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Her life on paper

india Updated: Dec 11, 2010 23:40 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Soumya Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
Soumya Bhattacharya

“When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished," the Polish Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz had once said.

It's a line that the great American writer Philip Roth would much approve of. Roth's literary career is strewn with the corpses of relationships slaughtered by the manner in which certain people think they find themselves depicted (on occasions, they have said, so thinly disguised as to be not disguised at all) in his novels.

It's not merely Roth, of course: think of Saul Bellow, of Kingsley Amis, of any writer, major or minor, who has returned to his or her experiences, plundered his or her past, and run them through the filter of imagination, narrative craft and the exigencies of the story he is telling. In many instances, there has been collateral damage.

The writer will do this; recollection and memory are two of his greatest assets. As Gunter Grass once wrote: "[A writer] knows that recollection is like a cat that needs to be stroked - sometimes in the wrong direction - until it starts to tremble, and then to purr. This is how he uses his own recollections… Recollection is his quarry, his compost heap, his archive. He nurtures it as carefully as if it were a second crop."

This terrain is tricky enough, and it gets rather more complicated when one is talking about the writing of a memoir (or a memoirish column). Memoirs often work when there is something universal in the writer's experience, something that makes a lot of readers nod in assent and say, "Ah, I know this, this happened to me too. This writer is speaking on my behalf". This creates a bridge of empathy, understanding and familiarity between a writer and his reader.

When I published my first book - a memoir about being an Indian cricket fan - a friend of mine (a well-regarded writer, a cricket obsessive and an admirer of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, the inspiration for my own book) had remarked upon how much of myself I had put on the line to do it. I hadn't thought of it that way when I was writing the book seven years ago. But it did occur to me when I began doing this column nearly two-and-a-half years ago. Here was a different kind of putting myself on the line, and I wondered if I was ready for it.

When they meet our family, those who read this column often ask if our daughter reads it. No, she doesn't, although she sometimes appears to be surprised by the fact that some people whom she doesn't know, know about her.

On several occasions, she has told me: "I know why you are asking me this; you will write about it." (Yes, that's how easy doing this column is. A child could tell what you intend to write or, indeed, what you ought to.) And, then, one day, last week, she told me something - something important to her, something she felt ought to be kept secret - and added: "Don't write about this."

I wonder what our nine-year-old makes of her life being written up in the paper. I don't tell her what I write; she doesn't read it. She doesn't say. But she must wonder, I wonder now. If I decide to do a memoir about the perils and pleasures on fatherhood based largely on these columns, I'd better get her to first read the manuscript.