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.