Global Village Idiot: Everyday happenings as the spark for great inspiration
Friends and family often ask where I get the inspiration for books, columns and blogs. At other times, they ask who inspired me to become a writer; which writers I look up to and so on. I have never given it much thought, but when one of my kids asked, I figured it’s important.
For most of my life, I have just written. I write every day. Sometimes one line, sometimes one page, sometimes 20, but I write every day. And I write as it strikes me, as it happens (used to be on scraps of paper, notebooks, tissue paper, now it’s on the phone); not at a desk long after the event has happened, long after the thoughts and feelings have come and gone. I don’t recreate or craft stories. I experience and transcribe in the moment.
I started writing because I had lots of questions about everything. As I wrote questions, I wondered about answers, and as I wondered, I made choices and as I made choices, I reflected whether they were right or wrong, and corrected my behaviour.
To clear all doubts: I don’t rush to call family and friends when something exciting or disheartening or boring happens; I write.
What do I write about? Anything and everything. Going to the market with my father, for instance. I learned the importance of selecting the meat and vegetables with one’s own hand (not what the vendor gave you), bargaining hard, walking away from the deal, closing the deal so that’s it’s fair to both sides, and doing all this through pleasant, amiable dialogue.
“Kaise diya tamatar? (What’s the price of tomatoes)?”
“Bauji, dus rupiya kilo (Sir, ten rupees a kilo)?.”
“Tamatar bech rahe ho, ya sona? Aath mein do to batao. (You are selling tomatoes or gold? Let me know if you’ll sell for 8 a kilo)?”
“Aap teen kilo le lo to saath mein de dei. (If you buy three kilos, I will give it to you at seven a kilo).”
“Beta sabji mein daalna hai, tamatar ka sauce nahin bechna. Theeek bhav bolo. (I need tomatoes to add a bit to the vegetable dish not to make and sell tomato sauce. Give me a good price).”
The most important lesson was always the banter - that’s how my father connected with people, speaking in their particular dialect, enjoying the jest, taking interest in where they came from, how many people in their family, what their dreams were.
He used to say, “Money is very important, but the world is about people. Kindness is not about giving money, it is about treating people as humans, as your equal.”
He had learnt that lesson the hard way - he and his siblings had gone from growing up with means, to growing up in poverty, and then clawing out of that poverty into some meagre means.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, while learning about the nuances of such social interactions and everyday life, I was also blessed to have the opportunity to read the highly evolved and intellectual works of Tolstoy, Hegel, Hemingway, Tagore, Vivekanand and Thomas Hardy. I also read Dinkar, Munshi Premchand and heard Kabir dohas every day. I recited shlokas and sang bhajans every evening, and listened to sermons every week and participated in deep debate at every opportunity … and wrote.
I also read Lee Falk (Phantom, Mandrake), Abid Surati’s Bahadur, Champak, Chandamama, Tinkle, and Amar Chitra Katha, Reader Digest, Archie, Casper, Hot Stuff, Tintin, and Asterix and Obelix.
In the early 1980s I started reading newspapers and discovered RK Laxman. And thanks to our school textbooks, Mario Miranda’s art had a great influence on my style of expression. In 1987 I discovered Larry Siegel, Sergio Aragones, Mort Drucker, Dock DeBartolo, Don Martin (among many others) through MAD magazine. In 1989, I discovered Bill Waterson’s work (Calvin and Hobbes) and the works of Louis L’Amour, Jeffrey Archer and Arthur Hailey.
All of these artists and writers and many other philosophers, artistes, film-makers, musicians have helped shape my understanding that there need not be any limits on self-expression so long as I know social and legal boundaries and also how to push those boundaries without breaking them.
But, it is Busybee and Dave Barry who influenced my style of column-writing to an extent. Busybee (Behram Contractor) was an Indian journalist and humourist who founded the Afternoon Despatch & Courier, a tabloid I used to buy from my pocket money every day simply to read the columns by Busybee on the long bus journey home from Madras Hotel to Sayyad Gaon in Delhi. Dave Barry is an American humourist and columnist who used to write for the Miami Herald and I found his column by chance in the early 1990s, through an online friend in Syracuse (later through the sitcom Dave’s World).
I still have no preference of subject matter when it comes to reading - history, economics, political science, geography, technology, engineering, sports, art, wine labels, nutrition information on grocery ingredients, aircraft safety cards, EULAs, comics, religious books, text books, how-to’s, how-not-to’s … I read anything and everything.
I guess it’s natural that I write on anything and everything, but the focus is always on the ordinary person’s experience. Like the cabin crew wearing spectacles on my first time flying Emirates. When I walked into the aircraft on that particular flight, there was this crew member wearing spectacles who was doing a little jig to the catchy music that was playing on the music system. And she was smiling as she worked because she was enjoying the music. As were some of the other crew.
They were all pleasant and cordial and focused on what they were doing. Guess what I am saying is the crew was of real people in a relaxed environment, liking their work and it reflected on my travel experience.
The average, ordinary person is therefore my inspiration. People who have little or no power, who keep getting up every day no matter what happened the day before, and taking one step and another through the day. People who are not born or bred for success. People who have to make choices between rent or mortgage payments and children’s education, between healthcare and that additional hour of remuneration, between their dreams and the immediate security of their families. The men and women who deal with high stress every day for decades, but have the gumption to sympathise with the troubles of others, or lend a hand whenever they can.
That’s who inspires me.