‘He asked me to keep writing. And that’s just what I did’

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Illustrations: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustrations: Mayanglambam Dinesh

About eight years ago, on an autorickshaw ride from Connaught Place to Jangpura, I decided I wanted to write. I was with my then-girlfriend. I told her about my decision, that it felt like a revelation and so I wanted to meet a guru. We had to change our destination and go to Sujan Singh Park to meet the grand old man of Indian writing in English. Not the dirty old man, the other one: Ravi Dayal. For the uninitiated, he was a publisher who, over the last 30 years, had discovered and sharpened the most exciting Indian voices working in English. My girlfriend was used to my random declarations and always up for, and often the proponent of, arbitrary plans. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Sure.”

In the park between the buildings with high arches and sun-filled windows, we asked the guard for directions. He couldn’t have suspected that we were interlopers: Sujan Singh Park wasn’t the kind of place you enter without an invitation.

It was a Saturday afternoon and I felt uneasy about violating Mr Dayal’s personal space when I rang his doorbell. He opened the door and I blurted out: “I want to write, in English, and I thought you would be the best person to give me some ideas. Or some inspiration.”

He was probably too shocked to say anything coherent, so he asked us in and offered us a drink. While I stared into the glass, suddenly lost for words, he asked us the usual gettingto- know-young-people questions. Where were we from? What had we studied? Where did we work? In 15 minutes, my first declaration seemed like a shameful secret that I had admitted in polite company.

“Okay then,” he coughed, confirming that this conversation was going nowhere. I figured I should get a word in, since I had embarrassed us enough already, and asked him, “What does it take to be a writer?”

“All it takes is for you to write. And to keep writing.”

“That’s all?” I asked.

“That’s all. The rest will follow. And if nothing else follows — publication, success, reviews — you’ll still be a writer.”

We stood up to leave. We were done with our drinks, and I had heard what I needed to.

At the door, I said, “If I send you a couple of short stories, would you have the time to read them?”

“I’m sorry,” he said, “my publishing schedule is full.”

“No,” I hastened to reassure him, “I don’t want you to publish or recommend them to anyone. Just to read them.”

“Yes. Just to read them, I’ll find the time.”

I had a month of unemployment coming up and I finished four stories. I printed them out, packed them into a crisp large envelope and dropped them off at his house.

I called him in a month’s time. I reminded him of when we had met and asked if he had managed to read my stories. He said no; he had been very busy. I called him regularly over the next year, only to receive the same response every time.

I changed jobs. My then-girlfriend became my to-be-wife. We went on a holiday to Goa. With half a prawn sandwich in my mouth, I saw my phone ring and the name ‘Ravi Dayal’ appear on the screen. “Is that Kaushik Barua?” It was a lady’s voice, his daughter. She told me Mr Dayal had passed away and that he had left some papers on his desk with my name on them. When we returned to Delhi, I went and picked up my short stories. I opened the envelope in the autorickshaw. He had marked many passages that he didn’t like, with careful short notes explaining exactly why. And he had marked little bits that he really liked. On one, he wrote that I should try and keep writing like that.

And that’s just what I did. I kept writing.

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