(First published in Hindustan Times Brunch, Nov 13, 2016)
As a student, I cannot recall any fondness for reading. The only books that mattered were textbooks and, based on my impressive academic record, it seemed I was set to study in the Ivy League and work in the financial sector.
I think I was 15 when I started feeling singled out for my social awkwardness and academic focus. It didn’t help that I was part of a group of boys and girls who came from families of industrialists. I couldn’t step out at night to catch Men in Black at PVR Saket the day before the board exams, or strip down at pool parties because I was uncomfortable about my weight, or take part in wild car races and contribute to humanity-altering discussions about my friends’ fathers’ latest Mercedes.
The conspiracy theories
My board results were my only hope, so it was no surprise that I had a complete breakdown when I didn’t fare well. It was during this recovery period that I took heavily to reading and writing, the latter mainly as an outlet for many pent-up, unaddressed emotions. I also lost interest in formal education and though I suffered the college lectures and seminars at a hole-in-the-wall institute bang in the middle of a district centre in West Delhi, I was always dreaming of writing and publishing a book.
At the age of 22, I finished my first book – an overwritten, badly researched, bizarre novel involving conspiracy theories, such as the presence of Christ’s tomb in Roza Bal and the existence of a Nazi base in Antarctica after the defeat in World War II. Like most delusional authors that I summarily ignore now, I was convinced my book will win the Booker. My parents and the extended family were puzzled about my decision to sit at home and trawl the Web for publishing opportunities. A friend of my father’s introduced me to his friend who ran a niche publishing house.
He sent my manuscript to the legendary Khushwant Singh. Mr Singh returned the heavy spiral-bound manuscript in a few days, calling it verbose and expressing his inability to read beyond a few pages. My writing future was like an emergency situation in an ER. One of my father’s close friends knew the novelist Shobhaa De and agreed to share my manuscript with her. Ms De liked my book enough to invite me for a meeting. She introduced me to her editor at Penguin India who called the book ‘unpublishable’. I remember sending out a nasty, hate-filled email to her, full of personal attacks. My mail was forwarded to Ms De but, instead of cutting off her ties with me for causing her embarrassment, she encouraged me not to give up and write more.
One day, amidst hundreds of boiler plate rejection letters from UK and US agents in my mailbox, I found an offer of representation from a Scotland-based agent. I immediately signed up with him though he had no track record of sales. Over the next two years, the agent and I must have shared more than 500 mails. Slowly, suspicious stories about his agency started appearing on forums. Since my future depended on that elusive book deal, I decided to dismiss them. I even wired £500 to his account because he felt my book needed a lot of work. But it became impossible to ignore the fraud when the editor of Fourth Estate UK mentioned not having received any submissions from my agent.
During these years of abject darkness, Shobhaa ma’am kept me propped up with messages like ‘Keep writing. That’s my Mother’s Day blessing for you. Read Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.’ She even introduced me to another editor who also immediately rejected my book.
Sometime in 2007, a chance encounter with a Jaipur-based literary agent led to a meeting with novelist Namita Gokhale. The seven months with Ms Gokhale changed my life. All of a sudden, I was thrust into the world of authors, editors, literary gatherings and festivals. She also told me that I had the temperament of an entrepreneur and not an author. A few months later, I set up my agency with an investment of `7,000.
A New Calling
My second novel ended up on the long-list of an international prize and was published by Rupa and Co. It got mixed reviews and didn’t even manage to sell out its first print run. In fact, I am not even listed as an author on my publisher’s revamped website. Many still don’t know that I published a novel, let alone that I was featured on the long-list of a prize
Initially, I was jealous of most of my authors and their writing skills. Now, I’ve accepted that my strength lies in finding and handholding talent and not writing books. While I wouldn’t wish my teenage life and that of most of my twenties on anyone, I think it’s my experience as a struggling writer that helps me relate to the doubts, anxieties and restlessness of my close to 500 authors.