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Songs of experience

I’m too cynical to believe in revelations. but perhaps this distant, anonymous man had given me something, a personal sorrow, larger and deeper than what I had seen before, writes Siddharth Shanghvi.

india Updated: Nov 30, 2009 22:39 IST

I was a student then, 22, when I decided to write about Aids in India, and my writerly ambition was naïve but my sadness was not. With the percept of grief’s unassuming clarity I went to government hospitals where I skulked about at various wards to talk to doctors, nurses, and those living with HIV. If I had come to the subject armed with a scholarly inquiry — I had read research papers, underlined academic tomes, attended conferences — then my vague allusions to scholarship had not prepared me for the horrifying particulars on the ground. One man told me he was treated worse than a stray dog, after which he burst into tears, then turned and left, as if he had been waiting — just waiting — to tell someone. Another woman was heartbroken to learn that her husband had infected her and their infant; she was heartbroken because she did not think her husband would have cheated on her, and HIV’s impact on her, her infant’s inherited helplessness, was not of immediate concern, the betrayal had cut a deeper wound.

Assimilating these stories I returned to Berkeley, where I put on paper what the ground had given me, and accepted that words can cast a wide net over fury and injustice but they cannot convey the depth of either. I wrote pedantically, systematically, adding references, flashing quotes, building the shape of a paradigm if only to dismantle it; my sterile, scholarly procedure was anesthesia to what I had seen, an antidote to reality, a small answer to big questions. When my friend Elnora read the thesis she remarked it was dreadfully erudite — euphemism for unreadable, dull as daal. Perhaps my feeling for the subject had coloured it, interrupted the unimpeachable lucidity and vigour of a story’s linear, engaging unraveling.

Sensing my unease, Elnora took me on a drive and off we went into the Berkeley Hills, coming upon a clearing on a street called Euclid. From here, the vista before us was of the Golden Gate Bridge stretching over the Pacific Ocean. Every now and then, fog would roll over the city, and when San Francisco was completely obfuscated my eyes would pull Bombay before my eyes, the hot afternoons at the hospitals where the sick lay on ward beds praying not so much for recovery but the relief of death, the exhausted young doctors from whom one should simply expect wakefulness rather than interest, the nurses who were as much soldier as harridan.

The fog cleared, I saw the city ahead of me, and now I imagined just one man in his bed in San Francisco, sick, dying, lonely, alone, tired, bitter, miserable, hopeful. I could see him more clearly than I had any of the people I had met during my many months studying HIV, the researchers, the volunteer workers, the activists. What was his name, how had he come to fall sick, was there no one to look after him? Could I get him a newspaper or lend him a book, should I tell him it was going to be better (it was not) or switch the radio dial from mournful etudes to warm, sprightly saxophone? I suspected that if I’d been allowed a glance into his world it was not to radiate an imaginative sympathy (to borrow Salman Rushdie’s wonderful phrase) but to gaze at the profound singularity of his experience. I’m too cynical to believe in revelations — they’re generally the prerogative of magic mushrooms or tele-evangelists — but perhaps this distant, anonymous man had given me something, a personal sorrow, larger and deeper than what I had seen before, and as intimate as a love letter.

The fog came and went, and I identified a white tower in North Beach, a building in the Financial District. By the time my eyes moved to the promontory of Marin County, behind which the sun had set with an extravagance of colours ranging from smouldering fuchsia to leaden gray, I understood I would have to write about Aids in my fiction. The non-fiction could locate the condition, explain its minutiae, share the prescriptions of experts on the subject. But only fiction and, if you allow me a diva moment, art, could allow us to inhabit all what nonfiction had brought to the table, collared and kenneled, showing us what we did not know, or want to know, or could not know. My thesis won me some sort of a prize at college. Parts of it were rewritten and published by the San Francisco Chronicle and The Times of India. Of course, if I felt at the time that I had failed at my task it was only because its enormity had been revealed to me only accidentally on a street called Euclid, and writing about Aids would always be a failing task for me.

Years later, when I sat down to write The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay, a pianist appeared before my mind’s eye, and I saw his cruel and rapid death from Aids. Then I had only to close my eyes and imagine the man on the bed in San Francisco, and with him came a story that became Samar’s story, a gift I did not think I was a lucky — or brave — enough a writer to inherit, or steal. Sometimes, writing is about bearing witness to what one has not seen, if only to see it.

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi is the author of The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay

The views expressed by the author are personal