Exactly fourteen years ago, late monsoon 2002: bubbling with the general arrogance people display a bare fortnight into college, a few friends and I co-found a monthly newspaper. It shall be a broadsheet chronicling the life and times of Presidency College, Calcutta, include creative outpourings, criticism and imprecise irreverence from students in at least three languages – English, Bangla and Hindi – and, naturally, original artwork. It shall be sold for five rupees apiece to the student populace. Teachers will be bullied into taking subscriptions. There are enough DTP (desktop publishing) shops near Thanthane Kalibari and plenty of printers behind College Square for the venture to be easy-peasy. I do not tell anyone this yet, but I am dying to write an entire editorial in verse.
All this is decided between lectures, over tumblers of cold coffee or “infusion” at Coffee House, on one of those long hot afternoons in Calcutta which unfurl so slowly that you can literally hear the pavements sigh and the tarred roads heave as the sun batters down upon them.
In these bare fifteen days, our friendships have already reached Mary McCarthy proportions in our heads. In these bare fifteen days we have learnt to sound very whatever about Coffee House. As though we are not petty arrivistes after all but have been inhaling the legendary smoke and din here for decades, as though it is not for us a great curiosity still but just the most convenient – and cheap – place to meet and eat. So you see how in character it is that we’re about to establish a newspaper; next step, breakaway dramatics club; eventually, scholarship applications abroad.
Mind you, it gets even worse from here.
We christen the newspaper Un‘presi’dented. The quote marks are part of the title. A few capitals might have also been used – but I forget the details.
2. Chapter 1
What the rest of the group does not know, however, is that I have a personal angle in all this literary wrangling. There is this one writer I want to commission. I do not know much about him. Just that he reads economics, is a year senior to me and has this crackly energy about his person. I’d met him recently at a debate where he was declaiming passionately about economic terrorism inflicted by neo-colonial powers – something like that – and I am dying to get to know him better. Founding a newspaper and giving him an entire column designed for, what I imagine (correctly) is his specific skill set, does not seem one bit outlandish.
The column is called: FLAK – Give Vent to Righteous Rage.
You get the drift.
He agrees to it in a second, produces the piece I want in a day, and when I self-importantly interrupt a microeconomics class with urgent proofing questions he doesn’t seem annoyed.
A word about said column. Now is as good a time as any other to come clean on this. I have copied the FLAK idea from Gentleman magazine. When I was in school, I’d asked our newspaperwallah to get me a subscription to Gentleman. I’d heard great things about it, I told him chattily. My mother, who was possibly eavesdropping, nearly had a heart attack.
Eventually, she examined the first issue that was delivered with a clinical eye and did not find anything to object. My grandmother pronounced the final judgment on it – “like Desh,” she said, “but shallower”. We left it at that. Now, since Gentleman has, to my great sorrow, shut shop in 2001, I feel rather good about resurrecting its righteous rage theme. Also, clearly, there is some sex appeal about angry young men, at least in my head.
Back to our story. If you thought coming up with a whole newspaper to effectively proposition someone is psychotic, you will fall speechless at the highly sneaky stylistic artwork effected in Page 2 of the very first issue of Un’presi’dented. My main article (the co-founders had had to fill most of the pages themselves), a nostalgic piece on the history of the college sits, elegantly, legs neatly crossed, right next to his angry piece which is coiled tight with pent up energy.
It is the beginning of our parallel writing careers, though neither of us realises it then. Nor do we realise how quickly the lines between will begin to blur, and uncomfortable ideas – and phrases – from either side will casually cross over and grow roots across the fence. His economics will get stained with my literary obsessions; my narrative arguments will affect geopolitical positions. At the time, of course, we had no interest in these side effects. The early days of love, even for high-minded hypocrites who use college newspapers to facilitate romance, offer a completeness in and of itself that is almost ridiculous in its perfection.
I also realise, in hindsight, that I was possibly the most annoying person in college in my batch.
3. The middle of the book
As I remember the past and write these words, taptapping on my laptop, sitting cross-legged on the floor as I do, in front of a low table, deleting one word here, adding three there, Saurav walks around our little house. Sometimes he says things aloud that are part of an ongoing internal monologue addressed to his current manuscript (a juggernaut of a thing), about the pricing of oil or debt de-leveraging, for instance. Sometimes he sings tunelessly while playing chess with his computer (the computer is called “Ultron”), and I have to go and shush him because the racket is scaring my sentences away. Sometimes he stomps around angrily, furious about the terrible Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement urf LEMOA that India has just signed with the US, and begins to organise the ever multiplying books on our drawing room floor into careful piles. Apparently the clutter is breaking his chain of thought – possibly focussed on the fine print of the treaty and not the fine print of his manuscript, but I let it go. Sometimes, he puts the kettle on and we drink tea.
These are the good hours in our parallel writing lives. At other times, there are major meltdowns (on my part) and grey caves (on his).
There are the other lives – some might use the word “real” for it – that pulse beneath the bookish lives with their eggshell-thin walls. And that other life is given to precocious multiplications. So guilt and panic and grocery, duty and anxiety and laundry, termites and happiness and bank visits disrupt the sentences constantly, relentlessly, egregiously, and every hour of every day they combine and crack the eggshell-thin haven. A runny anxiety floods out and coats everything with its strange viscous texture.
We hate our writing lives. We feel like failures. We procrastinate. We fight and blame each other. Then, we go buy books and chocolate digestives (prescribed medication for my meltdowns). We sit on the terrace and drink tea and overanalyse everything. We sit on the terrace and drink tea silently. We write a few sentences that we don’t hate. We admire the books we bought. When it rains outside, we read in bed next to each other. We believe in each other’s books – past, present and future – more than in our own. (It is infinitely easier to micromanage your spouse’s unfinished manuscript/article than complete your own.)
Unmarked by big life events, like the birth of children or acquisition of property, the fourteen years together sometimes seem to be too light, as though sketched on water. Then, we remember the books we have bought together; in one lot, they’d sink the sort of boat we are likely to afford. The image makes me smile; I am willing to be sunk by boats, to confess further lies.
While it sounds infinitely smarter to bandy about the phrase “parallel writing lives” – the truth is complicated and the book-writing we indulged in was often sequential. One of us gave priority to a book or a thesis (mostly) fulltime while the other wrote a lot of ill-paid articles to cover living costs. The one doing the book felt guilty; the one doing the articles felt virtuous. The sun set on the guilt and the virtue, and the next day everything changed. The one doing the book felt trapped by it. The one writing ill-paid articles felt trapped by it. Then came another day. The one doing the book was exhilarated. The one doing the articles insisted on an expensive dinner.
Once, we even wrote a book together. It led to wild recriminations and healthy sales. We still can’t quite believe our luck. But then again – we can’t quite believe that we have to write the sequel now, together. Again.
For a long time, I used to wonder why Rama was exiled for fourteen years. Why not ten? Was a decade not a rounder figure?
Eventually, I realised its basis was legal in import. In common law of the time, it was held that if a man and wife stayed separately for thirteen years, the marriage could be considered annulled. It seems, following the same logic, fourteen years meant that Rama’s relationship to the throne would cease to exist. Basically, Rama would be time-barred from claiming the throne as his.
Fourteen years ago, laughing and machinating through the seductions of the written word, Saurav and I picked out a life for ourselves – from the hundreds of lives that were (apparently) available to us, children of liberalisation that we were, we picked this one. For whatever it is worth, the unmoored boat with far too many books in it is now time-barred from claiming any other port. And you know what? I think we’ll survive.
Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels – The Vague Woman's Handbook and The Weight Loss Club – and a PhD dissertation on Bharata's Natyashastra. Saurav Jha is the author of The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power, and the forthcoming The Nexus and the New Normal. They wrote The Heat and Dust Project: The Broke Couple's Guide to Bharat together – and lived to tell the tale.