I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I was hooked at the age of ten, when the family went for a drive through the Himachal hills. That was when I first saw the beauty and awesomeness of road signs. We were cruising along when the car turned a bend and there was the sign in all its glory, standing modestly by the side of the road. ‘No Hurry, No Worry’, it said and I was struck at once by its force, its masterly economy of words, its stark, spare elegance, its impish half-rhyme. A few curves ahead, I spied another one, ‘Take your time, Not your Life’. I reeled under the profundity of that one. As we sped away, I realised that I had been called to my vocation.
In the years that followed, I nursed my desire in secret, but made frequent trips to the mountains to see as many road signs as I could. I sharpened my rhyming skills with signs like ‘Be Alert! Accidents hurt’, marvelled at the wordplay of ‘It’s better to be Mr Late than the Late Mr’ and blushed coyly at “Feel the curves but don’t hug them”.
It was when I was noting down ‘Mountains are pleasure if you drive with leisure’ that I got caught. “What’s the point of driving through this magnificent scenery if you keep scribbling in a notebook all the while?” asked my dad. That was when I told them my secret. “Dad,” I said, “I want to be a writer.” “Certainly not,” said my mother, “writers starve in garrets.” My dad said no, they starved in attics. My sister pointed out that we had a 2BHK, with neither garret nor attic. I said no, not that kind of writer. “Ah,” said my dad, much relieved, “you could write books of accounts. Many of them are a lot like fiction, anyway.” “No,” I said resolutely, “I want to write signs, preferably road signs.”
They took it badly, of course. I left home shortly thereafter, to make my way boldly in the big bad world of sign writing. I started right at the bottom, with an assignment to write a sign about cars not being allowed to park on the road. I burnt the midnight oil before coming up with ‘Parking here will be injurious to your health,’ but that was rejected. I tried poetry, with ‘Hark! Hark! Do not park’, but that effort too was spurned. Many weeks later, after several rebuffs, including the superb ‘Only an aardvark/Can over here park’, I came up with the laconic ‘No Parking’, which I am proud to say was accepted at once.
The months that followed were hard, but I patiently honed my skills. Some of my pieces at that time were gems such as ‘Bus Bay’ and ‘No Honking’, but my best work, inexplicably, found no takers. These included the literary, ‘The road ahead is full of curves/Gird your loins and steel your nerves’; the mathematical ‘Curves ahead — don’t go off at a tangent’; and this masterpiece ‘Reading signs while driving I don’t recommend/But at least you’ll come to an educated end.’
I dream sometimes of going to Africa and writing signs like ‘Beware, gorilla crossing’. But I, too, have had to compromise and take on odd jobs to keep body and soul together. So here am I, sitting quietly, scribbling columns, waiting for my big break, when I hope to write the definitive sign for these delirious times.
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint
Views expressed by the author are personal