A Sort of Letter to Writers of Novels Set in Foreign Lands

Today, I want to write a short post about writing and maybe about the reader – in this case, me. A stray thought (and I have too many of those) inspired some tweets :- starting with this one, then this tweet. Realizing that I was quite obviously building up to a post, I decided to write at length here.

This is more like a letter.

Dear writer (of also novels set in foreign countries),

I have a confession to make. When you put your pen to paper about a foreign country, rather than extol its almost predictable exotica, I wish you would write passionately of its ordinariness.  I want to know what its people eat and what they think, what superstitions hold together the stitches of the fabric of their lives. Nuggets of wisdom hidden inside tales of daily life, hardships that people undergo, if not cheerfully, then uncomplainingly.

Writing must resonate with realism.

Special moments stand out only when the mind is accustomed to the ordinary, to the rhythm of life in that faraway country, in that mayhap imaginary land. Tell me about the box of lunch packed each morning by a hassled mother with an eye perennially on the clock. About the cyclist who takes the same detour each day to stop and watch the afternoon train in the distance throw up clouds of smoke to a passive sky. In the middle of your lovingly detailed  routine that my mind has become one with, throw that surprise that you have been waiting to spring on me so badly that your heart is bursting – shock me with an unexpected death, scandalise me with an affair, shatter my calm with a fateful announcement. But before all that –  familiarize me. Take my hand and show me. I must sit pillion with that cyclist each day for those precious five minutes, as he chews on an apple and lazily contemplates who might sit by the window on the third compartment of the train. I need to mutter in exasperation as the mother juggles twenty things that demand her equal attention on a workday morning.

I need to live the ordinary before I can recognize the special.

But here is the real deal.

As a writer, sometimes you may write the ordinary long enough and lovingly enough and well enough that the ordinary becomes special. I will so lovingly slip into the everyday ebb and flow of life in that foreign land that I no longer want something that unsettles me. I will sit by the shade of the trees along with you, content to watch boys draw a crude pitch and bat to their hearts’ content or a fisherman cast his net and wait for hours, humming.

This, then, was part of the magic of RK Narayan. He did not tell me how spectacular Malgudi was, he simply showed me the intimate secrets of its ordinary people. He tapped at their hearts and out! tumbled small worries, petty squabbles, disquieting thoughts, moments of quiet generosity. He wrote of real people leading predictable, but genuine lives.

In Malgudi, I did not need to wait for something spectacular. The ordinary was enough. It fulfilled me.

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10 thoughts on “A Sort of Letter to Writers of Novels Set in Foreign Lands

  1. I think it depends on what the theme of the book is. I haven’t read Malgudi, but from what I know, it is the characters that inhabit Malgudi that make it special – it could equally have been set in any place, and it would have still worked.

    There are other kinds of books wherein the place itself is the theme – The romance of Paris, the wonders of Italy, the sands of Egypt and the heat of Chennai. In these kind of books, you want the new, you want the special, you read eagerly wanting to find out what it is that makes these places so unique. In such a book, the commonplace has no place.

    And then there are books where the action merely seems to be set in a particular place. A thriller with a climb on the Eiffel Tower, perhaps. Again, here you wouldn’t want the writer to ramble about the ordinary there.

    It’s good to see you posting more these days 🙂

    Vijay,
    Welcome back. Very good points. “There are other kinds of books wherein the place itself is the theme” – Yes. That much is true. “In such a book, the commonplace has no place.” – I disagree. It is the commonplace of any place that brings realism to writing. I am no more opposed to ornate detail and flights of fancy than you are, but in broad terms, yes – one does expect the new. But the new can be familiar, too… I knew nothing of Malgudi – no one did – it is imaginary. But it was familiar.

    “it is the characters that inhabit Malgudi that make it special – it could equally have been set in any place, and it would have still worked.”
    But that was my point! I talked about the cyclist, the mother – these are people who make up the place. I want to read more about these people.
    – Ramaa

  2. do read orhan pamuk’s my name is red. his Istanbul comes alive in simple moments.

    Pamuk has been on my to-do list for so long, it is shameful. I promise I will read him by March end. (There you go, another extended deadline.)
    – Ramaa

  3. I agree (as you know) but I guess I was looking at it from the average reader’s pov. For instance, take the average blog out here. We write the mundane, about our days, our shopping trips, our lunches, squabbles with the SO, movies and even about toilet paper and indigestion. Therein is your book, the setting, the characters and the consistent reader (over time) gets a complete picture of this person’s life and personality.

    But how saleable are these tomes? My own blog is a memoir of 6 years, there are some very interesting posts, some autobiographically wonderful, and then some full of mirth (am being the judge here).They are hidden underneath the rest. I am only interesting and will continue to be if someone is willing to put in some time and wade through those and see something that appeals in a way that strikes a chord. Of familiarity or otherwise.

    It’s the age of catching the flying sparks. The impatient glint in the eye of the reader as he searches for that something that wakes him up.

    But I agree. I’ve read ( and scribbled) ordinary little scenes that have appealed. It’s also in the writing. 🙂

    Nicely written 🙂

    Rads,
    I know where you’re coming from. Then again, people are less likely to reach into the archives of a blog than they are to delve into a book they paid good money for. Besides, that is whole point – Narayan brought the ordinary alive. His pages are much more than an account of what people are doing, they breathe and come alive. Not everyone who details can perhaps breathe life into writing. From that perspective, I agree. But to say “It’s the age of catching the flying sparks.” – I think not. There is and will always be a sensitive market that embraces books like Narayan’s. Provided they are indeed graceful, interesting depite the ordinariness, and poignant.
    Come by more often here.
    – Ramaa

  4. This is such a beautiful, beautiful read. This is exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you.

    You exactly articulated what I felt when I watched Ang Lee’s hauntingly beautiful Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. That relish of everyday life. If you haven’t watched it already – I bet that is precisely the kind of writing you’re looking for 🙂

    Thank you, Shruthi. I haven’t watched Eat, Drink – it sounds perfect. I will.
    – Ramaa

  5. I have read malgudi days. its a wonderful book. i think in books which speak about things that make a place special the names of some dishes,handicrafts etc mystify me and at times they become hard to imagine the bliss which the author experienced. books of the type you mentioned are hard to come by. i feel that the little smiles which they evoke while reading infuse freshness in our mundane life.

    Malgudi Days is something of a national treasure. Some day, books like that may be the only reminders of the kind of uncomplicated lives people once lived (decreasingly so today).
    Thanks for stopping by to comment.
    – Ramaa

  6. A pretty loving nod to RK Narayan. There are quite a lot of books like that – House of blue mangoes, Sea of poppies to start off.. But I have a feeling you are either questioning why there are so many genres or why so few books like MD in that specific genre. Either way, it all depends on the amount of people having the same taste, I think.

    Hello Sirpy. Well, “questioning why there are so many genres or why so few books like MD in that specific genre.” – Yes.
    I haven’t caught up with quite a few books in quite a while now. Pico Iyer’s Abandon is peeking out of a bag at me.
    – Ramaa

  7. Have you noticed this thing about Narayan… Many of his novels are about ordinary characters who come in contact with unordinary characters. Swami and Rajam, the printer who meets the taxidermist in Man-eater of malgudi, the wastrel type guy who meets the nationalist in Waiting for the Mahatma, the Painter of Signs who meets the Daisy (was that her name?), the family planning preacher…

    But yeah, point taken 🙂

    • Very well written post …. my take is – different readers have different expectations and the same readeer at different times would want different worlds to enter into through a book. Graham Greene appeals to me very much for the same reasons you have written about, but there are times the ornate imaginary world in books become enjoyable too…

  8. I liked this post so much, I read it again… I second your opinion wholeheartedly. If only authors can drop so much pretentious nonsense and believe that their readers will accept normal lives lived by normal people across the globe!

  9. Very nicely written. Couldn’t agree with you more!

    You should try reading the book “Everything Beautiful Began After,” by Simon Van Booy. A quick read, can get a tad mundane in the second half, but overall, I think you will really enjoy its simplicity.

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