Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Squirrel trap: on writing and letting go

[From a new column I’m doing for GQ magazine, built around reflections from the writing – and reviewing – life]

“How did you know it was time to stop?”

The question came from Jonathan Shainin, editor of The Caravan; it was directed at writer-journalist Naresh Fernandes. The immediate context was a panel discussion about Fernandes’s book Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age, which took nearly 10 years from inception to publication – leading many of his acquaintances to wonder if it would ever see the light of day
but Shainin’s question is relevant to nearly anyone who has ever worked on a research-driven book. It hints at the difficulty a writer can face in knowing when to say “I’m done. This thing is ready to go out into the world.”

Taj Mahal Foxtrot began life as an essay and gradually expanded as Fernandes’s interest in the material and its possibilities grew. At one point he thought he would do a picture book about jazz musicians in 1930s and 40s Bombay, but what was intended as a short Introduction turned into a 10,000-word dissertation - and meanwhile other stories and anecdotes were building up. “I’m a squirrel, constantly collecting and hoarding things,” he joked during the discussion.

But imagine a squirrel so attached to its rations – so enthralled by the shape and smoothness of the nuts – that it can’t bear to eat them, even when the winter chill sets in. Many writers know this feeling. It’s possible to get so emotionally involved with a subject – with the pleasure of researching it, writing about it in bits and pieces, researching further, reassessing what you've learnt, agonising over the implications of new information – that the journey becomes much more important than the destination.

Of course, the nature of the material does make a difference: narrative borders are more clearly defined in topical, reportage-oriented books such as Meenal Baghel’s Death in Mumbai (about the 2008 Neeraj Grover murder case) or S Hussain Zaidi’s Black Friday (about the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts). A writer’s personal circumstances matter too. Samanth Subramanian, author of the outstanding Following Fish – a journalistic account of fishing communities and fish-eating along coastal India – had to fund his own travels on weekends while holding down a day job. This meant that beyond a point he didn’t have the
luxury of being the dreamy-eyed writer; he needed a brisk, no-nonsense approach. As Subramanian tells me on email, an author also has to trust his gut. “As an experienced reader of the sort of material you write, you can pick up on when a subject is under-researched or over-researched. So you apply that same instinct to the book you're working on.”

But writerly instinct can collide with the gnawing sense that more discoveries lie just around the corner. I have some firsthand experience of this, having written a book on the 1983 film Jaane bhi do Yaaro. The book was a mix of reportage and analysis: I watched the movie multiple times and made notes, placing it in the context of the Hindi cinema of its time and drawing on my own childhood memories; I interviewed writer-director Kundan Shah and other members of the unit. After submitting the final draft, I sat back and felt the many colliding emotions an author feels at this stage of a project: relief, insecurity, exhilaration, dread.

Naturally, it was a thrill when I held the first copy in my hands. But even today I feel a tinge of regret when I stumble on something that gives me a fresh insight into the film and the people behind it. Not information about the shooting (I already had enough, and it’s pointless to expect to ever be “done” with that sort of trivia) but things that might have added to the analytical value of the writing. For example, it was only after completing the book that I properly watched the 1969 film Satyakam, a great favourite of Jaane bhi do Yaaro’s dialogue writer Ranjit Kapoor. Superficially the two movies have little in common – one is a sombre realist drama, the other an absurdist black comedy – but in different ways they are concerned with the death of idealism in an injustice-steeped world. The subtle but strong link between them is a reminder of how one work of art might inform and illuminate another, and a whole new chapter might have come out of it – but the book was long done.

At worst, this sort of thing can be very dispiriting. It can make you question the value of the project you have worked so hard on. At the same time, one has to be pragmatic.
(Assuming, of course, that you intend to get the book finished at all. There's a whole other column to be written about artists - call them impractical or incredibly committed and self-content - who are happy nurturing a project indefinitely, unconcerned with whether it ever reaches an audience or a readership.) Getting really obsessive, I might have convinced myself that I not only needed to meet everyone associated with the film but also meet everyone who ever had close ties with them, to get a range of perspectives on each life. Or that I had to read every book and watch every film that influenced their personalities. Beyond a point, this can get downright silly and provide a permanent excuse for procrastination.

There’s something else that complicated my book-writing experience. For years now, I’ve maintained a blog – it’s mostly a storehouse of my columns and reviews, but every now and again it becomes a forum for random scribbling, a place to accumulate trivia and whimsy. A permanent work-in-progress where pieces can continually be updated and conversations had with readers, it affords a writer much more flexibility than a book that is submitted, proofed and then made available on the stands in a “finished” form. Consequently, blogging can make one highly possessive about one’s writing.

But depending on how you use it, such a website can also be a forum for sharing new discoveries and keeping your officially published work "alive". It’s fascinating to see how much extra material – like DVD supplements – Fernandes has made available on his Taj Mahal Foxtrot site. As he continues to receive inputs from unexpected sources about jazz in Old Bombay, this online space has grown into a dynamic extension of his book – a treasure trove for readers who want more information about the world chronicled in Taj Mahal Foxtrot (as well as a potential starting point for another book). Think of it as a squirrel’s warehouse, and a reminder that in the Internet age it’s possible to publish and hoard at the same time.


  1. Has it come out in the latest issue? Is it a one off writing piece or a regular column?

  2. This is from the March issue, yes. Regular column.

  3. So true. I guess the journey does become more important than the destination sometimes. :)

  4. i haven't read your book yet and you probably get it all the time, but do you ever talk about the weird Weekend at Bernie's connection with JBDY? As I understand it, WaB was released after JBDY..

  5. I am currently reading your book on Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and being somewhat of a film researcher I am thoroughly enjoying the book. Actually my husband who has nothing to do with film, bought it at the airport and read it overnight. It is not a stodgy academic book and yet captures the moment in film when a certain dreaminess was possible and desirable.

    Reading it, is bringing back all the wide-eyed idealism that we had in the 1980's growing up in Bombay.

    The squirrel's warehouse is an interesting analogy for an artist/ researcher's personal archive.

  6. Jai
    I have been a long time reader of this space. This is the first time i am commenting here.
    I have started a blog, thanks to you. You gave a name to my blog. Sorry, i have lifted it up from here, but i hope you would not mind.
    Here it is not Veeru, only a mere Squirrel.

  7. And sometimes, the writer of fiction faces the same problem too- when to stop editing (and re and re-re-editing) and let the draft go. Because the characters and the plot could brew in one's head for much longer. I suppose there is never a perfect/final draft, just a time when a writer stops and allows the reader in on his/ her secret world.
    PS- returning to your blog after a long time; always love what you have to say