How did I get into this ‘writing business’?

 

 

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I am sure that many of you, who took the trouble to come this far after reading the above biographical details, may be feeling intrigued or even a little appalled by the employ of the phrase ‘writing business’ by someone, who is trying to position himself as an ‘author ’ on this website and that too of a literary work.
The answer to the above wee-bit of an enigma lies in a question posed to me by a colleague of mine when the hard copy edition of my collection of stories ‘The Fine Print and other Yarns’ was published. When he read about the release of the book from a snippet that appeared in The Asian Age, he telephone me and asked me the following question in a tone that reflected a certain degree of perplexity if not dismay that prevailed in his mind:
“But how did you get into this ‘writing business’?”
I must confess that I found nothing very unusual about him asking me the above question, considering that he had known me as someone, who like him had been with the Indian Revenue Service for a long time, preoccupied most of the time with things like taxation laws, statements of accounts etc.
What to talk about my colleague, on so many occasions especially during the course of creation of this web site, I  myself wondered: “What the hell someone like me who has been a taxman ever since I finished my university education doing here on this kind of a website?”
During such periods of self doubt, I almost felt as if I were an imposter.
What would reassure me during such moments of skepticism was the reminiscence of those days when I was a student of English literature. Those days all one’s waking hours would be devoted to study of poetry, drama and fiction, apart from a few idle pursuits that one could afford to get into during the college days. In fact it was not just waking hours: even while sleeping sometimes, one would dream about books, literary characters and life of various periods depicted in the works one had been studying. I had a catholic taste and found almost all genres of literature and all periods, from Chaucer to the beginning of twentieth century, to be quite interesting. Besides the works of English authors that formed the academic backbone of the curriculum, I also read quite avidly the novels written by various nineteenth century French and Russian authors.
In fact even much earlier, during my middle school days I had been an avid reader, though mostly of pulp fiction and detective novels at that time. During those days there was also a phase when I got initiated to the works of Munshi Premchand, one of the most famous and respected Hindi novelist and storyteller. During that phase that commenced after I finished with my exams for the eighth standard and which lasted only for a few months over the summer holidays and a few months thereafter, I read a number of novels and collection of stories by Premchand with great interest. That was my first experience with serious literature.
My active interest in literature came virtually to an end when I joined the Revenue Service, after which one got introduced to a new world altogether. Though there was nothing in that world to do even distantly with literature or literary pursuits, it provided excellent opportunities to interact with a wide variety of people from different regions, backgrounds and with different mental mindsets. Apart from that, as I had occasion to live in various cities like Nagpur, Bombay, Chennai and Bengaluru and visited various other cities in India on official work it provided an excellent exposure to life in various parts of the country, which one would not have got otherwise had I had got the job of a permanent lecturer in some college at Delhi, that I initially aspired for.
A few years after I joined the IRS, I got an opportunity to go to Paris to attend a long course in International Economic Relations at Institut Internationale d’Administration Publiuqe. It was an institute that was originally established  for the training of civil servants from the colonies and overseas territories of France. As the medium of instruction was French I had to learn French. Once I had mastered enough of it, I also started reading French authors like Flaubert, Zola, Baudelaire, Maupassant etc in the original French version. During the course of this study program I also had the opportunity to stay at Marseilles for three months or so while I was attached to the Port Autonome de Marseille.
That one year in France was a turning point in my life as it would be in that of any young man who gets an opportunity to live in that great city for such a long time. The following words of Hemingway in A Movable Feast are a testimony to that:
If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
Apart from a firsthand exposure to the French society and its rich culture, that long stint in Paris also gave me an alternative perspective towards the world affairs, which till then was influenced totally by the Anglo Saxon way of thinking, owing to the educational system left behind in India by the British that one was exposed to during one’s student days.
Although I maintained my interest in literature throughout my career as a revenue officer, it was mostly passive and came and went in spells. I had always had a latent desire to write something on my own, though it never manifested itself in a more concrete form than some stray attempts at writing blank verse, or a few articles on Indian taxation law and tax treaties, which I wrote when I was with International Bureau of Fiscal Documentation, Amsterdam for six months in 1999-2000.
Before that stint at Amsterdam, I was fortunate to get another opportunity to stay in Paris from 1997 to 1999, this time to attend an MBA program at what then was known as the Graduate School of International Business of Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees. I hardly need to say that it was an exceptional stroke of good fortune to be able to live in that wonderful city once again for year and a half. Although the MBA degree acquired at a mid-career level did not take me anywhere in my professional life is another story. It was primarily due to the Asian Contagion that set in mid 1997 and was at its peak when I finished the course. To make the matters worse the Dot-com Bubble also burst soon after the graduation ceremony of our batch of MBA. However, whether the MBA degree helped me in getting a quantum jump in my career or not, that sojourn in Paris was yet another learning curve and a great one at that.
After that second stint in Paris followed by six months in Amsterdam, I returned to India to my good old job of a revenue officer and soon thereafter, I found myself posted at Chennai in 2003. Those days, getting posted to Chennai was considered as nothing short of a punishment for someone coming from north India. I am sure someone from south who was posted at Delhi would have felt the same way those days. The reasons for such a feeling were manifold. First, it was the long distance between Delhi and Chennai: it used to take and perhaps it still takes about 37 hours by train to reach Chennai from Delhi. The air-fares those days were prohibitive. Even the telecommunication facilities were primitive compared to what they are now. Before I actually shifted to Chennai, therefore, I took a long leave hoping to get my transfer order cancelled.
During that period of forced leisure, I tried my hand at translating Gloire de Mon Père and Le Chateau de ma Mère by Marcel Pagnol, a French novelist, into English. I had seen the film version of both these novels on the Arte channel while I was in Paris. Some days before quitting Paris, browsing at a way-side second hand book shop on Boulevard Saint Michel, I found both the novels apart from some other interesting books by some other French authors, which I purchased immediately to take along back to India. I thoroughly enjoyed those two months or so which I spent translating these work in English. Later a thought came to my mind that I could try getting the translations published. However, when I inquired from the trustees of the estate of Marcel Pagnol, I came to know that even though no English translation was available in India they could not permit me to publish the translations of the two novels as the world-wide rights for translation of those works had already stood transferred to someone.
Coming back to my stay in Chennai, where I was forced to go and live for well over a year in spite of my obstinate attempt to avoid going there, it meant getting virtually cut off from my original set up in Delhi and living the life of a person separated from his family and friends.  Even though I had recent experience of a similar existence while I stayed at Paris and Amsterdam, it was even more of a challenge to be once again in that state and that too in Chennai.
I started liking Chennai soon after I landed there; however, as I knew hardly anyone in that city, there was nothing much to do after office hours. I tried learning Tamil to be able to immerse myself in the local lore and culture; however, with merely a rudimentary language tutor that I could find even at the biggest book store on the Mount Road or Anna Salai as it is known now and also perhaps due to constraints of time, I could not progress much beyond acquiring the ability to recognize the Tamil alphabets to be able to read the road signs and sign boards of shops in Tamil. The newly introduced cable television also did not offer much succor, for except for BBC and CNN and a few Hindi channels there was nothing much available to me. So initially, I found it somewhat difficult to pass my time in a fruitful manner after the office hours during the week days and even more during the weekends.
Then one day I found that there was a small library in our office, which also had a few novels and collections of stories and apart from tax manuals, bulky compilations of court decisions and commentaries on taxation and other allied laws. I borrowed a collection of stories in Hindi by Premchand and another one by Rudyard Kipling.
One day an idea cropped in my mind that I should try my hand at translating one of Premchand’s story from Hindi to French. Back in Mumbai, I had translated two novels from French to English but I had never tried my hand at translating anything from English to French. Translating from Hindi to French turned out be even more arduous than from English to French as first one had to translate any unfamiliar word from Hindi to English and then look up for the equivalent in the Larousse English-French dictionary, which I had purchased in Paris and brought along with me.
Over the next one fortnight or so, I spent a few hours after office every evening and almost an entire weekend translating ‘Badey Bhaisaheb’ or ‘The Elder Brother’ from Hindi to Mon Frère Aîné in French. I really enjoyed doing the translation. But that was the end of it! I had the inclination to start with the translation of yet another story but I could not do that as some official work cropped up which kept me occupied even after office hours for a week or so.
After some time when I was reading the collection of sketches and stories about the hill folks of Kumaon by Kipling the idea crossed my mind that I should also try my hand at writing something original, as writing a sketch of some character did not appear to be a very difficult proposition. What began as an attempt to make a pen sketch evolved into a story. So after mulling over that idea for a few days I made an attempt to write that story. It was finished in a few days and I named it ‘Histoir de X, or An Expensive Dinner’ as I had not decided the name of the principal character even though the story was written. Later it was renamed as ‘The Fine Print’, after which my first collection of stories is named.
After I had finished that first story I thought I should try my hand at yet another: writing became some kind of an addiction at that time.  I think that the apartment in the Income tax colony at Nungambakkam in which I had been staying also made some contribution to it. It was a very airy, well lit apartment with a beautiful view of sprawling colonial style bungalows on Rutland Gate 4th Street and of the verdurous trees that came almost up to the fifth story on which I was living. Even during the peak hours when the Nungambakkam High Street that was a short distance away would be full of noisy traffic, absolute calm and serenity prevailed in that apartment that would be disturbed only by the twitter of birds nestling in those huge trees. It was a perfect hideout for creative activities like writing.
So after thinking about it for a long time I started with yet another story and it worked over it for next few months as it evolved into something much bigger then a story or even a novella; something between a novella and a novel. Thus was completed the first draft of my first novel, which I once again titled as Histoir de X as I had not thought of what name to give to it or to the main character. At that stage it was like a building erected in a bit of a hurry with whatever material one could lay one’s hand on without much thought about the plan or architecture. Sure enough it turned out to be a poorly designed building. After I was transferred back to Delhi I spent a lot of my leisure time working on it over many years, trying to give it a proper shape.
I submitted the first draft to Penguins and they rejected it. Taking a dispassionate look at the manuscript after the rejection I realized myself that it was really a half baked work that should not have been submitted to a publisher at all. At that stage, I had the good fortune to come into contact with late Mr. Ravi Dayal, the founder of Ravi Dayal Publications, who was one of the most eminent personalities in the area of publishing in Delhi those days. He very kindly went through the manuscript and offered a number of valuable suggestions to improve it.
I thus started with another round of revision of the draft which took a long time because over the next five years or so I was posted at the Central Board of Direct Taxes and my own assignment there was so taxing that I had no time whatsoever to devote to my ‘writing business’. So the novel languished. However off and on after my transfer from Chennai to Delhi I had also written a few stories and novellas. So whenever I could snatch some free time during this otherwise very arduous assignment, I worked on those stories and added to the collection. Towards the end of 2008 when I had finished writing nine stories, I thought I should try to get them published first as a collection of stories and that the novel could wait. I approached a number of publishers in Delhi and finally UBS Publishers, New Delhi agreed to publish the collection of stories entitled ‘The Fine Print and other Yarns’ which came out in 2009.
During the period in which I was trying to find a willing publisher I had started realising that that writing a book was a comparatively easy task then finding a publisher. However, after the book was published I learnt yet another lesson: that writing a book and finding a willing publisher was not so difficult as the task of marketing your book. I did not know that the author is expected to play a proactive role in the promotion of his book, without which the book would remain like the proverbial dance of a peacock in the woods where there is no one to watch his performance. Promotion and marketing of a book, however, requires a lot of time and effort, both of which were scarce commodities for me owing to the arduous assignments I was handling at that time. Consequentially, over the next few years, I could not make much progress either in promoting the book or completing of the revision of the novel, leave apart writing something more.
It was only recently that I could put my act together and find courage and determination enough to give another kick-start to this part-time vocation of an aspiring author. So I revised and reformatted ‘The Fine Print and other Yarns’ into an eBook and it is now available on the web sites of various online retailers. After learning the hard way that without serious efforts for the promotion of one’s book, writing a book is an exercise in futility, I thought of making this web site as advised by various marketing-pros. I embarked thus on the journey of designing and constructing this web-site. It is a different story altogether that in executing this website project, which I have undertaken exclusively on my own, writing was further neglected. Over the last many months all that I have been doing has been to learn how to design and construct a Word-press web site, how to promote it and how to drive traffic to it by using social media etc. Nevertheless, it has been an exercise which was really worth it and in the process I have learnt a lot about e-Book publishing, web-designing, and e-marketing and e-promotion.
I am quite hopeful that ‘Histoir de X’ which now has been re-christened as ‘The Parisian Interlude’ will be published in 2017 if not the traditional way then as an Indie publication, which is becoming more and more acceptable in the literary world with each passing year and which has a much wider reach than a traditionally published book. I am also working on some other writing projects about which I would talk only when they attain a more concrete shape.

Read the translation of Premchand’s story in French ‘Mon Frère Aînée’

Read the first chapter of ‘The Parisian Interlude’

‘The Fine Print and other Yarns’ is available at various online eBook retailers including:

Amazon Amazon  Smashwords Smashwords Barnes & Noble Barnes & Noble  Kobo Kobo SCRIBD SCRIBD

Written contents copyright (C) Dinesh Verma, 2017

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