Africa...I lived in Africa like someone who had alighted at the wrong station and was waiting at the platform to catch the return train. The Indians were living there for the sole purpose of getting a square meal every day. They vied with each other to be the first to convey their gratitude to god but meanwhile, if there arose any chance to meet a British officer, then without even informing god they would make Him wait.
But after the work was over, they would return and praise god in a manner as though it was his special recommendation rather than their sycophancy that had facilitated their task. They were as brusque with their black domestic servants as they fawned over the British. And that is why the black Africans too would not miss a chance to knife them in the dark just for a penny or two.
I spent almost 14 or 15 years in my job as a school teacher hoping to manage a voluntary retirement that would give me a moderate pension so that I could return to India.
Many a time I thought of putting in my resignation but – call it my cowardice if you will – on those occasional visits to India, I found myself unable to hold my own under the circumstances, and would return to Nairobi even before the vacations came to an end.
And then it so happened that when the Africans gained independence, the government itself offered an option to us for voluntary retirement. Although I put in my application, I sort of began regretting it, wondering whether it would be possible to live in India comfortably on a meagre pension in case I failed to get a job.
Some of my friends believe that I have recklessly played around with my career all my life. The truth, however, is that all these escapades were actually triggered by some dread or another. Anyway, I returned to India from Africa with my mother, wife, and children.
India?...For a full year we found ourselves so adrift as though we had reached a place even beyond Africa.
Wandering about from place to place, I do not know how I got lost in a crowd of an ancient king’s workmen in the caves of Ellora before finally arriving in Aurangabad. I have no idea how a miracle happened here. I was given the chair of Professor and Head of Department, English, of Saraswati Bhavan College.
I became oblivious of whatever I had read, but I was clearly very happy. Not just this, I was made the principal of this college within a year. You could consider this the height of my ignorance that I accepted the offer at once believing it to be my right.
From the very beginning, I had always been writing a story or two. It was my good fortune that there was a large group of readers and writers of Urdu and Marathi in Aurangabad. Many of them were in fact part of the local university and the Governing Council Committee of my college. My passion to write stories began to take deep roots and apart from the time spent in the college, I began to devote all my time to reading and writing.
Our discussions of how to create fiction, how to critique it, the literary meetings, our friendships and arguments – had I not had these at my disposal here, then all my passion and plans would have come to naught, in which case by now my very existence would be fragmented into bits. But in Aurangabad, I was blessed to have fellowship of the mind and I began to live my life fully. To me, those 15 years appear to be the best days of my life, years that flew by like 15 days.
Then what? I don’t know why but truth be told, the happiness of Aurangabad also began weighing heavily on me.
I believe that if one is dogged by a passion to write, or any other passion for that matter, even a happy and content person begins to suffer from a debilitating craving to do something. There was no real reason why I left my huge house, Park Villa, there to settle for the rented room and a half in Delhi...only a nameless, hopeless fear coiled around my heart!
One day I heard my landlord talking to a neighbour about me: “What does he do?”
“But he must be doing something?”
“He writes books.”
In fact, I live books, but how could my landlord be wrong? It is only life that we live, and books, whether written by you or someone else, are meant to be read, no matter what they are like and whatever meaning one makes of them.
According to many of my critics of those days, I was always reluctant to narrate the story – either from my own book or written by others – exactly as it was even after having read them over and over again. While narrating them I would bring in my own meaningless notions into them. In my reading no meaning seemed to fit in perfectly.
I am grateful to god that every day a feeling grew in my consciousness that living meaning – just like life – is in continuous flux. If meanings become static, then books die a death of their own. If you read or write a narrative that is alive and animated, which carries a particular meaning now, a different one the next moment, and yet another meaning again, a meaning that you may not comprehend or even may, but you somehow must pursue, how then are the critics to blame? Such fanciful pursuits may only be considered ludicrous.
It has been said that truths are always universal because they are unchanging.
If the experiences I narrate are not personal, then in spite of being fully present in the language there will always be a missing link. My habit to write stories has taught me, or maybe the stories have themselves accepted my belief, that instead of reaching presupposed conclusions, they should rather narrate themselves from within their contexts and the story should not wish to escape that guilt of experience, nor should the reader, in the face of that narrative without confronting its individual truths.
I understand when we say that a story writes itself and our real motive is hidden within the recesses of these distinctive personal truths. I have honed my artistic expression over time, though my early critics treated my art and truth as an inevitability that happened on its own. Perhaps, after reading me over and over again they had come to a better understanding of my perspective.
In my meanderings, I had begun to realise that there lies buried a point within a story, which even as it comes in contact with predetermined depths and undetermined realities, instead of being right or wrong remains constant somehow, and we cannot label our characters wrong in spite of their being so.
A major challenge for a storyteller is that the incidents of life cannot be presented in exactly the same way in any language.
The mastery of the short story writer lies in the fact that the reader, instead of following a language should be able to experience things exactly as they happened. The writer does not write a language. Rather, in his language the story is exactly as the incident it portrays.
When Premchand’s contemporaries read his language, they were not aware that he had gifted to Urdu and Hindi a language that was tailored to the needs of the story itself. The question is not limited to the dialogues used by characters and their personal idioms. The crux of the matter is that the diction of the story should be bound by its atmosphere and occurrences to transform its narrative into experience. And yet, some critics judge the artist’s prose as good or bad. Often, without thinking deeply they dismiss the language as not being creative enough.
An excerpt from ‘A Caravan of Memories’, translated from the Urdu by Girija Sharma.
Excerpted with permission from Joginder Paul: The Writerly Writer, edited by Chandana Dutta, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.