Greetings, World! Although I am currently wading through acres of undergraduate papers, most of which seem to be describing the physics of universes not our own, I am determined to take little islands of time to think about writing, life in general, and, yes, other universes. While the dog sleeps, and sunlight slants into the room, and the humidifier gurgles sleepily, my poor, overtired brain leaps from thought to thought like an inebriated grasshopper. I wonder vaguely about thermal energy transfer through glass versus the greenhouse effect, or nerve conduction issues in dogs recovering from spinal surgery, or the creative fire of the Nawab of Awadh, who, upon being exiled from his homeland by the British, lamented in the form of a बिरह गीत, a song of separation, the immortal Babul Mora, which I am trying to learn while washing dishes or falling asleep. In my current state written sentences run on like my thoughts, which resemble a very long goods train carrying all manner of things from old attic junk to flocks of starlings.
Talking about writing, I am lamenting the fact that I only published two stories this year, which means I only wrote two stories last year. This year I’ve written one YA story coming out in an anthology in India, and that’s it. It has been one of those years where Life has intervened, so although I have about twenty story ideas (at last count) some of them semi-begun, they have not matured to actual, complete stories. Whenever this happens I wonder whether I’ve lost the ability to write. We’ll see, I suppose.
For some reason I feel like talking about those two stories I did write. Authors are not the best people to comment on their own stories, I think, but I am not going to commit literary criticism, only reflect a bit on how they came to be. This is because in a way both are departures from what I’ve written before. The first one, Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra, came about because of a story I’d written long ago, Three Tales from Sky River, about new myths that arise when humanity has spread to the stars. For a long time I wondered about who would tell those stories, who would go from planet to planet collecting such tales. Then I read Arshia Sattar’s Tales from the Kathasaritsagara, and I knew. I’d come across the original 18-volume compendium before, in the dusty shelves of a university library, and was fascinated by the title: The Ocean of Streams of Story. I knew that these stories had been collected and woven into a complex tapestry by a wandering poet called Somadeva in the 11th century, but this book, written by a scholar, made them come alive for me. Of particular interest was the story of Somadeva himself. So I found my storyteller.
So A Sky River Sutra came to be. I see it as a stand-alone story as well as a beginning to a compendium of tales (first pointed out to me by Anil Menon — thanks, Anil!). It does not have a traditional story structure — beginning and end are all mixed up — but to me that is irrelevant. What is a story, after all, but a device to transport you to some other place, some other way of being? All other definitions are artificial. This is perhaps the first time I have broken free of the usual story constraints, and that is partly because of the way the Kathasaritsagara influenced me. Arshia Sattar’s reminder that legendary storytellers such as Valmiki write themselves into their stories, and that Somadeva does not do so, except perhaps in disguise, made me think a bit. Thus this is the first story into which I have written myself, although in a very modest way. To think of oneself, a storyteller who is not at a remove from the story, is something fresh in our modern times where alienation seems to be the name of the game. The observer is not separate from the events unfolding before her! In many ways the story is one in which I am speaking to my own tradition, my own ancestral past, but in a new way. Science fiction lets you do that. Science fiction has the potential for exploring a multitude of freedoms (a potential that is quite underutilized, but still) — not least among which is the means for decolonizing one’s mind, of throwing off the confines of dominant ways of thinking. Writing this story made me feel like I could breathe again.
The second story I wrote stands out for me because it is the most uncomfortable story I’ve had to write. Yes, I had to write it. I didn’t want to at various points but the compulsion was too strong. “Are You Sannata3159?” came out in PS Publishing’s anthology, The Company He Keeps this fall. The seed of the story was something I read about in Jane Goodall’s book Harvest of Hope, in which she mentions an amazing story about an Indian bison hunt somewhere in the prairies of North America. Then somehow a young man called Jhingur came into my head, and I saw him very clearly and felt I had to write about his experience. The poor guy was trying to tell people in the story something very important, and nobody was listening to him, so I had to. Jhingur’s name means grasshopper, and there is a character in a Premchand story I read long ago (wish I could remember which one) who has that name as well. So the Munshi was looking over my shoulder as I wrote this story, although his influence was gentle, subtle. I don’t think he ever felt the need to put gore into his stories, and generally I abhor that myself. But in this story some gore was essential. I am squeamish about such things so it was tough writing it. Much later, after writing and submitting it, I realized that this story, too, blurred boundaries between writer and character and reader. The title says it all.
Enough about stories set down on paper or screen. There are stories in my head, and stories in the cold world outside. I saw flocks of birds on wires yesterday, all conferring very excitedly. Were they talking about migration routes? Declaring ownership of their inch or two of wire? I really wish I knew. People drove by in their cars, phones to ears or with the usual glazed looks on their eyes, apparently oblivious. Sometimes I feel like an interloper among the human race. I drove by the wetland that I still hope to save from the indifference and stupidity of people around it, and there was ice at the edges, and a great, clear circle of liquid water. The cattails were grey and forlorn under a grey sky. I want to know about the stories there, whether the grumpy beaver is still around and still (hopefully) grumpy, whether the hidden inner pond hides otters, one of whom visited me some years ago. There is a man I pass on the sidewalk every morning, who always has a grin on his face. Is he simple? Does he know something you and I don’t? He’s dressed somewhat raggedly, and carries a bunch of mysterious plastic bags. Perhaps he carries the deepest secrets of the universe in his head, or maybe he’s thinking about lunch. Who knows?
Back in India the family is eating chocolate cake. I can just about taste it. My niece informs me over the phone that it is really good. I want chocolate cake and samosas and tea, but the pile of papers glowers at me. So I’ll have to settle for tea and wandering about alien universes. Sometimes the alien universes give me stories too. One time a student wrote something ridiculously incorrect about the age of the Earth (it happened to be older than the universe by orders of magnitude). That immediately led to a fable called The Registrar’s Yawn. I haven’t sent it anywhere yet, partly because I see it as a start to many stories about the said registrar, who is an entirely fictional character, of course, and partly because it is very short. Sometimes, writing a story is the only defence against insanity.