The Death of a Novelist
“I can’t write, I can’t write, I can’t write,” Bernard Barboza woke up thinking the words that appeared in the nightmare of last night. “No, not at this age. What would people say?” The sun was risen outside his window and he had spent a sleepless night after having stayed awake till 1 a.m. trying to write. He lay on his bed listening to the sound of birds and thinking, “I think I should give this up, it’s not working. Hopeless. Why am I doing this when my wife and my whole bunch of friends are against this? They say I am mad to write, that I will waste a lot of time and money which they could have selfishly desired for themselves. After writing will I get published? Even that is not sure. But what could I do when a story has already formed in my mind and is constantly needling me for attention, pricking my conscience, pushing me towards my laptop, making my throat grow dry in irritation at doing nothing to tell my story. Or, is my story important when there are more traumatic and horror-inducing stories in circulation? Am I relevant at all? What makes me think I can write when so many talented writers have failed?”
He was a clerk in the railways making reports and statements for his boss the chief commercial superintendant of Central Railways for the past thirty years. He liked the Central Railways; working in it gave him the satisfaction of being in a secure job with many days of leave and the company of good friends. When he was a child – in the days before independence – he had undertaken a journey on the then The Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIPR) to Karachi, now in Pakistan, because Karachi was from where his father Diego Barboza originated. It was an arduous journey wherein he had to change trains several times. It was this story he wanted to write about. Diego Barboza worked in the railways as a guard and he was able to explain in minute detail about how the railways worked: how the train made crossings, how the signalling system worked, what exactly were a guard’s duties. He even took him to the engine of the train and had the driver explain the working of the old steam engine, which had men shovelling coal into a furnace that generated steam.
“But I am old, I don’t know if I have the energy left in me to write about all this. But I grew up believing my story had to be shared, that it is important to tell my story to the world.” He retired a few years ago at the age of fifty-eight and his body had been going slow since then. He had difficulty waking up in the morning, spent long hours in front of the television watching inane games and reality shows. He had plenty of time and nothing much to do except buy groceries and pay the bills. His wife Piedade was against his new pursuit, resenting him spending a lot of time on a laptop he bought with his provident fund money. She saw him type (he could type very fast for he was a typist before he became a clerk) and then sit back and look blankly at the ceiling. He created a desk for himself from an old discarded table, which creaked when he leaned his weight against it. A retired English teacher, Piedade wanted to visit churches: Velankanni Church, Nasik Church, and the healing centre at Pota, Kerala. But he spent most of his time hunched on his typewriter writing. “God alone knows what he is writing, hope it is nothing about me,” she would mutter. Their only son was an engineer and had migrated to the US, so they lived alone in a small flat in New Bombay.
At school he was good in English composition. His teachers praised him and told him his writing had flow and a voice. “A special talent to be nurtured, my son,” Fr. Boniface Dias, his principal, had said. But then getting into a government job killed all that. The daily drudgery, the travel to work, the need to keep up with his office friends, the weekly drink parties at the nearest beer bar all kept him from writing and before he knew it he was fifty-eight and about to retire. He went into a panic. Feverishly he started reading again, a collection of the world’s best short stories. He attended literary meetings and book launches, and became a fixture in the books and poetry circuit. He brought out some moth-eaten suits and wore them above his shirt to hide his paunch and took to wearing a fedora to look the literary type. In a literary meeting he read out his short story, “The Train to Karachi,” a shorter version of the novel he intended to write. It wasn’t warmly received. He knew it wouldn’t be because all those who attended were writers themselves and ardently jealous of each other. There were the usual comments, “It lacks crispness and is long winded,” “the ending is not good, you should change it,” “The beginning was nice, but will need a lot of re-writing.” All standard, all very pat, all said because the writer wanted his voice to be heard in a group of writers, without giving specific examples. A pretty young thing named Neha Murjani met him after the reading and said that his story about a journey on the old GIP railways moved her. Her parents were Sindhis from Karachi.
“Did they tell you stories about Karachi, how travel was in those days?” he asked.
“Yes they did.”
“Well I was there myself, before the partition of India into India and Pakistan; I travelled to Karachi on a train through the now Atari border.”
“That’s the border of India and Pakistan.”
“You must remember India was one then, there were no check posts or visas in those days.”
“And how did you find Karachi?”
“A lot like Bombay.”
“You mean it’s as crowded?”
“Yes, it was in those days.”
He liked to say “in those days” because none of the people he talked to knew of the days of the forties in which he was born. He considered himself to be privileged to born in that age. He was a freedom man, a midnight’s child.
This short interaction with Neha Murjani made him want to write his novel. Nobody knew anything about rail travel in India in those days: the steam engines, the coal furnace, the hoot of the engines as it approached, the sudden expulsion of steam. It was all very romantic. And besides the journey through arid Rajasthan and then through the fertile Indus valley was filled with sighted he had enjoyed as a small pre-pubescent boy. “I must write this novel,” he told himself. But how? He read a lot of articles on writing novels. He joined discussion forums where the work-in-progress was read out and critiqued. There was no time for creative writing courses, so he had to make the best use of the books he could borrow from the American Centre Library.
Piedade got very angry when she was left out from all these activities. She became quite lonely and stopped talking to him.
When he asked for hot water for his bath Piedade wouldn’t say anything. She didn’t prepare hot water for his bath through she knew he would catch a cold if he bathed in cold water. She wouldn’t warm his food when he came home late from a literary meeting or book launch. In fact, she wouldn’t even stay awake for him to come back; she would close the door, loop the chain across it so he could unchain it from outside and go to sleep.
“What’s wrong with you woman? This is what I wanted to do all my life. I wanted to be a writer, writing novels and holding a mirror to the society, celebrating its joys, decrying its shortcomings, its grossness, its injustices. Now what have I to lose? I have a pension which is enough for both of us and our son sends us money. Why shouldn’t I do what I have wanted to do all my life? Besides if the novel sells well, we will be rich and then I will take you to London and Paris not Nashik and Velankanni.”
She wasn’t pacified by all this. Like all women she considered her husband with contempt about his ineptitude to get even a vessel of water heated on the gas stove. “Then what novel will he write? Hehn? As if he is Shakespeare and Tolstoy, they were people who dedicated to writing all their lives, not like him, a clerk in a government office, writing nothing but notes to his bosses.” She being an English teacher before she retired knew a bit about literature to understand what Bernard was up against. While he sat bent over his typewriter she had to take over the jobs a man had to do: going to the market to buy groceries and vegetables, paying the electric and phone bill, and paying the property tax. All this tired her.
“Tell me when will this novel of yours get over?”
“I have to finish writing it and then I have to edit it so that it’s perfect before it reaches an agent or publisher. These days they expect the writer to do all these.”
“That means it will never get over,” she muttered as she went back to chopping her vegetables, “watch it, he will go crazy or ill writing it. Then I will have to run around.”
He did fall ill. He didn’t know how. He considered himself a healthy man who will never fall ill, but suddenly the doctor said he had high blood pressure, and diabetes. He couldn’t believe it. The world of his dream crashed around him like some of those buildings felled by explosives he had seen on television. “I knew it will come to this,” Piedade said. For days he couldn’t write anything. He spent his days lying on bed contemplating his fate and what would happen to the novel. Time kept on marching inexorably unconcerned by his affliction. His voice became a croak, he couldn’t bring himself to sit on his desk for even fifteen minutes.
“God, what happened to me, I was such a healthy person. I never smoked, I gave up drinking after I retired, I never had all spicy biryanis and tandoori chicken like my friends in office do, yet I am sick and they are enjoying life. God, God, save me, this is unreasonable, rescue me God, I will go to mass every Sunday and say the “Hail Mary” ten times at the grotto. I will say my confession too, like the short fling I had with the stenographer Maria Carvalho from the office. God, I only took her to a movie once and held hands, is that a sin? If it is, forgive me God.”
Piedade heard all these lamentations and muttered, “Now he is going crazy. I knew it. I knew it.”
Obviously he was. His room was cluttered with clothes. His desk was overflowing with various drafts of his novel, corrected proofs, the coffee stains on his desk were not cleaned for days, his hair was growing wild and long, his beard likewise was not trimmed. He presented a grim picture. She was ashamed when relatives visited their house. As such she didn’t go anywhere with him and let him handle the appointments with the doctor himself. She was ashamed of being seen with him.
Days passed, so did the years. Bernard was sixty-five and yet his novel hadn’t come out. He had done a total of ten years of writing but there was nothing to show. His life was looking bleaker than ever: sick, depressed, demoralized, demotivated, and unable to get up and do his own chores.
Then as if by force of will he stood up tottering, and in another great act of courage made himself sit before the computer for an hour each day, writing. He somehow pulled at all his resources, the veins and sinews of his body, his every aching muscle to complete the novel. Then he set about editing it with fiendish concentration. He re-wrote parts he was not satisfied with and deleted whole irrelevant chapters.
“There he goes again, the idiot. The fool I have for a husband. This time is the final time before he pushes himself into his own grave,” Piedade muttered.
Bernard heard this and said, “I heard what you said. Don’t you know, you a teacher of English, how important novels are in the development of society, culture, of young minds? How can you speak disparaging of what gave you such a good livelihood? You ungrateful woman.”
Then he began making submissions to publishers and agents. One by one rejection letters started trickling in till his desk was filled with rejection letters, written on fancy letterheads of publishers and agents. One rejection letter he remembered because on the first three chapters they had returned to him were written the words, “what crap.” This pained him. Mostly they said that they would let it pass as their list was full. They also said a novel is subjective, so submit it to another publisher who might like it. This offered no consolation. He was distraught and wept over these rejection letters. He received offers from vanity publishers saying they can publish his novel if he agreed to buy a hundred copies of the novel for a price. He knew this was a trap and had read about it. “They would then print a hundred copies and pocket my money, the crooks.”
“That man is stark raving mad, look at him, the fool, look how he weeps over those letters he gets, shedding crocodile tears for nothing,” Piedade said without compassion.
A new British publisher was beginning its operation in India. Bernard eagerly submitted his novel “Train to Karachi” to them. The publisher liked the theme of railway journey in British India and showed interest. He was overjoyed. But the print run would be small and there would not be any advance, the reason being that they are just testing the market. This disappointed him, because he had thought he would get a big advance and a lot of royalty after that. He signed the contract not knowing all the clauses and conditions it contained, assuming that he should be lucky to be published at all. As a clerk he had gone through all words in documents minutely, but in this great incident in his own life he signed and gave away his novel to the first publisher who showed interest.
The novel took another year to be published. By now Bernard was seventy. Doctor said his diabetes and blood pressure were under control. But Bernard wondered if he would ever write a novel again. The day of the book launch was announced and he dressed in his best three-piece suit and put on his fedora. He made Piedade wear her best silk sari, the one she wore for her son’s wedding.
At the book launch a Bollywood celebrity, Imran Khan, a screenplay and story writer himself, was present. Neha Murjani, who had triggered his interest in writing the novel, was also there. All the media’s attention was focused on Imran Khan and they took his pictures and not Bernard’s. Bernard was ignored and sat with his head on his chest as if he didn’t belong there at all. The fedora hid his face from public view and he was glad to have its cover. It was his book launch and they – the publisher and the Bollywood celebrity – hijacked it. They got all the publicity and he and his book didn’t. Bernard fumed to Piedade later, “I don’t believe this! I am the reason he was there in the first place, but they kept photographing him. What’s the sense in all this madness? Are those people crazy? Don’t they know I am the author of the novel? Do they know I spent fifteen years writing this book? What was the point in inviting him to my book launch?” The next day’s newspapers carried pictures of Imran Khan in the society pages with the caption, “Imran Khan at a book launch in town.”
He read an excerpt from his novel and then the floor was open for questions from the audience. Most of them were want-to-be writers themselves who asked him stupid questions like, “Sir, I too want to be a novelist, it’s a good profession, isn’t it? But I don’t have really hard-hitting content. Where do I get it? Can you help me, sir?” So they call writing fiction as content these days, eh, Bernard wondered taken aback by the question and the abrupt way in which it was delivered. He was a content writer, perhaps, in one of those twenty-four-hour call centres. And they want hard-hitting content and wondered if what he wrote was hard-hitting enough. To this mere boy sporting a goatee beard, whose combed-straight-up-and-gelled-hair looked like uncut grass, he replied, “I didn’t write content, in fact I don’t write content, I wrote a story, a novel. As for getting your stories, stories are always around, look around you.” Then he signed copies with a flourish, always remembering to address the book-purchaser by name.
On the way home in a taxi he said to Piedade, “See, I always told you I will be a novelist. Now what do you have to say, my dear woman?”
She turned around to him fixed him with an incomprehensible stare and said, “See if you remain a novelist for long.” Prophetic words.
The publisher arranged for him to tour Delhi, Calcutta and Chennai, major Indian cities, for book launches and readings. The reviews from newspapers and magazines trickled in. All of them didn’t have anything positive to say about the novel on which he had spent fifteen years of his life.
“The author somehow can’t take the story forward, add those little details that are so important to a novel are somehow missing, you read it with a sense of incompleteness,” said a north-Indian newspaper review.
“The author and his style are too old fashioned to suit the needs of the modern generation brought up on television and Chetan-Bhagat-style novels, the pace is slow and humdrum,” another rag said.
“Don’t waste your money on this piece of bad writing. The author can’t get his story going, which is bad news for all of us,” wrote a books editor of a magazine.
“This novel should be thrown with great force, into the fire or out of the window. It’s that boring and unreadable,” a bitchy author-socialite wrote in her newspaper column.
“Oh, God! Oh God! Oh God! I can’t believe this, I really can’t.” Bernard groaned and despaired as he read the last review when he was in Calcutta for a reading. “Is it for this that I worked hard for fifteen years? Don’t they have any respect for writers who spend so much time and energy on writing a work that documented a forgotten time; held a mirror, however unclear, to what a railway journey on the Great Indian Peninsular Railway was then – the excitement, the fervour, the novelty? Do they care for history, insensitive as they are even for the present, here and now?”
The reviews upset him. The tour kept him busy through the day and he had forgotten to take his medication on some days feeling too tired to do anything. He came back from his book tour sicker than he was. The next day he died of a heart attack in his sleep. He was seventy one.
Some kind people from his literary forum organized a condolence meeting where they were all praise for his novel and writing style. “Train to Karachi is a sensitive portrayal of a troubled era when freedoms were curtailed and India was on the cusp of its freedom struggle,” one of those present said in a burst of eloquence. “He was a true friend, a noble human being, a great writer,” another who didn’t know him too well said.
The bitch author-socialite whose review triggered his decline wrote in her column, “Not many tears were shed for reclusive author Bernard Barboza. He went unsung, unheralded, his talent unrecognized. He preferred anonymity rather than rarefied atmosphere of authordom. He died a recluse. May his soul rest in peace. In his passing we have lost a writer who had great potential, a true master of the craft as it was practiced in gentler days. The ways of the literary world are cruel, indeed.”
“I told him, I told him, I told him, writing a novel will kill him. But, he would never listen. Now, look what he has gone and done, leaving me all alone,” sobbed Piedade Barboza hugging her son after the funeral.