The Evolution of a story: Meeting Munni
A journey to Agra in 1998 resulted in a travelogue which I wrote for an online newspaper (Rediff, 1998). It was a simple account of the journey and the places we visited on that day-trip. One of the incidents I wrote about was a dance performance by a bear on the Delhi-Agra highway. It was a fleeting moment in our hectic tour, but somehow, this incident embedded itself into my subconscious, and did not resurface until I read a novel which had a sub-plot of a dancing bear and her masters. (
At that time, I was attending a writer’s workshop on travel writing at the Centre of Lifelong Learning of Cardiff University, and one of the assignments was to: think about a place and character, set a stage, introduce the character and move to a conversation with the character. I wrote a 500 word piece called “Encounter with a bear.” To picture this bear, my mind immediately conjured up the image of the bear I had seen in Agra. Hazy recollection of the bear led me to build on the image and create Munni in a dress and straw hat.
I started my MA in Creative Writing in October, and wrote a couple of short stories for the writer’s workshop. But I realised, I was not finished with Munni yet. There was a story behind the sketch I had written earlier, and I hadn’t tapped into it fully. I thought about the relationships in the story: the bear and her master, the tourist and her past. They needed to be fleshed out more. Also, the Indian landscape was an area that I am familiar with. I wondered how I could bring out the senses of the place to readers who have had little or no experience of it at all.
As I deconstructed the writing process of ‘Meeting Munni’, I found there being many more underlying thought processes that make me the kind of writer that I am. In this essay, I will try to answer the questions that I ask myself when I write. Does this short story carry the essence of my creative process as a writer? This is something I need to discover as I write. I have included excerpts from my journal in the hope that it will throw some light into my thought process over the subjects I write about.
What makes me write about what I write?
For most of my life, I have been a constant traveller. I could never sit in one place for very long, and I needed to escape by myself many times, just to listen to my thoughts and see the world through my own eyes. The television made me jealous of people who travelled and broadcast their adventures to the vicarious traveller on the couch. My imagination constantly made me experience a lot of travel adventures, till I was old enough to do them on my own. An excerpt from my journal reads like this:
I grew up in a house by a major railway station. Trains pulled in and out of my life every single day. They hurtled through my dreams in the night. I’d sit by the window and watch people from all over India converge and then diverge in front of my eyes everyday. Trains mean journeys; journeys mean stories. Sometimes, during the holidays, I would be on one of these trains and see my house go past in a blur. I would be on a journey towards a story. Thus many of my stories are results of my journeys, or the ones I have witnessed from the windows of my house.
Journeys, therefore, are very important to start the process of writing. The thrill of motion sets my mind to work. Journeys in India are very different from the ones in western countries. Train travel in India overwhelms all senses. There are in fact a series of stories that occur at once in the same given time. People immediately become travelling companions, who indulge in tale-swapping, meal-sharing, card-playing groups etc. One can just absorb their lives through osmosis, and then I find myself imagining situations and experiences with people I’ve never seen before nor will meet again after we step off the train.
I keep a journal of my travels, and collect as many tangible memories I can of these experiences. Train tickets, railway timetables, lists of stations I’ve stopped in, food eaten aboard the train, and they help me see before my eyes the climate, terrain and habits of the people and places I write about. Similarly, in Meeting Munni, the travel experience was one of liberation. I travelled to Delhi on my own. It is a brave thing for an Indian woman, especially young, to travel unescorted. But I found that I was free to explore, to talk to other people, spend time where I wanted to, and then helped my creativity a lot. I found solitude a major stimulus to get the imagination working. Even though I talked to people, moved around with them, they were strangers, subjects to be studied as characters perhaps. They did not come back home with me, and I was left alone to play with my impressions of how I constructed their characters. The people who stayed back with me were the ones I created and breathed life into. The Munni I created is not the exact same dancing bear I witnessed on the road. She is a representation of my interpretation of relationships, love and also the pain being in an adverse situation.
The similarities between the character Margaret and me are where she travels to a new country on her own, and spends time with people she finds interesting. I too, in a way, discovered my own country for the first time, by venturing out alone, making the choices of what I wanted to do for myself, and come to my own conclusions.
Where do I base my stories?
Most of the stories I write are based in my homeland, India. There are many reasons for it. The first being that I am most familiar with the country I have spent 26 years of my life, and keep going back to every year, since my moving away. Another reason is perhaps that I am influenced by the material I read most of the time. I am constantly absorbing and trying to recreate language and style from those of my favourite authors.
In the MA seminar led by Dr David Brooks, he mentioned how his earlier work was influenced by Galway Kinnell. He imitated his style in his own work, and only then did he discover his own voice. His advice was to read as many anthologies as possible and discover which writer we can relate to. I find myself going back every time to writers of Indian origin. Their perspective of India interests me, and I try to emulate certain writers in my own work. I love the work of R. K. Narayan, who was also cited by V. S. Naipaul as ‘a comfort and example to those of us who wished to write’ (Naipaul, 1999). Narayan wrote about India, the common man and he created a world of his own, in his imaginary town, Malgudi, where most of his stories were based. His uncomplicated language and simplicity of the subject is evident in the excerpt below:
Leela's Friend (The Hindu, 13 September, 2003)
"Sidda, come and play!" Leela would cry, and Sidda had to drop any work he might be doing, and run to her, as she stood in the front garden with a red ball in her hand. His company made her supremely happy. She flung the ball at him and he flung it back. And then she said, "Now throw the ball into the sky." Sidda clutched the ball, closed his eyes for a second, and threw the ball up. When the ball came down again he said, "Now this has touched the moon and come. You see here a little bit of the moon sticking." Leela keenly examined the ball for traces of the moon and said, "I don't see it."
"You must be very quick about it," said Sidda, "because it will all evaporate and go back to the moon. Now hurry up... “He covered the ball tightly with his fingers and allowed her to peep through a little gap.
"Ah, yes," said Leela. "I see the moon, but is the moon very wet?"
"Certainly. It is," Sidda said.
"What is in the sky, Sidda?"
"God," he said.
"If we stand on the roof and stretch our arm, can we touch the sky?"
"Not if we stand on the roof here," he said. "But if you stand on a coconut tree you can touch the sky."
"Have you done it?" asked Leela.
"Yes, many times," said Sidda. "Whenever there is a big moon, I climb a coconut tree and touch it."
"Does the moon know you?"
"Yes, very well. Now come with me. I will show you something nice." They were standing near the rose plant. He said pointing, "You see the moon there, don't you?"
"Now come with me," he said and took her to the backyard. He stopped near the well, pointed up. The moon was there too. Leela clapped her hands and screamed in wonder, "The moon here. It was there. How is it?"
"I have asked it to follow us about."
There is a debate on the representation of India by the South Asian writer who writes from within the country, and the diasporic Indian writer, who writes from abroad, particularly from Canada, USA and UK.
R.K. Narayan created Malgudi, a town which was an amalgamation of small town settlements in the country. He wrote about them with authenticity and colour. In a paper by she argues that the diasporic Indian writer creates an India which they write about. But what is different about this representation is that they write with nostalgia, and they recreate what they know the Western world accepts as the exotic India. Aamer Hussein, a British diasporic writer, says that he gathers his material from articles and documentaries telecast on the television about Pakistan (Hussein, 1996) and another writer Romesh Gunesekara’s collection of short stories is set in Sri Lanka, his birthplace, but yet the stories rely on memory, nostalgia and the notion of the impossibility to return. Therefore the writer creates ‘as much in a mental geography as in a physical landscape’, and fiction becomes reality. (Nasta, 1994)
Rushdie sums up this practice as:
‘…exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must do so in the knowledge – which gives rise to profound uncertainties – that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.’
So the question arises, which category does my writing fall into? Am I a native Indian writer, or am I the diasporic writer?
I have always been writing stories based in India. At the moment, I do not belong anywhere. I am rootless, travelling from country to country every couple of years. But I want to pin my identity down more strongly as that of an Indian, to have a perspective of myself, to feel secure and to belong somewhere. But this apparent rootless existence for the last five years has been eclipsed by my strong receptive observation and fond memories in India during the first 26 years of my life. The sea of memories in my mind through these first hand experiences are vivid and only waiting to take the life form into stories. I miss my country, and that longing makes me want to write about it, with as much realism possible so that I can dwell in those moments in the process of writing them. The experience of meeting a bear was real. The Indian landscape, climate is also authentic in ‘Meeting Munni’. I have talked to villagers, Indians who speak vernacular or broken English to be able to replicate their dialogue with authenticity. These feelings are recorded in my journal as below:
Sometimes when you miss something very much, you physically ache for it. The emotion is so strong; your mind refuses to live in the present. It strains to go back to the time when you possessed that missing element. It causes a physical pain, which inspires you to write or paint with such detail and love that you create a duplicate to surround yourself with.
My physical pain comes from missing India. I miss it so much, I want to create it within me and live there. I write about it with such love and care, and I am almost obsessively in love with the missing part of it.
I want to walk along the Arabian Sea. I want to hear the constant drone of the trains outside my window. I want to smell the overflowing drains and the promise of ripe mangoes. I want to feel the sting of rain on my face and scald my lips on hot cups of tea in roadside restaurants. I want to bite into a chilly and cry out in desperation and delight. I want to curse at trains running late. I want to bargain for books by the roadside. I want to be understood when I speak in my mother tongue.
I want to be able to write about India in such a way that I can transport anyone who’s ever or never been there can feel the pain I do, when they close the book that transported them to that place I created.
The structure of writing: How do I build on an idea?
Writer Joyce Carol Oates, in her article for the New York Times, says that running is the activity that releases her imagination. Her theory is that most writers get their imagination working when they are in motion (Oates, 1999). Edmund White says he cannot write a line without listening to classical music (White, 2001). I find my imagination working full swing when I do the mundane day to day chores; my mind escapes to another realm, where it churns out images, memories forgotten, photographs on the bookshelf and the stories behind them. More often than not, I have seen that I first come up with the last line of the story. It is the twist at the end of the tale that grabs me. An unusual end to a story I have not even thought about. Then I start building on that last line. Like a scaffold, I build and climb till I reach the top of the tale.
In ‘Meeting Munni’, the initial end was that the bear-wallah does not accept any money from Margaret, even though he does need it badly. Her good wishes for the child are enough for him. I wanted to show that money is not everything, and this simple man was happy anyway, and Margaret got a glimpse of the non-materialistic attitude of the poor man. Built into that, was the role of a woman in Indian society. How the father of the new born girl was concerned with her marriage already. How is a Western woman looked upon by native Indians? Can there be any similarity between an educated, modern western woman and the native, illiterate villager?
Technicalities of Story Writing
I find journal keeping, note-taking or free writing extremely useful. Little ideas are stored in these pages, not yet developed but waiting to take on life and flower. As I flick through my journal of ideas, I see notes scribbled all over, of story ideas, character ideas, and lots and lots of ending lines! Janet Burroway’s advice to writers is to keep a journal. Story ideas occur all the time and you must jot it down before you forget it. (Burroway, 2000)
My mother’s travel journal inspired me to do the same as a child, and I keep delving back to them to reclaims bits of memory to use as stimulus for writing stories.
Distances have shortened. It is no longer “not possible” to travel abroad. My childhood was punctuated with visits from relatives abroad. There was no question of my ever going to visit them: my parents couldn’t have afforded it. So my trips took the form of dreams. There s a bridge beside my home that crossed over the railway tracks. In my dreams, Canada was on the other side of this bridge. I’d climb the steps and cross over to the other side, and I was at once transported to another land.
My desire to visit the foreign land intensified only after my mother went to Canada in 1988. Before that, I had bookish knowledge of the outside world. The only tangible things I got from abroad through my relatives were chocolates, knick-knacks and a lot of T-shirts that said “Toronto”. My mother kept a journal and she collected things for me. Suddenly there were these things I could touch and feel and smell, that brought me to more intimate terms with the mysteries outside: pressed maple leaves, pine cones, perfectly round pebbles from the shores of the Great Lakes, a MacDonald’s paper napkin, with a bit of sauce staining the corner, newspaper cuttings of sales and holiday brochures of country cottages.
I created my own Canada on basis these treasures. I no longer required to rely on descriptions of Enid Blyton, who was my guide to the entire western world.
I love doing research when I write a story. I feel I have learnt something other than the story in my writing it. This inspiration comes from reading Roald Dahl’s short stories. Even within the fiction, there is a fact he that enriches one’s knowledge. And he weaves it within his stories so you don’t even know this is an extra bit of information. On giving Munni her happy-go-lucky character, I realised I was not doing justice to the animal exploitation that takes place particularly in third-world countries. I read articles about dancing bears in India and their plight as they are tortured into performing for money. Though it is not the focus of the story, it is mentioned to give an idea of what it is about.
Norman Mailer in his interview with Steven Marcus claims that he doesn’t like to research for his stories for he does not trust the resulting piece of work. So he claims that ‘in certain limited ways one’s ignorance can help buttress the validity of a novel’ (Marcus, 1967). This is strange, because I believe in order to be authentic, one must get into the shoes of the character to make him believable. But what can be done, unless one understands the culture and historical background that character comes from. As I introduce a subject of human interest in the story, it creates an interest to learn something new out of it.
Arthur Miller in his interview says the playwright is like a litmus paper of the arts. He needs to absorb and be on the same wavelength of the audience for them to be able to relate to his play. He needs to be a ‘psychic journalist’ to be able to create the atmosphere for people to accept his story. (Carlisle and Styron, 1967) And in order to do so, one must sound as authentic as possible.
Through the journey of writing this essay, I travelled the length of ‘Meeting Munni’ and recorded my writing process for the first time. It gives me a clearer and structured view of my thinking and reasoning for why I do what I do. The realisation of what kind of writer I want to be: the diasporic or the native is very important and by keeping that decision in mind, I will be able to focus accurately on what I am trying to portray.