Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Voices in my Head

Last fall, I was watering my lawn, admiring my garden when an idea hit me so hard I had to drop the hose and run up to my office and write it down. That uninvited bastard so forced her will on me, she kept me chained to my chair till 9 pm on a Saturday night. On and on she went, for days and weeks. She made me work Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Who does that?

Before I knew it, I had my second novel.

A half-formed embryo of a thing, but a thing nonetheless. Enough to build on.

Then life got hectic. I went to Pakistan for two months. I recovered from that trip for three months. And then I hid from writing because starting a second novel four months after completing the first is like lying in a heap at the finish line of a marathon and being told to lace up, you have five minutes before you start your triathlon.

And then she came back, book two, because she knew I was ready.

I resigned to her will and went to my study to write. Nothing. I jotted down my ideas on post-its. I made a chart of all that I knew happened based on the first draft. Jammed in ideas I had for the second. It was how I’d written the first book. Planned it before writing. Made sure things went my way. But I wasn't actually writing anything.

I was pissed. I was here for book two, why wasn't she coming out already? Though I hadn't written in months, I had been thinking about it the whole time. I knew just what to do.

Still nothing.

Finally, I wrote in my journal: “Why can't I write? Am I scared? Why is there such resistance?”

And then, I wrote perhaps the most useful and helpful of my writing career: "Am I making this all about me? Should I listen to you?"

And then, and I'm not kidding, I wrote: "Okay, talk to me."

I KNOW. I've heard other writers talk about this all the time, about hearing their characters, and knowing them like they're real people. I always rolled my eyes. What a cliché. Not possible. You're the writer. Write. Be in control.

But that day, out of sheer frustration, I gave up control. I listened. And she spoke to me. 

This character started telling me about herself. Things I couldn’t have dreamed of. Things I couldn’t have made up.

I KNOW. I may as well don a drapey dress and tell you your fortune over my crystal ball.

But that’s what’s happening with the characters I met in December- so briefly, like those rain-drenched chance encounters of Bollywood, those instant-connection people you know you’ll be good friend with even at that first meeting.

But it takes time to get to know someone. Long coffee dates. Over months and years.

So that’s what I’m doing. Having coffee. With the voices in my head. The things they tell me! The lives they’ve lead. And though I may have created this world, they live in it, they reveal it to me, slowly, over months and years.

Here's another giant cliché of the writing world that's finally hit home: "Writing is like driving in the fog with your headlights on. You can only see two feet ahead of you, but you can make the whole journey that way- two feet at a time."

It's the scariest thing I've ever done. No post-its. No check lists. No outlines, no deadlines. 

Just blind faith. 


In the voices in my head.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Man I Love

As promised, the big reveal from the last blog post, the man I love. The love of my literary life is Vikram Seth.

I first saw him on across the room in the center of a bookshelf: A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth. The sheer girth of the spine sent tingles down my own- it took up the space of three books (I have abandonment issues and really like long books, so my "friends" will stay with me longer). Vicky did not let me down. 1400 glorious pages. Family upon family, character upon character who I grew to love and hate with delicious satisfaction.

I first met him years later. The CBC Radio Book Club was hosting a talk with Vicky and you had to write a 100 word piece about why you should be selected. Best writing prompt ever. I arrived an hour early, sat in the second row (you have to play hard to get). It was the most satisfying hour of my life. Better than my first bite of masala dosa dipped in coconut chutney, better than watching the sunset bobbing on a surfboard in Trinidad, better even than the most satisfying series finale ever, Breaking Bad. Every word he uttered was a gift just for me. Every word he uttered made me laugh or cry or grunt with satisfaction.

I searched the crowd for him beforehand and it was a while before I realized the rather unkempt man leaning against the stairs leading up to the stage was Vikram Seth. He could have been a student volunteer, so casual and unpretentious was he. Messy hair, loose, comfortable, slightly wrinkled clothes. And what melted my heart was how casual he was about the whole affair. He admitted right off the bat he was tired from the book tour and wouldn't likely be coherent (not true) and it made me feel so much better that you can be human and still brilliant.

During the Q and A, I found my feet moving to the mic of their own accord.

"Feet," I said, "Sit down this instant. We are introverts, we don't talk when there are more than two people present, let alone in a group of a hundred people at an event being broadcast across Canada." But my feet didn't listen. They placed me before the mic.

I asked Vicky to sing "Awara Hoon," a Bollywood song he'd mentioned in his memoir, From Heaven's Lake. He didn't want to. The crowd made him. His voice was liquid gold. Literally- a strand of melted gold emanated from his body and coated my soul.

Afterwards, as he signed my book, I apologized for making him sing.

"Oh, you're the one," he laughed, and drew a musical note by my name. Bliss.

                                                                    ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Ten years later, in January 2014, I saw that he was attending the Lahore Literature Festival. Though I had been in Lahore weeks earlier, I went again. I will travel to the moon for him, what's a fifty minute flight? Same disheveled hair, same unassuming manner. I sat in the first row (because the organizers wouldn't let me sit in his lap) and as the session came to an end, there was time only for one question. My hand shot up. There is something about Vicky that makes this introvert a ballsy bad-ass ( as proven by the fact I just said ballsy on a blog my mother reads).

I was given a mic. I reminded him of the last time I saw him, ten years before, and the song he sang.
"I'm sure I didn't comply," he said.
"Oh, but you did." Who was this cheeky brat, I wondered, even as I continued, "You proved that your singing is as amazing as your writing."
The audience went wild, began chanting for him to sing.
"Well, if it was in Vancouver, I'm sure I had some liquid courage," he said, pointing to his glass, "In Pakistan, all I get is tea."
I responded, "Don't worry, I've arranged for that, check your tea cup." I didn't recognize myself. I was bold, brazen, like it was just the two of us, not 1500 of us. I had never behaved this way in my life. Love does that to you.

He did end up singing a verse or so but without the gusto he'd had in Vancouver. I worried- had I offended him, made him do something he didn't want to do?

At the book signing, I apologized once again for making him sing.

And then the most wonderful two minutes of my life ensued:

He laughed off my apology, asking my name.


"Firozi, like your earrings."

Yes, Vicky, you worldly genius, firoze like the colour, turquoise. You see me, you know me. Let's get married.

I noticed he was writing my name in Urdu. We laughed together because neither of us could figure out how to spell the last syllable. When he spoke to me in Urdu, it was jarring because I'd discovered him in Canada,  met him there, loved him there and for a minute, I'd forgotten we were in Pakistan at all. It was jarring and it was amazing. The two spheres of my life connecting through the medium closest to my heart.

The whole exchange was so casual, so comfortable, like we were at home on the sofa, not at a national literature festival being jostled by fans wanting his attention.

I don't want much from our relationship. I'm a realist- I know I'm married and he has a partner. It's not about that. All I want is to live in his left breast pocket and follow him around the world. That's all.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Karachi Made Me Cry

I had no idea it's been this long since I posted. Okay, I had an inkling. Truth is, my seven weeks in Karachi left me with not so much writer's block as stimulation overload. I came home so saturated, I had no idea where to begin. So maybe I'll write a blog entry that is like my hometown: a congested, haphazardly laid out, not-easy-to-follow ode to Karachi that is nevertheless intriguing, charged with an energy unmatched, unmatchable by any city in the west.

Uncle and cuz and beer, a Sunday afternoon tradition
I stayed with my Mama and Mami, my mum's brother and his wife. They had the house painted in honor of my arrival, my cousin cleared out of his bedroom for me, set it up with a desk he thought I might like to write at overlooking the garden. I almost cried. They'd worked till 11 pm or 1 am to set it all up, then awoken at 5 to welcome me to Karachi with hot tea and all my favorites, bhakras, batasas, nankhatai. Later in my stay, I was the one to be up all night, fretting about how to ask them if I could extend my already long-by-western-standards stay by another couple of weeks. Finding the perfect words, I approached them, heart in hands, and they laughed: "Why would you ask? This is your house."

This was my house indeed. They live where I grew up, not my official home, but the one where I spent most of my time. Being there this time was a double mind-bender: first, I could still see my seven year old self playing teacher in this hall, burning rotlis in this kitchen, playing kho-kho here, house-house there, hide-and-seek, hop scotch, cricket, that game with the elastic bands that exercised your gymnastic skills- what was it called? Where was it from? The photo above is taken in a room where we acted out pivotal scenes from Hindi movies we'd seen the night before, me in my Nani's sari, my cousin stumbling around with a bottle of Johnny Walker (filled with water of course), pretending to be a sharabi (because those 80s heroes always were).

Second, so much of this house and this city has worked its way into my writing that being back there was like visiting the set of my novel- Mohatta Palace? You mean chapter 10, scene 4. Saddar? Oh boy does my character get in trouble there. And then, in that same musty dusty bazaar, I heard the vendors, "Madam, madam, come, come, t-shirts,  branded, Gucci, Polo, come come." They said the words, my words, which were in fact their words, scratched into my notebook on my last visit. Art imitating life imitating art in an unbroken, mind-bending loop.

I attended the Karachi Literature Festival and the Lahore Literature Festival. They changed my life- my writing life, so yes, my life. Seeing Pakistani writers onstage day after day, discussing issues I myself had faced or was facing or would face one day, I felt myself tearing up at every panel. Because even though I am as yet unpublished, I am a writer. I am relating to writers. Not buddy-buddying with them, that will come later, but when they spoke at the panels, they spoke to me.

Sadly, this photo, part of the KLF's official FB collection, captures me not
 intellectually considering whatever's being discussed or even shedding a graceful tear but puckered up and bawling.
I've blown it up extra large for your enjoyment.

 My favorite writers were there, writers I had discovered on the impersonal Amazon recommendations page, now before me in the flesh. Writers who had nudged me, unknowingly, to write my own novel, sure you can set it in Karachi, yes, pepper it with Urdu and Gujarati, it's what we speak here. Of course it can just be a story, not a Story With A Political Message That Must At Least Twice Mention Drones/Taliban/BinLadin.

 I shopped till I dropped- from the weight of the books I bought. So many that the security guard stared at his X-ray machine gave me a suspicious look- all he could see was two rectangles, the tops of the two stacks of books in my carry-on.
You can't find books on Pakistan here. And being there, among academics and authors, I developed a thirst to know more, more about this county I left at 11 that continues to haunt my imagination and my writing. I also wanted not to sound like an idiot when I one day was on a panel at the KLF about my own country. So I came home with 110 pounds worth of books that will take me who knows how long to get through.

I tried my utmost to be Pakistani. To speak Urdu. Not gape at things. Undo my accent. I went places alone, places they'd never let me go alone before. I felt a certain thrill. Like I belonged. Then I'd come home and hear about a bomb blast or attack and feel just so naive, so out of my league, an outsider after all.

Not only did I speak Urdu, I was spoken to in Urdu. They thought I was one of them. Then, on the plane from Dubai to SFO, the Indian air hostess greeted passengers, mostly in Hindi, row after row until she reached me. "Is everything okay, ma'am?" The wall clanked down. I was back to being racially ambiguous. It pinched my insides.

The gorgeous Mira Nair
At the Lahore Lit Fest, I heard Mira Nair talk about Salaam Bombay as it is the film's 25th anniversary. My tears nearly short-circuited the iPhone in my lap. She had been a documentary film maker and then, for SB, she used that format that came so naturally to her and lived among the slum kids she would portray, lived like them, learned the nuances of their lives which then made this movie that is still acclaimed a quarter century later. I cried because that's what I am doing in going to Karachi. I live the life that my characters will one day live. I always thought writers should hole up in a room and make shit up, what's this go-here go-there thing I keep doing? But she showed me there is no right and wrong way to do this, this creating business, you just do what you are driven to do.

In my next entry, we will talk about the man I love:
Bonus marks if you can tell who he is from this bad picture of a picture