. He wanted Daseshwar to leave that world and therefore acts by helping him get a job. It doesn’t work out. Adil’s suggestion is to take a step back and let things unfold on their own: ‘But he’ll have to find that out for himself, won’t he?’
The ending of the novel disturbed me deeply, I realized. Could this be that the education for becoming a writer involves creating these safe havens, a distance from chaos and suffering of others, an inclination against action that attempts to change, puts oneself in vulnerable positions, sometimes in risky situations?
There were writers who wrote with their imagination but there were also those who wrote with their blood. Those, for whom the distance between the self and the world did not exist, who did not have the privilege to step back, did not have the option to disengage. For them, writing was not a vocation but a necessity to survive as well as to fight back and it enriched literature by contributing stories that introduce us to the worlds that had been shoved into obscurity because they expose the manufactured reality we all inhabit and cling so dearly to.
Even if fiction was invented out of boredom or a deep-seated desire to communicate one’s thoughts and feelings, one’s internal world, it had transgressed those boundaries. From the elites of all times, since literature had been a bourgeoise vocation, it had travelled to the less fortunate over the centuries, and in their hands flowered into a weapon that had the potential to not just dismantle the lies of the powerful but also to seek liberation by infusing life back into the art of story-telling. This is literature’s greatness, not (only) how words are arranged in a particular order to stimulate aesthetic pleasure!
The cover art of this issue is titled ‘Sailing through Grandma’s Tears’, designed by Smish Designs. In flat bold colours, it is a tribute to the generational sacrifices of women, who have enabled the current generation of women to achieve great heights in different fields. The artist talks about her work, politics, and views in an essay, here.
This issue contains some fine selections of prose and poetry. The character of ‘Hori’ from Premchand’s Godaan is reborn and lives and dies dramatically in a story translated from Urdu. Yet another translation brings to life the conundrums of a Muslim community in coastal Karnataka. We also find the themes of untouchability (purity- pollution) and discrimination, domestic rape and the status of a woman, jealousy and revenge, being explored in other stories. The poetry titles themselves are quite exciting and innovative. A poet articulates the rejection of her poems through a poem; and another ponders upon the situation of women in Indian households. “In the calendar of my home, I find women marking days,/ yet again, once again, more to remember us than themselves.” One of the poems tries to capture the woman’s response with a strong witty punchline, in a household of male poets. Another poet reimagines the coming of the kingdom of Maveli. “I want Maveli to run away. He doesn’t speak,/ and foreseeing the scene, he smiles unbroken.” A selection of three poems by the Punjabi poet Devneet is creative enough to resurrect Marx and Gorky and bring them to reflect on our current social scenes. Besides, in these pages, you’ll encounter the figures of Raag Marwa, Frank O’Hara, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Fareed Gul and also a cat, in its letter to a cat-parent. Poetry is everywhere, our poets suggest. In the crossing of a train rail, in the death of a mosquito, and in a bird’s memory. An essay on Nazim Hikmet brings some precious lessons for writers about their craft. So, dive in!
gulmohur stands in solidarity with the jailed activists and intellectuals of the Bhima Koregaon case; the victims of communal hatred and of state violence; the victims of caste and gender violence; the victims of fundamentalist oppression anywhere in the world; and with all those who dissent in the spirit of democracy to safeguard our ever-diminishing freedoms.
We thank Smish Designs for her kind art contribution to the magazine. We would like to express our deepest gratitude to all those who extended financial support by contributing to our year-end donation drive. This enables us to sustain the publication and to look forward to a community of caring literature lovers. We also thank our friend Lakshmi Padmanabhan for her assistance in this issue’s production. We are immensely grateful to all our friends (on and off social media) who have helped us reach out. We also thank our contributors for trusting us with their submissions.
As we celebrate the completion of two years of gulmohur, we profusely thank all our readers for their constant support and encouragement. We hope you continue enjoying this combined issue of the quarterly. Please do comment your feedback to the authors on the webzine; and share the writings you like with people around you.
We wish you all a Happy New Year!