February 23, 2003    
  Shreekumar Varma         
The days are tough for a writer,  especially one
writing in India. Everyone loves an Indian writer, especially the world. Everything plays a part in the making of a writer (even his book at times). Well, the days are tough because there's such a crowd of writers out there, each one hugging the hope of the big league. Some are willing to spend enormous amounts of money to get their book published. Others hound publishers and editors. There are also those who live and slowly die in hope. I've seen shivering mounds of manuscripts gathering dust, waiting for a harassed editor's benign glance.

And who can blame them? The times are such, they resemble the madness of a gold rush. Everyone wants to prospect in the hope of a lucky strike. Indian writing is IN. It commands big bucks. It ensures exposure. You might just be the new and improved Rushdie or you could be the new Roy on the block. So they wait and wait and just when they've touched the edge of despair there comes the news of yet another work being auctioned off for a ridiculously snooty sum. The merry-go-round continues.

Among the things that go into making a writer (a cynical male writer friend once told me that it helps if you're female, good-looking, media-savvy and good at networking) one of the most important things is your presence across the country. And outside, if you can make it. Writers are expected to read. That's one of the inevitable, unavoidable, career-building qualifications of a writer. You have to call a lot of people, read from your book and answer their questions and make sure the entire exercise is played up in the press.

In my case, I read from my novel in Chennai. In Bangalore I was joined in the reading by others, a well-known cartoonist, a girl from theatre, etc. In Mumbai I was joined by professional actors and singers who read out excerpts in well-modulated and warbling voices. You may think these professional voices beat me in the reading department. Not true. Because who else can read my writing with more love than myself! That's why most writers who read have to be stopped as they go on reading their favourite passages. (Because every passage is their favourite passage.)

I have listened to quite a few writers reading. Some of them have been personal favourites. The first in this list was one I'd grown up with, whose writings I fell in love with at an impressionable age, whose work finally became the basis of my M Phil thesis. The only problem was, he was a writer who wouldn't read. R K Narayan sat in Landmark signing and signing. But he wouldn't say a word, except to ask for water and to issue instructions to a relative who'd brought him. At least, I thought, I could talk to him. So I stood before him and thrust an open book at him and considered his bent head, trying to summon up courage. But he finished signing my book, looked up and nodded brusquely and the moment passed.

When Arundhati Roy came to read at the British Council, she was fresh from the media oven, but weeks before the Booker. She attracted a large crowd whose questions she answered with charming aplomb. There was quite a large contingent of Ayemenem aficionados, friends and relatives, who'd come to cheer her on, looking on proudly at this turn of the native. At one point she responded to questions about nursery rhymes that she'd used in her book, confessing that she loved to do her nursery rhyme ''routine'' during parties after she'd ''had a couple''. I had a moment alone with her during the ensuing cocktails outside. When I saw her standing with a glass of wine in her hand I said, ''So, are you ready for your routine now?''

She chuckled and looked around at the bevy of beaming relatives and said, ''Not yet!'' Despite the knowledge that she'd arrived, and the authority with which she had answered questions, I saw a vulnerability in her that I subsequently recognised as being an inherent, and perhaps even essential, part of any serious writer.

But there are times I feel it's cruel to depend on a reading writer and judge his/her work by the quality of the reading alone. Which is what a lot of people do. For instance, when I listened to a couple of good friends of mine, and then the author himself, reading from Kiran Nagarkar's Cuckold, I decided instantly that I wouldn't buy it. It just went on and on, and even the cultured voices of prominent theatre personalities reading out long daily routines from this historical novel simply went over my head, hit the wall behind and returned in scattered ringing notes that failed to make any great impact on me.

Much later I saw the paperback version and bought it. Even then, I took one quick look at the great big size of the novel and kept it aside for a rainy day. Which didn't come. A couple of months ago, however, I was bullied into reading Cuckold by a good friend who threatened dire consequences if I didn't read and report to her immediately. I read the book. And I was converted. What more can I say? How could those well-modulated voices convey even a fraction of the thrill that a good novel can impart when you're alone with yourself and gradually entering a world that's been so delicately and so delightfully drawn out for you?

And finally, a grand old man who touched the pinnacle of literary achievement and then bid adieu, as if it had all been a good day's work. Once again, it was the British Council that played host to this author. Nobel laureate William Golding read from an autobiographical work and it was perhaps the quality of his reading that transformed this white-bearded old man into a naughty schoolboy as he played truant, fell down and got up again and made his reluctant appearances in dull classrooms again and again. Sitting in the lawn among other listeners lapping up the life and crimes of a cynical schoolboy, I found that it was the very lack of drama, the matter-of-fact rendering that paradoxically brought out the colour and effervescence of a bygone time.

After the reading we had dinner. My wife sat at a table with Golding and a few others; I sat with Golding's wife and a few others. During a sudden inevitable lull in the conversation, a hearty-looking gentleman said: ''Mr Golding is such a grand writer! What about you, madam, do you also write?''

Mrs Golding didn't bat an eyelid. She replied gravely, ''Yes I do. I write pornography.'' The shocked silence that followed was shattered by the sound of her jubilant laughter.

The author can be contacted at varma@shreevarma.com
The column WORDPLAY appeared
every fortnight in
the Sunday edition of
The New Indian Express
Writers who read