Five best-selling authors on what they’ve learnt from failure

  • Compiled by Veenu Singh
  • Updated: Jun 26, 2016 12:44 IST

Five of India’s bestselling authors chronicle small battles they lost, which paved their road to success

Just look ahead

Why is it that nobody looks at failure as something to be shared?

- Shobhaa De

Take the seven-letter word first – Failure. Say it out loud. Say it to yourself. How does it sound? Does it scare you? Do you identify with it? Or do you shrug and think, “It has nothing to do with me. Failure is what happens to other people”. Excuse me. That’s a cop out. To be human is to fail. Not just once. But several times. Often, for the same stupid reasons. Nobody is spared. Nobody. So bloody what?

“ ‘Now what’ is very important. Never underestimate the power of those two words. Now is when your time begins. Again”

I look at my own multiple failures and shrug. Yes, some of them hurt. And hurt bad. But... not THAT bad, that I felt annihilated. Temporarily paralysed, of course. Decimated for a few weeks... even months. But not entirely obliterated. Looking back, I guess the fact that I didn’t allow myself to fall into a bottomless pit from which never to emerge is what has given me the courage to go on. To allow me to write this piece... and share failure with you.

That’s the thing about failure. Nobody looks at it as something to be shared. Everybody wants to be a part of a success story – even one that belongs squarely to someone else. But failure? Oh no. You fly solo. I think it’s a huge mistake.

When you fail is when you need someone the most. It is the period that is your darkest. When you feel most wretched. Most alone. Failure isolates you... sometimes from yourself. You wonder, “Is that loser really me?” You try and create a distance from that part of your life and pretend it never happened. Or that it happened through no fault of yours. Failure always seeks alibis. “I would have won... had that person lost.” Failure feeds insecurity like nothing else. Failure often begins at birth. You are female. That’s enough. You are not wanted. You have failed your family. Oops! Wrong gender. Now what?

Aha. That ‘Now what’ is very important.

Never underestimate the power of those two words. Now is when your time begins. Again. Now is when you pick yourself up – and like the Johnnie Walker ad advises – keep walking. Now is when you don’t surrender. Don’t give up. Now is the time to say: Next!

I have tried hard to focus on ‘Next’ each time I have tripped and gone for a toss. Like when I passed with a third division (Senior Cambridge), unable to conquer the twin demons of physics and higher mathematics. Or when my first marriage didn’t work out. But hey... I am here. I am writing these lines. I guess I am okay. I just shouted ‘Failure’ at the ceiling – and didn’t feel scared.

Shobhaa De is a columnist, author and opinion maker


Don’t let the public idea of success define you

“Later, as years would pass, I would fail at more important things, I would fail lovers and ideas I believed in, I would fail at caring for someone in hospital”

Failing algebra as an adolescent made the author rethink the notion of triumph

- Siddhant Dhanvant Shanghvi

The school official rang my father late at evening. I’d flunked algebra in the 9th grade. However, it was by a mark or two; did it make sense to hold me back a full year for so trivial a deficiency? My father, retreating to a gallery adjoining his room, appeared profoundly disturbed by the question.

I am not one to sentimentalise education. I nurse no romantic notion of my tutors as heroic – they were as bored to teach us as we’d been to learn from them, our boredoms were often competing. One teacher routinely made jokes on how fat some girls were, or joked about their pimply teenage complexion. An English teacher called us ‘blessed donkeys’.

But on the night it was made known I’d flunked algebra the atmosphere at home was fraught. My father could not get himself to say what I felt – that he was humiliated by my academic inadequacy. My mother tried to blow off some steam by assuring my sisters I was a ‘creative type’ and therefore not ‘very good at sums’. My meek internal voice was clamouring to shout: big effing deal. You fail, you fail. You scrape your knees. You pick yourself up, you go on. But, boy, was I mad!

Perhaps I was raging against the convenient construction of intelligence as a subject, in this case, algebra. And if it could be so easily codified and arranged, well, then you’re welcome to that sort of mind. Perhaps I did not want the school official to feel as if she was in the lofty position to rescue me – I could smell her dirty power number a mile off.

Mostly, I knew I was not about to be defined by my failure at what I was expected by the world to succeed at. In my adolescent mind was lurking the idea that the true success was to know and own a personal definition of success, and also to be free from public notions of failure.

Later, as years would pass, I would fail at more important things, I would fail lovers and ideas I believed in, I would fail at caring for someone in hospital. These failures would teach me the best apology was reformed conduct. For I would, as we all are, become a reliquary of triumph as much as its polar brother.

The same school rep, who had passed me on algebra as if a charity case, rang me a few years later. She wanted my photograph for a school catalog to list me among august alumni. My biography had me down as ‘internationally bestselling writer’. In my own notes, I added: “And he’s also totally amazing at busting your ass”.

I did not send this comment onwards, but as you can see, it’s never too late.

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi is a bestselling writer, photographer and co-founder of Sensorium Festival


What if the grapes were really sour?

Aesop’s fable fools us into thinking that every missed opportunity is cause for regret

- Devdutt Pattanaik

At school, we were taught that Aesop’s fox was a loser. He had tried hard to get to those delicious-looking grapes dangling seductively from a vine curled tenaciously around the topmost branch of a ridiculously tall tree. On failing to do so, he walked away describing them as sour. Loser!

But I have my doubts.

By declaring it sour, the fox moved on to a happy life. Would we rather he spends the rest of his life in regret? Feeling anger. Feeling shame. Feeling cheated. Going on and on about how those privileged monkeys can always get access to those delicious-looking grapes that dangle seductively from vines that curl tenaciously around the topmost branches of ridiculously tall trees. Must he transform his pain into poetry, and become a courtier of the literary circuit? Must he transform his longing into art, or the essence of his future identity?

Or must he just reframe the situation, see himself as nature’s lucky one, who escaped eating horribly sour grapes? Maybe even poisonous ones?

Who decides if grapes are actually sweet or sour? The ones who eat it, or the one’s who don’t. Who is this Aesop who judges the fox who is determined to unleash his imagination to be happy? Why do we let other people determine the parameters of what is success and what is not? Isn’t that the greatest failure: the wilful letting go of our ability to write our biography on our terms, believing that every decision taken is a march towards success?

It all depends on what we make of our life today. If we are miserable, then yes, all those admissions we did not get, those boyfriends we did not meet, those jobs we did not find, are the sweet grapes that went to the lucky others. But if we are happy with what we have today, then we can heave a sigh of relief that we did not get those admissions/boyfriends/jobs. Who knows what sour taste they would have left in our mouth?

Humans have the gift of imagination. We use it to imagine the parameters of success, and hence failures. Imagination also enables us to reject these parameters and create those that make us deliriously happy. There are no real parameters out there. There is no Aesop.

There is only the fox and those grapes dangling seductively from vines that curl tenaciously around the topmost branches of ridiculously tall trees.

Devdutt Pattanaik writes and lectures on mythology


There’s a reason you’re stuck

“When I felt weak, I would go back and copy-paste them [the good sentences] into the file, swim around in them like Scrooge McDuck in his vault”

For one writer, getting rid of perfectionist tendencies opened up a new way of doing things

- Karan Mahajan

The thing about a failure is that it is possible to deny it forever.

By 2013, at the age of 29, I was failing. I had left two good jobs in succession to complete a novel I’d been tooling around with since 2009, had enrolled in a graduate programme in Texas, as far away from home as possible, to finish it – and yet: what did I have to show for it after five years of work? Hundreds of disconnected pages about terrorism in Delhi, well written, but lacking any kind of story or coherence.

Yet, when people asked how the book was going, I was cheerful and optimistic. “It’ll probably take another six months,” I said. I believed this lie. I had written another novel – why wouldn’t I finish this one? Yet every time a real or imagined deadline approached, I would panic. I would jam together the many fragments and files (1,400 in total), try to sew them up with new seams of prose, and then panic again and tell my agent or publisher I wasn’t ready. I was a mess.

When I had worked on my first book, I had readily shown bits and pieces to everyone – for encouragement, to force myself to write. With this one, I’d thought: I won’t share it till it’s perfect.

But my standards were impossible – I wanted each sentence to glitter majestically. This meant hoarding all the good sentences I’d ever written, like gold. When I felt weak, I would go back and copy-paste them into the file, swim around in them like Scrooge McDuck in his vault.

It was obvious what needed to happen. But it was only when I reached a low point – when I actually had a panic attack, my heart pumping uncontrollably – that I sought help.

After years of dithering, I showed the fragments to my agent. She looked at them carefully in her New York office and told me what I had suspected: they did not add up to a book. There were good ideas about terrorism in there, but I was focusing too much on the ideas and the sentences, not on the story.

That one conversation was tonic. I threw away everything and began writing from scratch. My fear now was: will it take another five years? Will I be one of those authors who comes out from under his book completely aged and ruined? Here another conversation, with a non-literary friend, was helpful. When I told her the book would take at least two more years, she said, “That long?”

“That’s how long books take.”

“Why not two months?”

That response shook me. I realised how much literary nonsense I had imbibed and I began working on the book, with an outline, every day, with the goal of finishing it within months. I would handwrite in the mornings in my cottage in Austin, type up the work in the afternoons, handwrite again when the post-lunch coffee had surged through my system and then get back to work first thing in the morning. In the five months I wrote the final draft of The Association of Small Bombs, I never fell out of the book. The world was real to me: plausible and powerful. And I never went back to the old sentences – never allowed myself to look. The turn to handwriting, which doesn’t allow facile tinkering, was part of getting rid of my perfectionist tendencies.

At the end of it – at the end of six troubled years – I had a novel. The novel had the tautness and speed of something written with urgency but the depth of the five years of thinking that had preceded it. Like every novel, it taught me a new way of doing things and I am grateful for it. I just wish I hadn’t had to suffer so much in the process.

Karan Mahajan is an award-winning novelist currently based in Brooklyn


Perfection comes from revision

“It was a kick in the teeth; but later, much later, it felt good”

In writing as in life, failure is the thread that you can depend on to tie it all together

- Aatish Taseer

I had been waiting for his email since September. One cold January afternoon, after I had given up on being a writer, and was working as a reporter (read, fact checker) at Time magazine, it arrived in my inbox. One line: ‘Free for a drink? S.’

S was Sonny Mehta. I had been his intern two summers before at Knopf, where he was the publisher. Since then – back at Amherst – I had been at work on my first complete novel, The Oracle at Watts. I finished it in that summer between college and life. Then I was not sure what to do, so I sent it to Sonny’s assistant, who was a friend. When she’d read it, she took me for a walk. We stood near the bleachers in Central Park.

It was late afternoon. Long September light striped the flanks of buildings. She told me I had talent, real talent. She read several books a week; some by published writers; she knew: I was the real thing. I didn’t care. I just wanted her to say one thing, then she did: ‘I want to give it to Sonny.’

And since then I had been waiting. Summer changed to fall to winter. I was half-crazy with anticipation. I knew he had read it; she told me; he had read it that first weekend in October. Why the fuck was he taking so long to be in touch?

My excitement had curdled into something corrosive when at last his email arrived.

We went somewhere where he could smoke. I had a whisky; he had a glass of red wine. He said I had a gift. I must keep writing, whether for publication or not. The book was not for him; it had an element of melodrama, which was not to his taste. He handed me a piece of paper. A report on the book from an impartial reader. My first review, as such; and it was bad. But I must keep writing; I had a gift. What I needed, he said, was an agent. He had two in mind. I should call him next week, and he would put me in touch. That was something!

I tried him Tuesday, then Wednesday, then Thursday; a different older assistant answered; I left a message each time.

On Friday I realised he would never call me back.

It was a kick in the teeth; but later, much later, it felt good. Failure is the one thread you can depend on to tie together a writing life. And the failures we suffer at the hands of others are nothing compared to those we experience everyday, in complete solitude, at our desks. But there is no revision without failure, and there is no writing without revision.

Aatish Taseer is a journalist who has written four novels


From HT Brunch, June 26, 2016

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