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The death of the author

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on April 16, 2021

Goodbye: The night before he died, he wrote short notes to family and friends   -  ISTOCK.COM

An ode to writer and great-uncle Ved Mehta, and Ekarat, the friend who wrote and quit on his own terms

* Authors, like politicians, like to think they are ‘amar’, eternal

* What endures is not in the author’s hands at all. How people react after one is gone cannot be remote controlled from an urn full of ashes

* Writers too come in different shapes and sizes. Some are naturally misshapen and unique. Others are genetically modified

* His life flashed in front of his eyes, he felt a sickness in the pit of his stomach, he grinned his last hurrah. And it was over

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There is nothing an author fears more than the simple fact of death. One would think that for someone whose day job requires an hourly forensic examination of mortality, the writer will be prepared for the moment whenever it chooses to come. One might say that a writer is also a human being and like any other human being she has the same fears and intimations. But there is a specific reason why writers would rather not die: It’s the fear of erasure, not so much of one’s own self as that of one’s body of work. There is the famous story, which I just made up, about a dead author who called up the editor of a newspaper from the grave, demanding an explanation as to why her obituary hadn’t appeared even a week after her death. Have you forgotten me already?

I like to think of writers as varieties of fruit and vegetable. Like bananas, they too are perishable. So are their books. But authors, like politicians, think otherwise. They like to think they are ‘amar’, eternal. Like the politician fantasises that her statue will tower over everybody after her death, and her name will live on in gigantic stadiums, the author likes to believe that her magnum opus will influence future generations. As Salman Rushdie writes, “Longevity is the real prize for which writers strive, and it isn’t awarded by any jury. For a book to stand the test of time, to pass successfully down the generations, is uncommon enough to be worth a small celebration. This is why we do what we do: to make works of art that, if we are very lucky, will endure.”

What endures is not in the author’s hands at all. How people react after one is gone cannot be remote controlled from an urn full of ashes. I lost my great-uncle, Ved Mehta, recently. A month after that I lost my grandmother, Ved’s sister, the eldest of the Mehta siblings, who appears in his memoirs as Big Sister Pom. Unfortunately, in their last years, owing to bad health, the two were unable to even talk on the phone. Just before my grandmother began losing her memory, I’d find her with a Ved book open on her lap. Daddyji was her father and Mamaji was her mother. The Delinquent Chacha was a relative. The books were living reminiscence as far as she was concerned. She was trying to hold on to the rapidly disintegrating shards of memory that had come lose and were now floating around in an Alzheimer’s word soup.

Harsh turn: In the days after his death, Ved Mehta was reduced on social media to a caricature in a Stevie Wonder joke   -  KAMAL NARANG

 

Ved’s death was covered widely in the American and Indian press. His work will appear in e-book form from Penguin. But what struck me was the bizarre response on Indian Twitter. His death became some sort of joke about a blind man. “Here’s my Ved Mehta story...” was how every ridiculous anecdote (mostly apocryphal) opened. More than 25 books later, Mehta found himself reduced to a caricature in a Stevie Wonder joke. Maybe this is why authors don’t want to die. One cannot strike back.

A few days after my grandmother passed, I lost a close friend, a writer, whose last book of stories was published by Speaking Tiger, under the pseudonym Ekarat. Ekarat was a consummately unknown author if there ever was one. All he wanted to do was to tell stories. This is his story.

Earlier in the piece, I’d compared writers to fruits and vegetables. The point of comparison was perishability. There is another similarity. Just like gourd, writers too come in different shapes and sizes. Some are naturally misshapen and unique. Others are genetically modified: Every shiny writer looks the same as she sits smugly amongst others of her ilk in the supermarket. Ekarat was the first kind of writer. He didn’t feel the need to play the game. He stayed true to his voice till the very end.

I use the word ‘game’ because writing is very much a game. If one chooses not to play it, it doesn’t mean that one is any less a writer. Ekarat and I would joke about this, sitting on his terrace. An ambitious young writer making her way in the literary world needs to play by certain rules. There is a tried and trusted way of doing this. One makes a hit list of the ‘important’ authors. It’s like an Indian school exam cheat sheet. One marks the names as “Imp”and “Very very Imp”. Then one reads everything by these authors and writes long adulatory pieces on each of them. One doesn’t call them pieces but the more pompous ‘essays’. One emails these essays to the authors in case they have missed it. One does this over and over until the famous authors start to feel obligated and return the favour. Nothing like massaging an author’s vanity, making her feel as if her work is already immortal. One goes to lit fests and book launches and stalks one’s prey, ambushing them at an opportune moment. All this is a very Indian thing. The opposite happens in the West. Younger writers often attack the work of older authors in order to clear a space for themselves. Pankaj Mishra’s attack on Rushdie and David Foster Wallace’s on John Updike are classics of the genre.

Coming back to Ekarat, he wasn’t interested in the frippery and shenanigans. None of his books were accompanied by blurbs from established names. He had so many stories to tell that he didn’t really have the time and inclination for the circus around it. His writing pace was relentless. He didn’t just talk stories, he wrote them at a prolific rate: Short fiction, novels, screenplays. And he made all his friends read them, late at night, a couple of drinks down. He never read out aloud himself.

The ‘outsider’ writer suffers a double tragedy. Readers seldom make books bestsellers in India. Rare is the writer who sells thousands of copies. The outsider writer, an unknown writer, is seldom reviewed in the local rags. The academy can make a reputation, but even the best English departments in the country are too busy holding seminars on ‘outsider writers’, without even knowing who they are. It’s a bunch of insiders, revelling in the reflected glory of being an outsider from the underground. Secretly, the insider shudders at the thought and thanks her stars for not suffering that fate.

Ekarat was a Delhi writer. Delhi is a protagonist in many of his stories, from Amar Colony digs, a flat in Munirka DDA, a Saket coffee shop, an unknown Gurgaon bar, to a Chattarpur farmhouse, a Jorbagh bungalow and the India Habitat Centre.

In The Book of Love, the terminally-ill owner of an FM radio station tries to find a lover from his past; a famous editor falls in love with a junior colleague; two seven-year-olds bicker over a marriage proposal; two 12-year-olds, trying out a kiss for the first time, get their braces entangled; an army cantonment romance falls prey to the Hindu-Muslim divide; an Indian student in Brussels strikes up an unlikely virtual friendship with an Indian girl in America: ‘Then I find out that she’s not just pro-American but right-wing, which I have a very hard time connecting with.’

Ekarat had been working on a manuscript titled ‘Hounds’ for many years and I was looking forward to reading the final draft. A few months before he passed, he began returning to his friends books and items of furniture he had loaned from them. The night before he died he wrote short notes to family and friends.

I’m trying to reconstruct the last night. He slept in a chair because no man who knows he will be hanged tomorrow can have a good night’s sleep. He wrote the notes. He deleted everything he had written to date from his computer. He deactivated and deleted his social media accounts. In the morning he showered and put on a clean shirt. He borrowed a thousand rupees from his ex girlfriend, most likely to return an amount he owed to someone. He left his phone and wallet on the writing desk. He switched off the lights.

He walked to Nehru Place and climbed to the eleventh floor of Devika Tower. This was at 11.06 am. For a good 40 minutes, Ekarat stood on the terrace of the building. It was a pleasant February morning; spring was in the air. Ekarat looked around at the city that he came of age in, studied and worked and changed jobs in, the city he loved and lost in, the city and its oddball characters that he wrote about with great affection. The city that didn’t give him any readers.

At 11:46 am, Ekarat took one last look around and jumped. His life flashed in front of his eyes, he felt a sickness in the pit of his stomach, he grinned his last hurrah. And it was over.

Ekarat was no ordinary writer worried about trifling mortality. His death was an act of triple erasure, rare amongst writers. First, he changed his name. The pen name, Ekarat, was the first step in that direction. He deleted his life’s work. He wasn’t going to be the penurious writer whose work will sell for millions after his death. Ekarat was the painter who burnt his paintings before he quit. Third, the chosen mode of death signalled final erasure. The choice of the 11th floor was deliberate. The man was taking no chances. It was the ultimate act of endurance.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  BusinessLine

 

Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India

Published on April 16, 2021

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