On Friendship and Writing
Maybe writing is its own desert, its own wilderness
I begin with a quote. Such comfort in the solid, clear, ringing conviction of words written by a beloved writer! A conviction which for long eluded me. My words lurked in secret diaries stuffed in back drawers. Like over-ripe fruit, they felt sticky with putrid emotion. Censoring myself till I no longer knew what I thought of anything, was a habit.
I am a woman who followed the permissible dream of getting a secure, well-paying Government job. I accepted the going middle class wisdom that a joyful love for literature could only be a hobby, to be cultivated like a shallow and attractive bonsai, not a vocation. At workplace, I wore a mask of weighty authoritative propriety over my stiffly starched saree and tried very hard to find meaning in heads of accounts; belief in balance sheets.
That I needed to find the strength to own the words that crowded inside my head; never even occurred to me. In my cloak of pleasing niceness, yearnings had meager space. Amidst people, it was a habit to shrug off my words as soon as they dared to hover on my tongue. Why bother? Who needs one more opinion?
This, then is the story of going across that mountain of self-doubt, hand in hand with a friend.
In two decades of adult life, I had not made any real friends. I had shed tons of old friends, as lives and pursuits took them across continents and our interactions turned formal for lack of context. I had stopped expecting depth in friendships at my workplace, despite the fact that I spent most of my active hours there.
My workplace seethes with perfectionism. The crackling competitiveness coating the smiling politesse, the subtle undermining beneath the gratuitous friendliness, the trick of reining a competitor’s enthusiasm with lofty circumspection, the fine art of listening with rapt reverence, the boss’s tales of victorious campaigns in the battlefields of bureaucracy. Never registering dissonance. Never minding, never showing hurt when my work was appropriated or disregarded and rubbished. I focused only on doing – on being the perfect Bureauyogi. Bombarded on all sides with ambition and accomplishment, my sense of inadequacy was as well entrenched as it was hidden. An athlete on ephedrine, I felt a fraud, but ran the race.
At home I tried to be a good mother, a good cook, a good wife. A façade of busy cheer for outsiders and aloofness from family was my armor. In pursuit of these many impossible ambitions, nagging and raging became a part of me. Any real injustice, imagined slight, or buried hurt could set me off. Punishing workouts in the gym helped for a while by erasing all thought. At my age, I could conveniently ascribe my cussedness to peri-menopause, that universal handy label for everything. When the blackness refused to retreat, I sought escape. From office, from my family, from the mad metropolis. I registered for a trek to the Sikkim Himalayas.
I had known her only as a colleague, far too senior to be a friend. A mutual acquaintance heard her talk of trekking and threw my name, as I too trekked. When she called and proposed going together, I was hesitant. Having another woman to walk with me would be awesome, but the prospect of going with a service senior was not a pleasant one. Would I be required to maintain professional hierarchy amidst unpredictable vagaries of a trek? What if she expected that pecking order be maintained while taking the morning dump? I gave a lukewarm assent and maintained a guarded distance, hoping that she would change plans. The trek was six months away.
My need to get away, must have been stronger than my reserve, for we did go on the trek together. We discovered reciprocal obsessions animating us. Over long arduous walks through snow bound passes and uncomfortable huddles in tiny tents; singing silly songs to ward off fatigue, I discovered a friend. A woman whose uproarious sense of humor swept all hierarchies away. Besides love for trekking, we shared a love of reading. Reading, not the show-off books du jour or the pretentious tomes, but books that told stories, books that spoke of stuff so visceral and close to you that you could not discuss it with anyone, except your best friend. And then only to say, look we were not so wrong when we felt the same way.
She too indulged in the guilty, secret pursuit of writing about her feelings, anxieties and confusions. In our early days, we both thought that this was a very frivolous, inconsequential detail to share. We had for so many reasons, for so long allowed the world to push us into concealing our real voices. When we retrieved our voices we could not stop talking. When the thoughts of one received validation from the other, they frothed over like milk set to boil.
Late at night, I lie reading in bed. Vehicles thunder on the flyover beyond. Occasionally the glass windows, vibrate to the frequency of a passing motorbike. This dance of two relatively inert, far removed objects to some unknown force that they themselves were unaware of, is a thing of great excitement for my son. Who knows why or how frequencies match?
That afternoon I had texted my friend that I needed to have an urgent lunchtime chat. It was a busy day for her, bursting with important things to do. The phone rang regardless. Without any small talk I told her I needed to share a Chekovian pearl. ‘I know you are busy, but call whenever you take a break.’
‘I demand that pearl right now,’ she said.
We spoke about Chekov’s story ‘Easter Eve,’ I had discovered a day before. Easter had been her favorite festival as a child.
I was in awe at the way the old genius had described the night. The boat ride on dark waters towards the pealing bells, the fireworks shattering against the darkness. The melee, the press of people and horses amidst shadows wavering in the crimson light from tar barrels outside the church. The tar smoke, the smell of incense and juniper, the atmosphere of childish, irresponsible joy, the lighthearted singing.
She spontaneously recalled the Easter services of her Syrian- Christian childhood in seventies Delhi and sent me a link to a Easter service song in Malayalam that spoke to me with breathtaking beauty, even though I did not understand a single syllable. Post our chat, she had attended tedious office meetings with a smile, reading whatsapp excerpts of ‘Easter Eve’ on her phone, between pauses in jargon riddled official discourse.
Other days, she would text me, something. Babel: ‘the moon hung over the yard like a cheap earring,’ and send me on a wow trip. If we were lovers, Chekov could have been the cupid. Had we been starving our conversations were like life-saving victuals. Who knows how frequencies sing together? As an adult, the metaphysics of it still fills me with a quiet wonder.
Reading was an indulgence, a guilty pleasure, before she came in my life. It graduated to a soul searching, soaring, searing endeavor only when we began mentally holding hands as we read. In the flurry of emails that flew daily between us, we effortlessly slipped from reading to writing. I never felt as close to her as when she first hesitatingly shared her writing with me. It started a chain. She wrote. I wrote back. The feeling of being heard, the act of being witness, coalesced all the vague, unspeakable emotions into some shape.
Together, we pursued writing as a cannibalistic act. Taking in everything and everyone; what people say and do to each other; tearing them apart. Watching, recording, remembering everywhere. In long Board meetings and in closed conference halls, in drawing rooms and dinner tables, from vaults of buried memories and the brightly lit, open shelves of now. We put it all down, without feeling any need to be pretty or good or even grammatical. We fed our souls on the raw meat of our killings. That we could read and hear and talk to each other about what we wrote was all that mattered. Through writing we exhausted old resentments and slights, found new ones, honored our emotions. We dug our journals and put name tags on our confusions and anxieties, only to understand how little sense they made. Over time we could look at all the nasty stuff in the eye and laugh over it.
Conversations with her cut through my natural diffidence, like a ray of sunshine. Free from fear of being laughed at or judged, we shed the moulting of life-sucking posturing that had gripped us. We tapped into the energy of the other and found meaning in our life experiences. In the convivial shade of our shared humanity, our roles as mothers, daughters, wives and work women could be flung aside to explore our individual femaleness, our particular memories of growing up female in a culturally plural, at once religious and secular seventies India.
Two years ago, writing even one un-self-conscious, honest sentence was impossible for me. What came out of me was preachy, pretentious and clever. All my writing focused on complicated plotting and scintillating descriptions. It lacked both self and soul.
If writing is an act of self-acceptance then no technique helped me tap my inner writer, than the quiet, reassuring knowledge that just a phone call away, another beautiful, intelligent, completely sane and poised woman felt just as insane and messy inside as I did. That there was no shame in it. That all the stuff stowed away in the attic cupboards of our consciousness was not junk but precious raw material.
The writer’s instinct is fragile, like a bug. Often to survive, it must grow an exoskeleton. And still it is prone to getting crushed just like that. The world offers no medals for feeling deeply, for getting moved by the written word, for actually daring to put words down on paper. The world is forever ready to misunderstand. I managed to crawl from under the rock because I found another bug there. Only antennae vibrating likewise, gave me the resonance to surge forth. The desire to write had been a furtive camouflaged part of my self for long. Even those who knew me very well, never really knew how much it meant to me. Denial and deflection go extremely well with an undercover act like writing.
In the Real World of office goers who make power-points and write jargon addled project report, markers and signposts and results are everything. Even baking exotic cakes,filing news reports and doing laundry is concrete. The world seeks, thrives on and understands tasks where the results speak for themselves. For writers of journals, scribblers of poems and those who constantly crumple up blackened paper to fill dustbins, the only validation stems from a stubborn self- belief or a kindred spirit affirming all their half formed ideas.
“Oh so you write, where is the book?”
“Oh so you write, nice hobby!”
“Oh so you write, even I write; financial reports, drafts, research paper, blogs”… and so on.
Creative writing then, seems a decadent act of extreme selfishness, something people who do not have serious, regular work to do would do. When you don’t even have a book to show for it, it is something only people who want arty, pretentious hobbies would do. Poseurs, who desperate to be in thick of things (which they clearly not are), would do to look as if.
It was impossible to even own up to the hubris of writing, when I was constantly self-censoring, thinking how others would react and strangulating the very instinct that makes a person write. My biggest problem was the doubt that I cultivated inside me, keeping it rich and green, irrigating it with manure of disbelief of those around me, by being apologetic, by making excuses, telling lies
Without the elixir of honest talk, the gift of a friend, without a hand to hold while traversing the wilderness of the written word, I would honestly not know how to shape anything into honest prose.
Varsha Tiwary has published short stories, memoirs and essays in DNA-Out Of Print short fiction shortlist, 2017; Kitaab; Basil O’Flaherty; Muse India. Her pieces are forthcoming in Gargoyle magazine, Manifest-station and The Wagon. She is currently on sabbatical from her nine to five job and lives in Maryland.