March 30, 2020
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Not Quite Literally

Curiously unliterary, the book is a cross between a logbook and a do-it-yourself manual. It is difficult to say whether Nahal is a particularly interesting person. But he is certainly a candid man.

Not Quite Literally
Not Quite Literally
Silent Life: Memoirs Of A Writer
By Chaman Nahal
Roli Books Pages: 286; Rs 295
Chaman Nahal is a compulsive maker of lists. He wants to know where he stands as an Indian English writer. So he draws up a list of the five he thinks are the best: G.V. Desani, Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan, Raja Rao and Ahmed Ali. He is not surprised to find his name not among the five. So he looks at the "generation closer to me" and comes up with the second five greats: Nirad Chaudhuri, A.K. Ramanujan, Nayantara Sahgal, Nissim Ezekiel and Anita Desai. He is not in there either. So he comes to "our own times". This time it’s Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Amit Chaudhuri, Ruskin Bond, and I. Allan Sealy.

The list maker is disappointed but not too depressed. With an objectivity unusual among writers, he concludes that he really deserves a grade of only 4 out of 10. No cause for worry, when set against the grades he awards himself for "the basic qualities...essential in a man": 8 out of 10 for health, 5 out of 10 for money, 3 out of 10 for good looks, 5 out of 10 for knowledge, and 0 out of 10 for love.

Nahal won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1970 for his novel Azadi, and was for many years head of the department of English in Delhi University, which he describes as the largest department of English in the world. You would expect the autobiography of such a person to be more full of philosophical reflection and the aesthetics of writing. But A Silent Life is curiously unliterary.

The result is that the book is a cross between a logbook and a do-it-yourself manual. Nahal has a simple prescription for writers: 1) Write all the time; 2) Publish wherever you can; and 3) Publish yourself.

Helpfully, he adds: "The essential thing is to ask yourself: do I have a theme? If so, what precisely is it? Don’t beat about the bush. What exactly is bothering you? Put it down in a single sentence, with a clearly defined subject, verb and predicate—a pithy, legible statement. Begin from that point, expand and grow. Live with that statement for a period of time until you can start seeing in your mind, at first dimly, then clearly, a plot, a few characters, addressing themselves to the same issue, fighting like shining knights in armour. Give the story a local colour, bring in local details, local history, local geography, but only to the extent they support the main theme."

Easily said. But those who know their Dickens or their Joyce know that local history and geography are not things that can be tossed in at the end like some seasoning of mustard. The author who asserts "The old debate between plot and character did not bother me much. I needed them both, in equal measure" is not much of a guide to those alarmed by the aching joys and dizzy pleasure of seeing a character assuming a life of its own and slipping out of the reins of the author.

Autobiographies are written by people who presume that their lives are as interesting to others as they are to themselves. It is difficult to say whether Nahal is a particularly interesting person. But he is certainly a candid man.

But how had Nahal come to believe that R.K. Narayan published his own books until The Guide came out? Don’t professors who teach Commonwealth literature read authors’ biographies and autobiographies? It is well known that Swami and Friends and Bachelor of Arts were published in England even before the war thanks to one publisher’s reader called Graham Greene. The Narayan- Greene friendship is one of the most heart-warming events in the Indo-British cultural encounter.

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