I was intrigued when I found out that someone whom I had once worked with was getting his first novel published. The Story of a Long Distance Marriage, I heard, was supposedly based on the author’s own life, and revolved around a year in the life of a newly married couple after the wife moves from Delhi to New York (we later find out that this decision is prompted not just by academic reasons). I wondered if I’d be able to recognise real life counterparts of the characters in the book and how much of the author I’d be able to see in the protagonist.
As it turned out, quite a bit. I found myself drawing parallels between not only the author and the protagonist, but also between minor characters in the book and people we knew in common in real life – their narratives, behaviours, personalities and even diction seemed familiar.
There is a history of writers starting their career with semi-autobiographical novels – James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Jeanette Winterson and F Scott Fitzgerald are some well known examples. In the preface of his first book, Look Homeword Angel, which was also semi-autobiographical, Thomas Wolfe wrote, “...We are the sum of all the moments of our lives – all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape or conceal it. If the writer has used the clay of life to make his book, he has only used what all men must, what none can keep from using. Fiction is not fact, but fiction is fact selected and understood, fiction is fact arranged and charged with purpose.”
However, I was still curious about these novels – the process of writing them, and how they affected the people who found themselves in them. Did these authors take permission from those they planned to write into their books? And what need drove them to tell a personal story in the first place?
Catharsis for the writer?
When I ask Ravinder Singh this last question, his answer is clear – catharsis. Singh wrote his first book, I Too Had A Love Story, after he lost his former girlfriend, Khushi, in a car accident. “I simply didn’t know how to deal with that moment. And it just felt natural for me to vent it out,” he says, adding that he felt the need to share his grief.
Singh, famously, had never read a single book before writing his own. In fact, he only chose a novel as his medium, after first considering a movie and a musical composition, because writing didn’t involve as many people in the process and he wanted to have control over the narrative. First published in 2008, the book continues to be on the bestseller lists today.
For writer and translator, Jerry Pinto, the answer to this question is not so straightforward. Pinto’s first novel, the critically acclaimed Em and the Big Hoom, tells the story of a family dealing with the mental turmoil, delusion and failed suicide attempts of Em, inspired by Pinto’s own mother, who suffered from bipolar disorder.
He tells me there are days where it seems the book has helped, while on others, it doesn’t seem like that at all. “I often think that writing should be done by people who want to write,” he says. “And if there are peripheral benefits like catharsis or being able to see things better, then that’s wonderful. But otherwise you’re writing because you’re writing. You’re not writing because it’ll make you a better person. Because maybe it will, maybe it won’t.”
Why not a memoir?
These reasons to write can, of course, differ from author to author. For Yashodhara Lal, the process begins with her need to capture an experience. Having started out as a blogger, Lal grew up reading authors like Bill Bryson, Gerald Durrell and James Herriot, all of whom wrote semi-autobiographical novels. “And that was a genre that I was always drawn to,” she says. Lal’s first book, Just Married, Please Excuse, is pretty much based on early years of her marriage. The characters in the book have the same names as their real life versions – Yashodhara and Vijay.
Back in 2010, when she had submitted the manuscript to HarperCollins India, it had been in the form a series of episodes from her personal life. “A bit like what Mrs Funny Bones is…” she says. But publisher Karthika VK (then with HarperCollins), advised her to build the story and give it a structure and a climax, like any good novel. “So I had to then rework it quite a bit and build in that climax, in a way fictionalise maybe about five per cent of it, to give it that flavour.”
The book, finally published in 2012, was successful. “At that time, there was hardly any openness to the idea of a memoir...and Twinkle Khanna can get away with it, but not other regular Indian people…” Lal says.
With her latest book, How I Became A Farmer’s Wife, inspired again by her own life, she feels that she has come full circle. “It feels like it’s more me…it’s just something which is more natural and real, and while I have immense respect for any writer who writes fiction, somehow whenever I was writing fiction, I had this feeling, ‘but this didn’t really happen!’ It almost felt like lying.”
Lal says that about seven per cent of the story in her new book is fictionalised, which is why she didn’t pick a non-fiction label for it. And from the sales perspective, publishing it as fiction also ensures that the book reaches a much wider audience. This is a perspective that Singh agrees with. While most of his books have been semi-autobiographical (Like It Happened Yesterday, Singh says, is almost 100% true), they are published as fiction. When getting his debut novel published, Singh had asked his publisher why he couldn’t just publish it as a memoir. He now understands why.
“Marketing plays an important role,” he says. “If I tell people it’s an autobiography or a memoir, the way things are positioned in our heads is, ‘Oh, it’s an autobiography? Let’s display it with Nehru’s book or Mahatma Gandhi’s book or with books by CEOs of companies’. It won’t sell. A memoir is in demand if it is written by a successful person. “But Ravinder Singh? Who knows Ravinder Singh? When I write my 50th or 100th novel, then we can talk about a memoir.”
Singh’s editor at Penguin, Vaishali Mathur, believes “that human beings are voyeuristic by nature...if readers know that the novel is semi-autobiographical...there is a high level of curiosity involved and people love that. They want to know which parts are real and which aren’t”. The facts in these books are not separated from the fiction in them, she explains. “The authors use their imagination to embellish or fill the gaps in the story, so you can’t call it completely autobiographical.”
Life truths in fiction
Sometimes this merging of fact with fiction offers a chance to pass on wisdom that might not have a space in non-fiction, where the burden of proving every statement lies heavy on the shoulders of the writer. Singh, for instance, has used this opportunity to address issues like road safety in his books.
“I understand that romance is a great engine to pass on the message,” he says. “And at the end of the day, the message that I want to pass on is, ‘Guys, the next time you are on the road, can you please be more careful? So that you don’t end up taking the life of yet another Khushi.”
But to what extent do such truths, channelled through fiction, influence us? “I often wonder, what is the function of fiction and what is the function of non-fiction, when they are absorbed into my mind”, reflects Pinto. “All the things that I know [for a fact], like when India gained independence – 15th August,1947…Now that’s like a rock...and I need that. But all the fiction that I have read is like manure. They are lies and they are fertile.”
Pinto says that the fiction he has read, based on some truth (but not a larger truth) becomes a rich fertile ground from which other kinds of writing or creative expression can emerge. “But what’s holding this together is I think those rocks,” he says. “The facts...These are the things that you know are very important to your story.” He sees them as two different needs, satisfying us in two different ways.
Almost every kind of writing requires one to step back and take a look at things from a distance. But when the story comes from your own life, I imagine the need to self-reflect is considerably greater, and that much harder as well.
“You’ve got to examine this person (the writer) who’s examining the self,” points out Pinto. “And then you have to think, ‘what do I want to tell this person’ and what do I have to appear as? In these three filtering processes, what happens is that truth is the first casualty. Like the first thing you’re doing is constructing the answer that you feel will make him (the writer) sound like a writer that everyone should read or a sage or a well-dwelled person.”
For Lal, the self-awareness comes before the writing begins. “Because I have had the advantage of writing mostly what has happened, it’s almost like documenting real life,” she says. “You are not attached to yourself as a character...It already happened, so you’re just capturing the event”.
Singh says that the process of self-reflection is very important when he’s writing his book. “We all have the tendency to bring out the best of ourselves in front of the world...Friends who know me are also aware of the fact that I’m a very self-critical person.” He says he constantly questions his decisions and that is also reflected in his books.
“I strongly believe that there is no protagonist who is as clean as the colour white,” continues Singh. “We are all shades of grey.” He says that the reason people connect with his work is not because he portrays himself as a hero, but because he shows the real person, who makes stupid mistakes. “I’m the boy next door.”
Giving an example, he talks about the time he demanded that Khushi should learn to speak Punjabi once they got married. If she didn’t agree, he would take her back home. “I wrote about this, and I know that I was wrong…But the beauty of bringing the real ‘you’ is coming out with the flaws and talking it on the chin.”
What happens to the real-life relationships?
I can’t help but think about how writing these books must affect the author’s relationships with the people they write about. Pinto and Singh both tell me that they have always taken permission from the people whose lives they have borrowed from.
Singh, whose new book is once again based on real life – a reunion with his friends in Europe – says, “One of them told me ‘First you’ll make me read it, I’ll approve, and then you will get it published’”. He adds that while most of this friends are generally fine with what he writes, there is one who is always a bit reluctant. “He doesn’t even want to be on social media…he likes to be in a private group.”
Lal, though, says she makes only those people whose feelings she cares about read their parts. Looking back on her first book, she tells me that she was less smart about it then and that she took people for granted.
“I remember [writing in the book] that a distant relative should make herself distant again”, she says, clarifying that she had meant it as a joke. And although Lal had sent this relative a draft with the relevant paragraph, and had got her approval, she later heard from another relative that the person had actually been offended. “So I think I took my family’s sense of humour for granted,” Lal admits.
In a few other cases, she recounts, people have protested about their story being part of her books, and in those cases, Lal says that this might have actually changed the equation between them. “And whether it’s fair or not, I don’t know. But it has happened. Where I’ve kind of felt like, ‘Oh, so you mean I can’t take you for granted?”
Cases like these, Lal says, are a wake-up call for her. One that makes her think, so I’m not as close to you as I had thought. “I guess it’s an unfair expectation on my part but it’s proven to be a good filter. I think people who are ultimately good sports about being featured in my book and are like ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever’...those are the people who are closest to me and who just genuinely wish for my success and want to be a part of it.”
Pinto tells me that one should try not to hurt people in general. “Therefore, you give everyone a fair chance to back out.” He tells me that when Leela Naidu and he were writing her autobiography, there would be two kinds of friends who’d call her. One kind would be hoping to be part of her book and remind her of the long tenure of their friendship, while the other kind would call and ask her to not write about the embarrassing (or compromising) things that they had done years ago.
“Whenever she got the second kind of call...I’d say ‘let’s chuck it out’ and she’d say ‘no, it’s your book’,” says Pinto. “And I’d say ‘no no, it’s also your book and these are your friends and no book is worth hurting a friend. You have loads of lovely stories, we can chuck these out.’ And we did”.
In the introduction of The Book of Light, which he edited, Pinto, recounts an incident when after one the first few reading of Em and the Big Hoom, a friend insensitively asked him if he felt guilty about using his mother’s life to craft this beautiful book. Singh too has publicly faced a similar question from one of his readers.
“If there was some other way to do this I would do it, but I don’t have another way to do it,” says Pinto, adding that he doesn’t worry about this too much. Even back then he knew that his next novel was going to be about his personal life, about the people he’s loved and known and lost. One shouldn’t hurt people, he repeats, but one also shouldn’t feel guilty about writing. “Because if you don’t have a copyright of your life then who does?”