His Hand Is Steady, And the Words Run On

I MUST have been eight or nine when my father gave me a small diary, and I began my first tentative forays as a writer - or wordsmith, as I have sometimes described my calling.

Many of those early diary entries were lists - books read, gramophone records collected, films seen and enjoyed - but even this indulgence was a discipline of sorts and was to stand me in good stead in later years. It made me neat and meticulous and helped me form the habit of keeping notes and filing away facts: not, perhaps, essential attributes for a writer, but useful ones.

Young writers with talent are often handicapped by untidy working habits. A friend of mine wrote quite brilliantly but always managed to lose his manuscripts; he now breeds Angora rabbits.

During World War II my father was serving in the Royal Air Force and had to put me in a boarding school in the hill-station of Simla, then the summer capital of British India.

I discovered Dickens in the school library, and, captivated by David Copperfield, decided I was going to be a writer like David, who was really Charles Dickens.

At the age of 12, I did, in fact, write a short novel, an account of school life - eulogies of my friends, mostly - but it was confiscated by a teacher, who thought I was wasting my time; he may well have been right!

Those schoolboy efforts were, however, not really wasted. I found I could write in a busy classroom, noisy dormitory, or corner of a playing field; that is, when I really wanted to. As William Saroyan once said, "All you need is paper," and there was no shortage of that - empty paper bags, wrappers, pages torn from exercise books, the backs of calendars and school circulars. The wartime paper shortage did not defeat me.

Writing under such conditions, sometimes with a pillow fight raging around me, was good training too. Later in life I found I was able to write in the crowded compartment of a moving train, or in a room full of children.

I love solitude, and there is no pleasure to equal that of writing a poem under a blossoming cherry tree; but I am a compulsive writer, and when I want to put words to paper, I am not fussy about the conditions.

Even as I write this piece, a wedding procession is passing along the road beneath my window. It is led by a 12-piece band, at least six of the instruments being trumpets. The drummers have stationed themselves beneath the window. My cherry tree is a far cry! But the cacophony won't stop me from completing this essay. Play on, band! Blow, blow thou windy trumpets! Your piercing notes may have loosened the wax in my ears, but my hands remains steady, the words run on....

I had lost my father before I had finished my schooling, and at the late age of 17, I found myself in the English Channel Islands working in a grocery store and writing late at night in an attic room provided by an aunt. Most of my relatives were pessimistic about my literary prospects, and there were no literary influences on the islands.

Late one winter evening I walked along the seafront, a lonely figure on the esplanade, while a gale blew in from the sea, whipping the salt spray against my face. The tide was in, and great waves crashed against the sea wall, sending plumes of water over the ramparts. "This is it!" I thought. "These are signs and portents. I must have more resolve. I must not give up!" I decided I would leave for London the next day. I was David Copperfield, of course.

The grocery store found itself short of an assistant, while a London travel agency was richer by a very inexperienced clerk. I think it suffered a little because of me, but we both survived, and the first novel got written in fits and starts, on weekends and holidays. I was bold enough to look for a publisher, and brash enough to find one!

"All glory comes from daring to begin," said the blurb on the dust cover of my book; but in truth, glory did nothing of the sort. After receiving a few encouraging reviews, the book all but disappeared from sight. But the advance I received enabled me to return to India, more determined than ever to be a full-time writer.

In Dehra Dun, the small town I had known as a boy, I set up "shop" in a small apartment near the bazaar and made a precarious living from submitting my stories and articles to the English language press in India.

THIS was one of the happiest periods of my life. Still in my 20s, I was independent, free to write as I pleased, monarch of all I surveyed - which was the local bus stand, a row of small barber shops, and a large tamarind tree dominating everything else. When I passed through Dehra the other day, I was glad to find the tamarind still there.

After two years of freelancing, circumstances took me to Delhi and Bombay, but I have always preferred the small towns of India to its cities. I feel lost in the big city, and too much the stranger in a village. I'm a small-town person; and when I came to live in the hills and freelanced again, it was on the outskirts of a small town that I took up residence.

This is, for the most part, a quiet place, and it suits a quiet person. If I want to write on a sunny hillside or in the shade of a chestnut tree, there is nothing to prevent me from doing so. But I like my desk near the window, close to the busy little road leading to the bazaar. The daily business of life does not distract me.

The marriage procession with its out-of-tune band has moved on. Now a car has stalled on its way up the hill. A truck on the way down cannot get past. There is a furious honking of horns and an exchange of words that are not in the best interests of global harmony. It is all part of my writing life.

Blow your horn, charioteer! My hand is steady, and the words run on.

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