I am a fortunate person. For nearly seventy years I have been able to make a living by doing what I enjoy most: writing.
Sometimes I wonder if I have written too much. One gets into the habit of serving up the same themes over and over again; with a different sauce perhaps, but still the same themes, memories, characters. Writers are often chided for repeating themselves. Artists and musicians are given more latitude. No one criticised Turner for painting so many sunsets at sea, or Gauguin for giving us all those lovely Tahitian women; or Husain, for treating us to so many horses, or Jamini Roy for giving us so many almost identical stylised figures.
In the world of music, one Puccini opera is very like another, a Chopin nocturne will return to familiar themes, and in the realm of lighter, popular modern music the same melodies recur with only slight variations. But authors are often taken to task for repeating themselves. They cannot help this, for in their writing they are expressing their personalities. Hemingway’s world is very different from Jane Austen’s. They are both unique worlds, but they do not change or mutate in the minds of their author-creators. Jane Austen spent all her life in one small place and portrayed the people she knew. Hemingway roamed the world, but his characters remained much the same, usually extensions of himself.
In the course of a long writing career, it is inevitable that a writer will occasionally repeat himself, or return to themes that have remained with him even as new ideas and formulations enter his mind.
The important thing is to keep writing, observing, listening and paying attention to the beauty of words and their arrangement.
And like artists and musicians, the more we work on our art, the better it will be.
Writing, for me, is the simplest and greatest pleasure in the world.
Putting a mood or an idea into words is an occupation I truly love. I plan my day so that there is time in it for writing a poem, or a paragraph, or an essay, or part of a story or longer work; not just because writing is my profession, but from a feeling of delight.
The world around me—be it the mountains or the busy street below my window—is teeming with subjects, sights, thoughts, that I wish to put into words in order to catch the fleeting moment, the passing image, the laughter, the joy, and sometimes the sorrow.
Life would be intolerable if I did not have this freedom to write every day.
Not that everything I put down is worth preserving. A great many pages of a manuscript have found their way into my waste-paper basket or into the stove that warms the family room on cold winter evenings. I do not always please myself. I cannot always please others because, unlike the slick professionals, the writers of popular fiction, I am not writing to please everyone, I am really writing to please myself!
My theory of writing is that the conception should be as clear as possible, and that words should flow like a stream of clear water – preferably a mountain stream! You will, of course, encounter boulders, but you will learn to go over them or around them, so that your flow is unimpeded. If your stream gets too sluggish or muddy, it is better to put aside that particular piece of writing. Go to the source, go to the spring, where the water is purest, your thoughts as clear as the mountain air. I do not write for more than an hour or two in the course of the day. Too long at the desk, and words lose their freshness.
Together with clarity and a good vocabulary there must come a certain elevation of mood. Laurence Sterne must have been bubbling over with high spirits when he wrote Tristram Shandy. The somber intensity of Wuthering Heights reflects Emily Brontë’s passion for life, knowing that it was to be brief. Tagore’s melancholy comes through in his poetry. Dickens is always passionate, there are no half measures in his work. Conrad’s prose takes on the moods of the sea he knew and loved.
A real physical emotion accompanies the process of writing, and the great writers are those who can channel this emotion into the creation of their best work. Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Balzac!
“Are you a serious writer?” a schoolboy once asked me. “Well, I try to be serious,” I said, “but cheerfulness keeps breaking in!” Can a cheerful writer be taken seriously? I truly don’t know.
But I was certainly serious about making writing the main occupation of my life.
In order to do this, one has often to give up many things—a job, security, comfort, domesticity—or rather the pursuit of these things. Had I married when I was twenty-five, I would not have been able to throw up a good job as easily as I did at the time; I might now be living on a pension! God forbid. I am grateful for my continued independence and the necessity to keep writing for my living and for those who share their lives with me and whose joys and sorrows are mine too. An artist must not lose his hold on life. We do that when we settle for the safety of a comfortable old age. But there is no retirement age for writers.
Normally, writers do not talk much, because they are saving their conversations for the readers of their books – those invisible listeners with whom we wish to strike a sympathetic chord. Of course, we talk freely with our friends, but we are reserved with people we do not know very well. If I talk too freely about a story I am going to write, chances are it will never be written. I have talked it to death.
Being alone is vital for any creative writer.
I do not mean that you must live the life of a recluse. People who do not know me are frequently under the impression that I live in lonely splendour on a mountain top, whereas in reality I share a small flat with a family of twelve – and I’m the twelfth man, occasionally bringing out refreshments for the players!
I love my extended family, every single individual in it, but as a writer I must sometimes get a little time to be alone with my own thoughts, reflect a little, talk to myself, laugh about all the blunders I have committed in the past, and ponder over the future. This is contemplation, as it involves remaining in a passive state for some time. I would rather be out walking, observing the natural world, or sitting under a tree contemplating my navel – or my novel!
When I casually told a journalist that I planned to write a book on my meditations, he reported that I was writing a book on Meditation per se, which gave it a different connotation. I shall go along with the simple dictionary meaning of the verb meditate: to plan mentally, to exercise the mind in contemplation. So I was doing it all along!
I am not, by nature, a gregarious person. Although I love people, and have often, on an impulse, made friends with complete strangers, I am also a lover of solitude.
Naturally, one writes best when one is alone.
But I prefer walking alone to walking with others. That ladybird or the wild rose would escape my attention if I was engaged in a lively conversation with a companion. Not that the ladybird is going to change my life. But by acknowledging its presence, stopping to admire its beauty, I have done obeisance to the natural scheme of things, of which I am only a small part.
It is upon a person’s power of holding fast to such undimmed beauty that his or her inner strength depends. As we journey through the world, we must inevitably encounter meanness and selfishness. As we fight for our survival, the higher visions and ideals often fade. It is then that we need ladybirds!
Contemplating that tiny creature, or the flower on which it rests, gives one the hope— better, the certainty—that there is more to life than interest rates, dividends, market forces, and infinite technology.
As a writer, I have known hope and despair, success and failure, some recognition, but also long periods of neglect and critical dismissal. But I have had no regrets. I have enjoyed the writer’s life to the full, and one reason for this is that living in India has given me certain freedoms which I would not have enjoyed elsewhere. Friendship, when needed. Solitude when desired. Even, at times, love and compassion.
It has tolerated me for what I am – a bit of a drop-out, unconventional, idiosyncratic. (Sorry for the long words!) I have been left alone to do my own thing. In India, people do not censure you unless you start making a nuisance of yourself. Society has its norms and its orthodoxies, and provided you do not flout all the rules, society will allow you to go your own way. I am free to become a naked ascetic and roam the streets with a begging-bowl (you will recognise me from my figure!). I am also free to live in a palatial farm-house if I have the wherewithal. For forty years I have lived in this small, sunny second-floor room looking out on the mountains and no one has bothered me.
I may write for myself, but as I also write to get published, it must follow that I write for others too. Only a handful of readers might enjoy my writing, but they are my soulmates, my alter-egos, and they keep me going through those lean times and discouraging moments.
Even though I depend upon my writing for a livelihood, it is still, for me, the most delightful thing in the world. I did not set out to make a fortune from writing; I knew I was not that kind of writer. But it was the thing I did best, and I persevered with the exercise of my gift, trying to please editors, publishers and readers, never really expecting huge rewards but accepting whatever came my way. And I don’t think I have ever let anyone down.
Happiness is a matter of temperament rather than circumstance, and I have always considered myself fortunate in having escaped the tedium of a nine-to-five job for most of my life.
Of course, there comes a time when almost every author asks himself what his effort and output really amounts to? We expect our work to influence people, to please a great many readers, when in fact its impact is limited. Those who work on a large scale must feel discouraged by the world’s indifference.
That is why I am happy to give a little innocent pleasure to a handful of readers. This is a reward worth having.
As a writer, I have difficulty in doing justice to momentous events, the wars of nations, the politics of power; I am more at ease with the dew of the morning, the sensuous delights of the day, the silent blessings of the night, the joys and sorrows of children, the strivings of ordinary folk, and of course the ridiculous situations in which we sometimes find ourselves.
We cannot prevent sorrow and pain and tragedy. And yet, when we look around us, we find that the majority of people are actually enjoying life!
There are so many lovely things to see, there is so much to do, so much fun to be had, and so many charming and interesting people to meet … how can my pen ever run dry?