By Zafar Anjum
It is said that when success comes late in life it tastes bitter. It was said about the Polish film director and screenwriter Krzysztof Kieślowski, known internationally for The Decalogue (1989), The Double Life of Véronique (1991), and The Three Colors Trilogy (1993–1994). It was only in the later stage of his life that he became internationally famous. He could never get over that negligence. Closer to home, Pakistani writer Jamil Ahmad made his debut as the 78-year-old writer of The Wandering Falcon. He started writing the book in 1971 and finished in ’73. The manuscript took 40 years to publish.
If you think this is too heartbreaking, think again. Sometimes, success could be a total bitch and evade you like a plague. I remember the example of Seepersad Naipaul, the father of Nobel laureate V S Naipaul, who always wanted to get published in London to escape poverty. He lived in Trinidad and worked as a journalist on The Trinidad Guardian. It was only through his Oxford-educated famous son that his dream was fulfilled. Decades after his death, Naipaul paid a tribute to his father by publishing his stories in the form of a book, The Adventures of Gurudev.
I did not want to die like Naipaul Sr., with my ambitions of becoming a writer dying in my eyes. It is a cautionary tale that visits me time and again like a nightmare.
When I started out with the ambition of becoming a writer, it seemed like an impossible dream. But I sought to pursue that dream because it seemed to make my spirit sing, and it seemed to make me feel alive
When I wrote my first novel, of Seminal Fluids (2001), I was steeped in a literary naivety that I now find unforgivable. I was in my early twenties then, in my second job, and fresh after marrying someone I had helplessly fallen in love with. I had read lots of novels during my university days and had developed this cockiness that I could write one too.
I had written a novella but I thought I had finished a novel. I sent the manuscript out to some of the literary heavyweights of those days, writers and critics I admired: Khushwant Singh, Meenakashi Mukherjee and Mukul Kesavan. I asked them to look at my manuscript and offer me their unadulterated opinion on its merits and demerits. One word from them and I would have abandoned the whole thing.
I never heard from them.
Restless, I sent the manuscript to Penguin Books in New Delhi, giving them only two weeks to decide if they wanted to publish it. I knew that they would reject it because in those days, only those writers were published who were either non-resident Indians with degrees from fancy universities or had studied in India’s elite schools and colleges (obviously, they were a bunch of talented writers but in my small-minded naivety I could only reduce their publishing success to their exotic address or their precious education).
A group of friends helped me bring out the book. I was now a published author. At one level, I was satisfied. However, at a deeper level, I knew that I needed to learn a lot more about writing. And I needed to read a lot more. That feeling has stayed with me ever since.
Finding the form of the novel too overwhelming, I turned to reading and writing short stories. I received a shot in the arm in 2002, when my story was chosen as the winning entry to the Conference of New South Asian Creative and Academic Writers at Colombo organized by the British Council, Sri Lanka. That’s when I traveled out of India for the first time on my Indian passport. This opportunity gave me a faint hope that perhaps I had some writing talent in me, that I was not totally delusional.
A few years later, I moved to Singapore. Initially, I was totally lost and except for the Singapore Writers Festival which was a biannual event, hardly anything literary seemed to exist in the city.
After I met the poet Chris Mooney-Singh, I came to know about the the Writers’ Centre, a literary group of new and old writers that met every fortnight. I happily joined the group. Members of the group critiqued each other’s work. I don’t know how the feedback process helped others but it definitely helped me in the sense that I was not shadow boxing with myself in an imaginary ring anymore. Meanwhile, another short story of mine, Waiting for the Angels, was shortlisted for the TLM New Writing Prize 2006 by The Little Magazine in India. This too boosted my confidence.
I kept on writing more short stories which made their way to some local anthologies published by Monsoon Books in Singapore. I benefitted from the excellent libraries in the city state which allowed me access to a wealth of literature. Also, the city’s two big bookstores—Borders and Kinokuniya afforded immense relief. I travelled to Hong Kong to attend the Hong Kong literary festival. I started a literary website Kitaab.org and a few years later, became associated with WritersConnect.org as fiction editor.
Before moving to Singapore, I had started work on a novel that I had left unfinished. I picked up the novel again, a much more ambitious undertaking than my first novel. At that time, I needed to move away from my family to work in solitude. I could not afford to stay in a hotel or resort so I requested a bachelor friend of mine to let me stay with him at his pad for a few days during the Christmas break. He agreed and that helped me bring the novel back on the track.
That novel has not been published yet, but it linked me to my agent, Jayapriya Vasudevan of the Jacaranda Literary Agency. At that time, hers was the only literary agency in town. Imagine meeting an Indian agent in Singapore! Jacaranda was fast emerging as a Southeast Asia-wide agency and had many well-known and emerging Singaporean writers on its list of authors. I was happy to be represented by her.
Soon after, I got lucky and received an Arts Creation Grant from the National Arts Council to work on a collection of short stories set in Singapore.
While the novel remained a work in progress, two books happened between 2011 and 2012—The Resurgence of Satyam (Random House) and The Singapore Decalogue (Red Wheelbarrow Books). Both were released at the Singapore Writers Festival last year.
In the last two years, I have also taught myself the art of screenplay-writing. I did a year-long workshop with two very talented scriptwriting teachers from UK under a joint MDA and British Council Singapore programme. As a result of the workshop, I wrote my first feature film script for which I am looking for producers or co-producers. Currently, I am writing a commissioned feature film screenplay for a producer. If it works out, it will be my first Bollywood film.
This year, I have revived Kitaab.org and also established my own publishing imprint. The first book, a work of literary translation, will be released under the Kitaab imprint in this year’s Singapore Writers Festival.
I have a long list of books that I want to write and a long list of films that I want to write and direct. I live and pray to be able to write those books and make those films.
This morning when I sat down to write this piece, I received the sad news that one of my classmates had succumbed to cancer and passed away at 39 in the US. The news was a grim reminder that life could be so fickle and whatever little luck allows us to achieve in our lifetime is a blessing.
Zafar Anjum is a Singapore-based journalist and writer. He edits Kitaab.org and is the author of The Resurgence of Satyam and The Singapore Decalogue.