Tuesday, June 26, 2012

From Bar & Bench

Working Title: The Lawyer and the Writer

As children, some of us are given books, and some of us are given to books. I was one of the latter, bespectacled from an early age, full of second-hand learning, the sort of kid who rushes home so that he can read face-down on his bed, with a head full of lurid fantasy and science fiction. It’s probably an indication that something either about me or about formal education is very screwed up that I used to skip class to read books; if I hadn’t liked to read so much, I’d likely have done a lot better in school and in college.

When I graduated from NLS Bangalore in 2008, I was following what I thought was my dream of being a corporate lawyer. I joined S&R Associates in Delhi - which is a great firm. I spent a year there, learning the ropes and working on amazing deals. But, much as I liked my bosses, the friends I had made and all the perks of the corporate law firm lifestyle, I was fairly sure that securities law was not my future. And of course, on weekends, and at night, I was writing – fragments, scenes, scraps.

I took some time off between working at S&R Associates and joining the chambers of Mr. Neeraj Kishan Kaul, Senior Advocate, where I would learn about litigation. In those three months, I sat myself down pieced together the first draft of what would become The Angel’s Share.  Over the next year, that draft grew and changed shape and mood drastically.

Writing a book is not easy. Sure, there are days when the words come flooding out of you, and even as you’re writing them down, you know that they convey what you want to say exactly, and that is a great moment. But there are many days when nothing at all comes to you. Sometimes you have to stick it out and keep putting words on paper or on your screen till they start making sense. At other times, there is no force on earth which will get words out of you and you are best served going for a run and trying again later. If muses exist, they are capricious and ungenerous creatures and need to be dragged kicking and screaming from their caves.

Working on a book while holding down a day-job is a challenge. When you’re tired after a long day in the office or in court, you can’t just come home and watch TV and go to sleep. My trick is to go plonk myself down in a coffeeshop and under the impersonal gaze of strangers, open up my laptop and try to get something done. I motivate myself like runners do – just one more mile and you can stop – just one more paragraph and you can get another cup of coffee.

But why would anyone do this? Writing doesn’t pay much, except to a handful of people I can only hope to join if I work at it very hard for years. It brings you negligible fame or exposure – how many of the writers you like would you be able to recognize on the street? At best, it gives you something to tell girls, but I’m sorry to disappoint you – that kind of girl is in short supply.

At the end of it, when your book is actually out and people are reading it, you have to deal with expectations and insecurity. There are critics who will tell you that your work is crap. You will have close friends and family who will read what you spent years on and shrug, because it’s not their thing. You will let something which is part of you out into the world, and maybe the world will mistreat it, but you have to be okay with that.

You write not because you want to, but because you have to, because there is something within you that needs to be let out. Slowly it builds on itself. All those nights after work when you sat in a coffeeshop and pulled two laborious paragraphs out of yourself, and all the days when you had blinding breakthroughs about what two scenes belonged together – all of those add up to something which stands on its own two legs and starts to take faltering unsteady steps. That moment when all those words add up and become a thing, discrete and alive, that moment is what you live for as a writer.

Your little Frankenstein then trundles off to a publishing house and knocks on its door. It gets politely (or impolitely) told to try its luck elsewhere. Maybe then somebody sees in it the germ of an actual book. Then starts the process of rewriting, enhancing and editing the book, which takes a long time and involves a good deal of back and forth with an editor. That process took a full year for me, from acceptance to publication, a year I spent at Amarchand Mangaldas learning to draft under an excellent litigation partner. My editor at Harper Collins India was Ajitha GS who was (and is) incredibly patient and kind. Ajitha and I worked together on taking The Angel’s Share through a number of edits and finally, last month, to the presses.

Being a lawyer by day and a writer by night is not the easiest thing in the world, but I am really thankful, because the law is a profession that offers you enviable flexibility and an incredibly nourishing level of interaction with the world. I have heard stranger stories in courtrooms than I have read in the wildest fiction. If the realm of literature is characters in conflict, then there are few better places to look for material than in the courts.

Was it worth it? Would it have been better for me if I had spent all that time focusing on my day job, fitness, or some more social hobby? It’s a moot question. I can’t help that I want to write. I’m working on my next book as I write this, which at this stage is another small heap of fragments, scenes and scraps. At a very human level, I hope to leave something behind, something that speaks for me, a grope at immortality, and until I know better – writing is how I can hope to do that.

Satyajit Sarna’s first book, The Angel’s Share has just been released by HarperCollins India. Satyajit is a lawyer based in New Delhi, and has worked at S&R Associates, the chambers of Mr. N.K. Kaul, Sr. Adv., and Amarchand Mangaldas. You can read his blog here.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Cymbal #44:: Amplified Heat

Hauz Khas Village, 3 PM. June in the hipster capital of South Asia. It’s hot like melted wax. It’s hot like there are poltergeists with spectral hairdryers aimed at the back of your neck, the back of your knees, the top of your head. The heat bakes everything. Stray dogs are evaporating before your eyes. People waver and flicker, narrower from the head down. The paving stones are radiating heat upwards. You can see it. The waves look like they do in physics textbooks.

In a café. They make cakes, crepes, pastries. Coffee, herbal tea.  Small things, small efforts. The waiter’s from Italy. He’s studying philosophy at JNU and playing football at Siri Fort. He has a full length sleeve tattoo and wears thick rimmed spectacles.

Mewithoutyou - In a Sweater Poorly Knit - 2006

The Meteorology Department says it’s 44 degrees. An unshaven man in yellow shoes assures me it’s much hotter. He confides that WHO guidelines mandate that an emergency must be declared any time the temperature crosses 46 degrees. The government would have to provide free water to millions and it would bankrupt them because it actually crosses 46 degrees thirty days a year.

You would probably not send back a cup of coffee served at 46 degrees. You wouldn’t be thrilled, but you’d grumble a bit and drink it.

The café is not so hip that they don’t have a fridge. The fridge apologizes for its inherent unhipness with postcards from the seventies randomly scattered across its face, half face up – Air France, A Beach, Surfers, Mountains, Air India; half face down – love, missing, kisses.

Cream - Pressed Rat and Warthog - 2005

I go to pay my tab. There is, as there was last week, besides the tip jar, a white lobster in a fishbowl. How’s Lubna, I ask the Italian philosopher, pleased that I remember the beast’s name.

‘Oh that’s not Lubna. That’s Frank. Lubna died.’

‘Yeah? That’s a pity.’

‘Too hot. Water got too hot.’

‘It’s really hot today. How is Frank taking it?’

‘Not too good,’ He pulls a pencil out from behind his ear and dips it in the tank, flips the lobster over. ‘Frank’s dead too.’