A writer’s journey

If there is a major pothole a writer should avoid falling into, it’s the fear of rejection. I fell into it, and am just about getting out of it. Now that I look back, maybe (partly at least) it was because I revered authors. Whether it was Charles Dickens or Minette Walters, it didn’t matter. How could I even dream of walking amongst them?

The fear of not being good enough paralysed me for years. I had wanted to write a novel since I was ten actually, and I wrote several, starting from the time I was a teenager. Not just novels and novellas, but short stories, fan fiction, and screenplays. I would read these out to friends and family off and on, but never sent anything for publication. I threw almost all of my early writings away, except for the poetry.

I turned into a journalist –  a fairly good one at that. I liked to see my byline out there in mainstream newspapers and I liked the paychecks. Often, I would submit a humour piece or a short story, and my editors liked it and published it. But writing a whole novel? That was a different ballgame. The project fell by the wayside. When I did draft a novel one day, it was in a tentative fashion. Then I kept it away and concentrated on my “real” work.

Last year, my daughter told me it was time I published it. So what if it was rejected she said. I was an experienced writer by now and should not feel insecure. She was right. The years of writing had done me well. My words flowed better. I felt more confident and decided that I was ready.  So I re-wrote my crime novel and was happy with the result.

But when I sent in the book proposals, I realised no one even wanted to read my novel, leave alone give it a shot.

I read up on self-publishing. Most of what I read was discouraging. Besides the obvious challenges that were underlined, the message was that if the holy grail of traditional publishers did not want even want to read it, something must be wrong with the book. I did not let it get me down. I sent my novel out to beta readers, and now it’s just come back from a professional edit. I will continue to search for a traditional publisher and if I am not successful in finding one, it does not mean that I will give up on my book.

(This post was originally written for a writer’s group which I am no longer a part of and therefore all references to it have been removed)


A Touch of Class

(The article transcribed here was written by me for The Economic Times, and published on 13th October 2004. However, the information given here on dressing is timeless. 

 

What should a man wear to get an elegant, stylish look?

Fashion for Men

We exist in a visual world. Our clothes, looks, expression, gestures and tone create an impression which can last a very long time. And we unconsciously associate certain clothes and mannerisms with certain personality traits.

This is hardly a question of right or wrong…it’s reality. When a man is better dressed he is noticed, receives more respect, and gets better service. Perhaps that is why corporate dress codes are flourishing and dressing well has become almost a job requirement. Picking the right clothes and accessories has evolved into a skill, an art if you will. And looking good is no longer the matter of picking up the right trouser and matching shirt and tie. It means selecting the right watch, belt, socks, shoes and even accessories like sunglasses, jewellery and perhaps the right brand of cell-phone and tablet. All of this is becoming an intrinsic part of a man’s lifestyle statement. A man is becoming what he wears. And what he carries.

‘If a man is wearing an Armani suit and Prada shoes you’ll know he’s not an ordinary man,’ believes Sanyogita Chadda, General Manager, Design, at Raymond Apparel. One automatically assumes that he is the kind of man who has a mansion tucked away in the heart of the city, several farmhouses in exotic locations, a fleet of cars, a yacht and an aeroplane, and holidays in Europe. Armani may not be Indian, but there are plenty of Indian brands that impart a touch of class. Whether it’s Allen Solly, Arrow, Raymonds, Van Heusen or a myriad of smaller brands, you’ll see them everywhere – in exclusive showrooms, in malls, in your next door store and yes, on pavements as well! The rip-offs. The masses out there are being drawn in hordes to the fakes.

If a man wants that coveted promotion he needs to dress well and the best thing he can do is to watch his seniors. ‘You should not dress for the job you are in but for the job you want,’ says Rajendra Grewal, CEO and Founder of The Wardrobe Engineer. So better think twice about sneering at that advertisement in which the well-dressed man wins the all-important contract or gets his boss’s job!

It’s a bitter pill for the nonchalant dresser to swallow but clothes can make you or break you. ‘Clothes tells you about a person…about how particular he is, how much attention he gives to detail. I would not hire a man who is sloppily dressed,’ says Rahul Bhajekar, businessman. Sanjay, Regional Manager in a multi-national firm agrees. ‘Though I would not judge a man’s ability by the clothes he wears, at the same time I would not hire someone who is not neatly or appropriately dressed. After all, the way a man dresses tell you something about him…at least about how well-organized he is.’

It’s not as if Rahul and Sanjay are natty dressers. Though Rahul is fond of wearing branded clothes he does not wear a tie to the office (because of the weather) and sometimes wears half sleeves. However, when meeting clients he is in long sleeves and dark trousers. ‘My clients are mostly foreigners who do not wear suits and ties because of the weather here and so there is no pressure on me to do so,’ he explains. Sanjay does not dress formally either, although he is working in an organization which lays some emphasis on appearance. ‘Friday dressing which was unheard of earlier is becoming common in our company now. The new breed is young and are less in awe of the company culture, and are less likely to be clones of their seniors,’ says Sanjay.

Some Infotech companies, however, maintain a strict dress code whether it’s a Friday or a Saturday, and executives who come to work in jeans are frowned upon. ‘They are trying to prevent people coming in jeans,’ says Grewal. Casual clothes worn to office are not supposed to be jeans, T-shirts and sandals or sneakers. ‘What is casual are crisp cotton shirts and trousers and that too in muted colours and patterns,’ adds Grewal.

Formals can be dark trousers with a sharp crease, a full-sleeved shirt and a tie. But again the pattern matters. ‘A bright printed shirt even if its full sleeves is casual,’ says Sanyogita. For a strict formal look, cotton trousers will not do, however well-cut. ‘Polywool trousers with a sharp crease are more suitable, but of course the fall and the look is very important.’

Unless they are meeting outsiders, Indian executives tend to avoid suits and jackets. Formal business wear means dark colours but black is rather stark and should be avoided.

Shirts should be long sleeved and preferably be in a light colour like white or pale blue, perhaps with pinstripes or just plain. White is a good, safe colour. Ties should not match with the jacket but should contrast with it, but beware of wearing too bright a tie. While navy blues or dark reds can be the background, the pattern should be subtle. A matching handkerchief is an absolute no-no. Shirts can be a hundred per cent cotton but it goes without saying that ties should be silk. Silk ties can last a lifetime if properly cared for.

Accessories like tie pins are not in vogue these days but cufflinks are. They should have a matte finish to be considered elegant. As for jewellery, too many rings do not give a good impression and can look ‘loud.’ The watch should preferably be steel or silver, although a gold watch can also look classy. A tan, burgundy or black belt is fine but a large bright buckle will be considered tacky. The belt colour should not contrast with the shoes (burgundy and tan is a good combination). Socks should match with the trousers. When it comes to the shirt, trousers and tie, it is best to go in for one solid colour and two patterns or two solid colours and one pattern instead of three patterns although this combination can look good if correctly done.

Finally its the man’s personal style which dictates what he wears and reveals his taste. While a select few get the right combination of clothes and accessories almost instinctively – most have to work hard at it. ‘Ninety per cent of urban Indian men don’t know how to dress,’ says Grewal. He feels that this is because they do not have references…the advantage of a public school background or a role model’. But Grewal believes that dressing is based on scientific principles and can be learnt. However, he warns against becoming a fashion victim. ‘In the IT industry employees have become victims of Chinos,’ he says. Then there are companies where the classical way of dressing is followed. Dark blue trousers, white shirt and black shoes and as a result, executives become clones of each other. He finds the combination of black pants and white shirt particularly irksome as only ‘waiters and undertakers wear such combinations.’ What one needs to do is to develop an individual style.

What about when style goes a little over the edge and becomes rather too individualistic? Unless they work in a work environment which welcomes it, they might have to pay a price. Erin Brockovich swore at work, wore colourful, revealing clothes and the result was that her colleagues and boss mistrusted her and doubted her ability. It can become important to blend in.

While blending in or standing out may be one of the reasons a corporate executive decides to dress in a particular way, many youngsters today dress to impress the opposite sex. Brands definitely matter more to the generation next, even if the goal may be more frivolous. ‘What a boy wears is more important than what he looks like. The right brand in clothes, shoes and watch can give him a cool look,’ says Madhuri, a first-year college student. Throw in a fancy cell-phone and snazzy bike and the teenager is telling the world that he has what it takes.

Though clothes and accessories are becoming an intrinsic part of our personalities, it’s important not to let them take over our lives. ‘Let’s not become victims of fashion,’ says Grewal. Our clothes are not who we are and they should be made to work for us, not the other way round. Following some ground rules helps. Before selecting clothes, one should keep in mind one’s body shape, the existing climate, corporate culture and the cost factor. A quote from Mark Twain is worth mulling over.

Our clothes…are on us to expose us…to advertise what we wear them to conceal. They are a sign; a sign of insincerity; a sign of suppressed vanity; a pretense…and we put them on to propagate that lie and back it up.

 


Not maid for each other

When the gaudily made-up gipsy with dazzling clothes stared into the make-shift crystal ball and muttered, ‘I predict dire trouble with household help,’ I laughed it off. After all, I was just a carefree college girl, come to the mela (fair) with giggling friends.

Ten years later when I arrived in Kolkata loaded with luggage, two under-sevens and a busy husband, what I needed the most was domestic help. I had not had much luck with maids earlier, but was hoping for a new beginning.

maidCal, we were told, had its issues, but what it didn’t have was help issues. Didn’t we know that Kolkata’s elite led a luxurious life with not one, but numerous help around the house? After roughing it out in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru, where domestic help play hard-to-get and are expensive to keep, I now looked forward to living in the lap of luxury.

In just three months I had gory tales to tell.

The first help, Roma, was a real phataka. Her flashing eyes, swinging hips and fiery tongue were sufficient to have me sneaking around the house hoping I wouldn’t set off her hot temper. After a few days of this, I decided that I couldn’t live in mortal fear of the help. So out she went.

The next one Bula, was a villager. Her skeletal frame and servile demeanour aroused pity in me and I wanted to help this poor creature who had been thrown out of her home by an abusive husband. She turned out to be a reluctant worker, and I realised she needed Mother Theresa, not me. So, out she went.

Supply was never a problem in Cal, and another landed up on my door-step within a few hours. Ratna she called herself. Pretty, well-dressed, and clean, she impressed me. She lived up to the first impressions. She was good at her work, worked with a song on her lips and a smile on her face. Shaking off an uneasiness I couldn’t account for, I started writing again.

Until one fine day, my husband Anil dropped a bombshell. Write all you want he said, but why do you need to drink so much? He sounded irritated. One litre of his finest scotch had dwindled to almost nothing in just three days! Suddenly everything came together in a flash. Ratna’s glazed eyes, idiotic grins…and extraordinary benevolence. Of course, she had to go.

When I related this experience to my neighbour, she laughed. ‘Silly, they all steal. You should have locked up the scotch.’

I pouted. It wasn’t my fault. I had just hired the wrong people. Honest help did exist.

Imagine how thrilled I was to discover that there was an agency which supplied household help, that too after informal training and police verification. It was a dream come true. Ignoring my neighbour’s scepticism, I called them. When they told me that I would get to interview one maid the very next day, I couldn’t stop smiling.

And that was how Mrs Meetu Sarkar entered our home. She came from a respectable family she told me, and with her expensive saree and subtle make-up, she looked it. I also liked her air of confidence and capability.

However, it rapidly dawned on me that it wasn’t her interview, but mine.

‘Is your TV in the bedroom?’ she asked.
‘Er, yes,’ I said.
She frowned disapprovingly, and I feared that she would refuse the job.
‘I can move it out,’ I ventured. ‘You will join, won’t you?’
She nodded. ‘Okay, but I am making it clear that I won’t come on Sundays as I work only six days a week And I never come before nine as I have to make my husband’s dabba.’
‘What about my husband’s dabba?’ I asked bravely.
‘That’s your job,’ she shot back.

I didn’t like her, but couldn’t tell her. Besides, I was desperate. So I kept her.

The television was moved into the drawing room, but as the days passed I realised it was a minor sacrifice. Mrs Meetu Sarkar was efficient, even with all her faults. She decided when I should write, which television programmes I should watch and what we should eat. But she was clean, and a hard worker. After a few months, however, I couldn’t help confiding in my neighbour about her bullying tendency. My all-knowing neighbour was sure that it was all my fault.

‘Take charge, be strict!’ she advised. ‘Or one day that woman will run your whole life.’

I tried. I avoided chatting with Meetu, pointed out her mistakes, and moved the telly back into the bedroom. I was thrilled when I realised that Meetu had become meek and quiet. And when she abruptly quit.

It wasn’t my fault, I consoled myself. This was written in my stars. The gipsy had said so.

(Revised version of what appeared in The Telegraph, Kolkata)


A writer’s angst

When I heard that British writer Preti Taneja (she won the Desmond Elliott Prize for her first novel, We That Are Young) was turned down by all the big names in the publishing industry, I realised that my angst over finding a traditional publisher for my book was misplaced.

Preti’s novel was published by a small publisher in 2016, and the publisher could not understand why there “hadn’t been a bidding war for the rights.”

Preti’s prose, according to the judges, contained “prose as sensual, perfumed and parti-coloured as a wedding basket of ladoo, inset with gems of pure poetry”.

I do not consider myself in Preti’s league, not by a long shot. Then why in the world was I resentful of publishers who did not bother to respond to my book proposal?

I did wonder whether my book proposal was good enough, although I did all the right things by reading HowTo articles. No one asked for the manuscript (in India traditional publishers accept book proposals directly from authors). A friend, who was published by Harper Collins, told me that my book proposal was probably lying in a slush pile somewhere. Harper Collins hasn’t responded even though it has been over 8 months.

I completed my first novel in December 2017. I had written the first draft some years earlier, but the manuscript had been lying around gathering dust. I finally took it up in the summer of 2017 and finished it in six months. Once the 300-page novel was done, I knew I wanted to write 5 more books, two of them non-fiction. God willing, I will do it. It could take years, maybe ten. That doesn’t matter because all that matters is that I love what I am doing.
Nita reading

(This post was originally written for a writing group but as I am not a part of that group now, references to it have been removed)


From Kolkata to Siliguri

One day, many years ago, when my daughters Aditi and Tara were aged nine and seven respectively, we took an overnight trip from Calcutta to Siliguri. The train was to start at 8 p.m. in the evening and I hurriedly packed some cheese sandwiches for dinner. Before we left I shoved some bananas into the bag and grabbed a water bottle.

As soon as we found our seats, the kids demanded their dinner and within minutes had polished off the sandwiches. Then they balefully ate a banana each. Dinner finished and done with, I tucked them into bed, looking forward to a cosy winter’s night.

I had not bargained for our next-door compatriots. No sooner had the train jerked to a start, we heard the rustling of paper and the clanging of steel. An aroma of hot ginger tea drifted into our compartment, along with scolding adult voices and the whine of complaining children. I listened to the commotion with irritation, but soon consoled myself that it was a good thing that they were having their dinner early. It meant that they would soon retire and we could go to sleep. But the rustling of paper continued, and the conversation got louder…and louder.

food salad restaurant person

Photo by Stokpic on Pexels.com

“Beta, have some more,’ a woman called out, a woman whom I gathered was the mother.
“Mummy I’m full!’ screeched a young girl.
‘Mummy spent the whole day preparing this for you! Khao!’ It was a man who spoke, and his stern voice seemed to settle the matter. There was a short silence and all that we heard for the next few minutes were chomping and slurping sounds, punctuated by an occasional belch.

The relative peace was broken with the sound of heavy foot-steps and over-hearty greetings.

Oh no, I groaned to myself. Guests.
‘Aha, kya swad hai,’ complimented one of the newcomers.
‘Baitho, baitho. Khao,’ came the instant invite.

After a few polite refusals which no one paid any attention to, the guests joined the party. There was more rustling of paper, more clanging of steel. And everyone started to talk at once. They talked about food. About finding more plates, distributing water, opening bottles, sharing the parathas and the pickles…and occasionally, there was friction.
‘Mummy! Shivam took my laddoo!’ screeched the same girl whose had complained about being too full to eat anything.
‘Take this halwa then,’ said her mummy.
It was clear that mummy proceeded to serve the halwa to everyone else because a young boy’s voice piped up. ‘I hate carrots!’ he said.
‘The carrots are fresh from the farm, so eat that,’ said the father.
‘I don’t like halwa,’ said someone else. A new voice.
‘Kha lo beti, it’s not very sweet,’ said the mother.
‘Nooo, no! You know I don’t eat sweets,’ she protested.
‘She’s always dieting,’ rued her mother.dhokla
And so it went on…

I lay wide awake, marvelling at how people could talk endlessly about food…what they were eating, who had made it, how it was made, why someone was not eating…and why someone was eating

Hours seemed to pass and finally, the conversation petered out. And it looked like the remnants of the food was being packed.

I looked at my watch. It was nearing midnight. There was a brief debate as to whether some of the leftovers could be eaten the next morning or would they have to be thrown away. It was decided that the momentous decision would be taken the next morning.

Finally, there was silence. From across the aisle, my husband Anil winked at me. ‘What a party!’ he whispered. He thought it funny.

I didn’t. The heavy smell of oil and spices had lingered, and it made me feel slightly sick in the enclosed compartment. Even in the dim light, I could see that the corridor had been littered with food and plastic. As I drifted off to sleep I heard my nine-year-old ask her father in a plaintive voice. ‘Why did Mummy bring only bananas?’

The next morning as we were alighting I could not help peeking into the next compartment. To my utter delight, I saw two fat teenage girls with pimply oily faces, a rotund toddler of indeterminate sex, and an overweight ten-year-old boy. The father was a thin man with a large paunch and the mother a huge woman who could barely walk.

What Anil couldn’t understand was why I was so cheerful the whole day, in spite of the sleepless night.


Two Daughters

(A brief and true account of my experiences after my second daughter was born)

IMG_8629
It all started the day my second daughter was born. It was a lovely day in March, clear, crisp and cool. As I breathed in the fragrant air I felt my cup of joy brimming over.

Which only shows how innocent I was to the ways of the world.

The smart starched nurse in the snow-white uniform who was tucking me in said casually:

‘I hope you’re happy beti, you seem to look it,’ she said, as if she were surprised.
‘I am,’ I answered, trying to read between the lines.
My gynecologist, a lady with high heels and a sophisticated hair-do added lightly, ‘Looks like we are going to have you here again soon… for a third try.’ She laughed.

I knew what she meant. Yet, I joined in the smiles, although a trifle weakly. It hit me then, minutes after my second daughter was born, that giving birth to a second daughter was special. Only one third of the population managed it and clearly, it didn’t make them popular.

When my parents arrived I noticed that though my father looked happy, he was trying to hide his real feelings. Nervousness? My mother was less diplomatic, and avoided all eye contact.

Or was I going mad with imaginings? Here I was, dying to hug them and shout from the rooftops about how wonderful it was to have a baby…but I remained silent.

I heaved a huge sigh of relief when my friends trooped in. Ah ha! Here come my generation of people. I can tell them what I really feel. Or so I thought.  I found that they were acting strangely. Their manner was a little too hearty, and they did not give me a chance to talk. And when they thought I wasn’t looking, they threw in my direction strange searching glances.

By the time I went home to my father’s place I had caught on – and was not amused. Everything will return to normal, I told myself miserably.

However the nursemaid who came in to attend to me and the baby dashed those hopes. She was middle-aged with a leathery wrinkled skin and gnarled hands, but she had five sons, she told me proudly.

The world changed. I stopped watching Mahabharat on TV. I stopped chatting with the baby.

My neighbor, a frequent visitor, never ceased to advise me, ‘Beti, you are young. After a couple of years you can try again.’
‘But I like daughters.’ I told her. ‘Even if the next one is a girl I’ll be happy.’ My mouth had opened at last, and as I expected my neighbor was horrified. ‘Three daughters!’, she exclaimed, as it were a fate worse than death.
Seeing me sniff, my mother said, ‘This is normal after delivery.’
Our neighbor nodded wisely, ‘This is not an ordinary shock.’

It was no use trying to convince anyone of the truth. Nobody would have believed me anyways.

A month later it was time to go home, to my husband. I wanted to leave it all behind, but my flight home was not uneventful.

On one side I had a lovely lady whom I could not resist asking, ‘How many children do you have?’
She answered hesitantly, looking very embarrassed, as if she had a guilty secret. ‘I have two daughters,’ she said.
On the other side of the aisle there was this respectable looking gentleman who had been eyeing both my children for some time. He said at last: ‘That’s a very good looking baby boy.’
I gave him my brightest smile and said, ‘It’s a girl.’

I had to put up with his sympathy for the rest of the flight.

Words cannot describe my relief at catching sight of the father of my children and his glowing face. At last I could share my true joy, the joy of giving birth to a beautiful daughter.

(Slightly revised after it was published in the Deccan Herald as a middle, years ago.)

two daughters


The Fate of a Book

When I am caught at mundane past-times such as reading, I find it tough to come up with good lines to stave off unwelcome visitors.

If the telephone rings while I’m reading, the conversation usually goes something like this.

‘What you doing?’ goes the caller.
‘Reading,’ I say in as serious a tone as possible.
‘Oh! You can come with me to the mall then…’

If the door-bell rings and I open the door holding a book, the conversation goes like this.

‘What’s that?’
‘A book.’
‘Hey, you’re now officially rescued from boredom! Come, lets go for a walk.’

I can’t hope for another rescuer.

booksSadly, reading has become an activity difficult to peruse…er… pursue.

It’s not considered important. After all, activities such as swimming, or walking bring with them added health benefits. And going to the pub or watching television are imperative because both drinking and watching TV are relaxing, and help one unwind after a hard day’s work at the office.

That’s why I was surprised when I came across a sizeable chunk of the population reading, in an otherwise deserted library. People hunched up, brows furrowed, buried in books. I scolded myself for my cynicism, but only for a while. Further investigation revealed that this was what was called ‘exam’ fever, with collegians absorbed in finding ways to surreptitiously tear reference books and steal the pages.

Strangely, thousands of books are printed everyday and thousands of writers tap away at their keyboards…in the hope that one day someone will read them. Read them?

If the books are lucky perhaps. More often they will stand unread, adorning a drawing wall, and are shined along with the brass, the crystal and the porcelain. Or they lie in some long-forgotten corner, gathering dust. Or perhaps pile up in anonymous stacks to be passed on from generation to generation.

I always wondered: what is the ultimate fate of a book?

I got an inkling when my favorite bhel-wallah served me mouth watering bhel on carefully torn pages of an unknown book. As I deciphered the hidden words on the bhel-stained pages, it gave me a pleasure I cannot describe. Now, I’ve graduated to unrolling peanut-stained pages, and squinting at the small print, in the hope of reading something of use to me, and get a thrill even if it’s all about quantum physics.

So obsessed have I become that these days I try to catch the words on paper boats as they bob past me on puddles past the colony roads. The words on these pages seem to beg me to read them. I think perhaps their craving to be read was not entirely satisfied in their lifetime.

In the process of reading hidden words on carelessly torn pages of unknown and mysterious books, I’ve discovered the willing takers of books. They are the raddi-wallahs, the bhel-wallahs and the pavement wallahs.

The ultimate fate of a book.

(Revised version of what was published in the Deccan Herald)

The fate of a book