A young novelist's story begins

I am trying to recall that morning, 45 years ago, when I saw my first novel in print. I was 19 that year, and I had recently returned from England, where I had spent three years of drudgery in an office. I had done my writing in the evenings and on weekends, bombarding editors and publishers with my literary efforts. Eventually, I had found a publisher, but on that sultry summer morning in Dehra Dun, it wasn't the book I was looking out for - that came later - it was something else.

I was up a little earlier than usual, well before sunrise, well before my landlady, Bibiji, called up to me to come down for my tea and paratha. It was going to be a special day, and I wanted to tell the world about it, but when you're 19, the world isn't really listening to you.

I bathed at the tap, put on a clean (but unpressed) shirt, trousers that needed cleaning, and shoes that needed polishing. I had never cared much about appearances. But I did have a nice leather belt with studs. I tightened it to the last rung. I was a slim boy, just a little under-nourished.

On the streets, the milkmen on their bicycles were making their rounds, reminding me of William Saroyan, the Armenian-American writer, who sold newspapers as a boy, recording his experiences in "The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills" (1952). Stray dogs and cows were nosing at trash cans. A truck loaded with bananas was slowly making its way toward the wholesale market. In the distance there was the whistle of an approaching train.

One or two small tea shops had just opened, and I stopped at one of them. As it was a special day, I decided to treat myself to an omelet. The shopkeeper placed a record on his new electric record player, and the strains of a popular film tune served to wake up all the neighbors. The song was about a girl's red dupatta being blown away by a gust of wind and then retrieved by a handsome but unemployed youth. I finished my omelet and set off down the road to the bazaar.

It was a little too early for most of the shops to be open, but the news agency would be the first, and that was where I was heading.

And there it was, the National News Agency, with stacks of fresh newspapers piled up at the entrance. But where was the latest Illustrated Weekly of India? Was it late this week? I did not always get up at 6 in the morning to pick up the Weekly, but this week's issue was a special one. It was my issue, my special bow to the readers of India and the whole wide, beautiful, wonderful world. My novel was to be published in England, but first it would be serialized in India.

Mr. Gupta popped his head out of the half-open shop door and smiled at me. "What brings you here so early this morning?"

"Has the Weekly arrived?"

"Come in. It's here. I can't leave it on the pavement.'

I produced a rupee. "Give me two copies."

"Something special in it? Did you win first prize in the crossword competition?"

My hands were not exactly trembling as I opened the magazine, but my heart was in my mouth as I flipped through the pages of that revered journal - the one and only family magazine of the 1950s - the gateway to literary success, edited by a quirky Irishman, Shaun Mandy.

And there it was - the first installment of "The Room on the Roof," that naive, youthful novel on which I had toiled for a couple of years. It had lively, evocative illustrations by Mario, who wasn't much older than I. And a picture of the young author, looking gauche and gaunt and far from intellectual.

I waved the magazine in front of Mr. Gupta. "My book!" I told him. "In this and the next five issues!"

He wasn't too impressed. "Well, I hope circulation won't drop," He said. "And you should have sent them a better photograph."

Expansively, I bought a third copy.

"Circulation is going up!" said Mr. Gupta with a smile.

The bazaar was slowly coming to life. Spring was in the air, and there was a spring in my step as I sauntered down the road. I wanted to tell the world about my triumph, but was the world interested?

I had no mentors in our sleepy little town. There was no one to whom I could go and confide: "Look what I've done. And it was all due to your encouragement - thanks!" Because there hadn't been anyone to encourage or help - not then, and not in the receding past.

The members of the local cricket team, to which I belonged, would certainly be interested, and one or two would exclaim: "Well done! Now you can get us some new pads and a set of balls!" And there were other friends who would demand a party at the chaat restaurant, which was fine, but would any of them read my book? Readers were not exactly thick on the ground, even in those pre-television, precomputer days. But perhaps one or two would read it out of loyalty.

A cow stood in the middle of the road, blocking my way.

"See here, friend cow," I said, displaying the magazine to the ruminating animal. "Here's the first installment of my novel. What do you think of it?"

The cow looked at the magazine with definite interest. Those crisp new pages looked good to eat. She craned forward, as if to accept my offer of breakfast, but I snatched the magazine away.

"I'll lend it to you another day," I said, and moved on.

I got on quite well with cows, especially stray cows. There was one that blocked the steps up to my room, sheltering there at night or when it rained. The cow had become used to me scrambling over her to get to the steps; my comings and goings did not bother her. But she was resentful of people who tried to prod or push her out of the way. To the delight of the other tenants, she had taken a dislike to the Munshi, the property owner's rent collector, and often chased him away.

I really don't recall how the rest of that day passed, except that late in the evening, when the celebrations with friends were over, I found myself alone in my little room, trimming my kerosene lamp. It was too early to sleep, and I'd done enough walking that day.

So I pulled out my writing pad and began a new story. I knew even then that the first wasn't going to be enough. Scheherazade had to keep telling stories in order to put off her execution. I would have to keep writing them in order to keep that Munshi at bay and put off my eviction.

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