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The ballad of Dexter and Mayanti

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on December 20, 2019 Published on December 19, 2019

Star presence: To be a famous writer is to be the kind who becomes a brand, a pied piper type of figure   -  ISTOCK.COM

Fame and recognition, so sought after by writers, have sinister effects on literary merit

I often wonder what it’s like to be a famous writer, the kind of writer who becomes a brand, a pied piper type of figure. Such a writer is lulled into thinking: When I speak, people listen.

Contrast this with the somewhat unknown writer who, while writing, thinks: I am nobody; I am writing for nobody, for nobody reads me.

Let’s give our authors names. Dexter Tewari is famous, while Mayanti Sultan is the not-so-famous one.

It must be strange to be an ‘established’ author. Especially in India, where people default to a bowing deference towards whoever they think is ‘Aaj Ka Dexter’ (Today’s Dexter). If Dexter and Mayanti are in the same room, say at a literature festival authors’ lobby, Mayanti is the kind of person who has read Dexter but is too polite (and shy) to go up to him and start singing tuneful praises.

Dexter, on the other hand, would also like to meet Mayanti, ‘a genuine reader’, but his fame throws such an intimidating halo around him that only phonies have the brazenness to pierce it. The pushy phoney will stuff a few visiting cards down Dexter’s shirt pocket and tell him what a marvellous author he is.

The phoney, it’s highly likely, has also written a snarky review of one of Dexter’s novels in the past. This could have had its roots in envy. But since the phoney is an unscrupulous individual, he will also sidle up, fetch drinks for Dexter and generally prostrate himself at Dexter’s Doc Martens in public.

Now Dexter would rather not be surrounded by such like but has no option. Mayanti can walk in unnoticed, eat at the buffet, observe other authors and leave. Writers need to be invisible. Dexter doesn’t have that option. Worse, Dexter will never know if a reviewer genuinely likes his book or not. It’s possible that the phoney has given Dexter’s new book a good review to further his own career. Life is not exactly ideal for Dexter, though from a distance, it might look to be so.

Dexter is so famous that he’s become a sort of public figure. Newspapers and magazines call him for quotes all the time. Gore Vidal said, “Never pass up a chance to have sex or appear on television.” What happens then is that, like Gore Vidal, Dexter finds himself spouting maxims and quotes all the time. At this stage of success, Dexter finds himself turning into a Don Quote kind of figure.

Dexter attracts another type of person. This writer wants to be around Dexter. He feels that his own intellect, or quality of writing, is raised by being in Dexter’s company. God forbid, he might also be convinced that he deserves Dexter. He finds that this author, who is convinced that Dexter deserves him and he, Dexter, is turning up unannounced on his doorstep or in his inbox all the blooming time.

Let’s now turn our attention to Mayanti Sultan. Mayanti sells on an average a thousand copies. Newspapers call her for a quote once in two years. Litfests invite her once in five. Mayanti is on the scene yet not on the scene. Every time she has to take the stage or dish out a quote, she feels a little nervous. It’s like starting over again. Happy in her isolation in her small-town, she’s forgotten what it’s like to face people. Of course, once she’s on the stage, it all starts coming back to her, and soon she finds her rhythm. During the odd interview, she thinks every answer through and is not in a tearing hurry. What she says has newness, not the practised formulaic ease of Dexter who, by now, has no clue what he’s talking about. All he knows is that people are listening.

Does every Mayanti, somewhere deep inside, want to be Dexter? Does Dexter ever yearn for his Mayanti days? Once you’ve become Dexter, you tend to forget that you were Mayanti once. People make sure you do. You yourself want to forget the horror of anonymity that stalked you like a shadow when you were a Mayanti. You bury the little humiliations you suffered as an unknown writer. You start losing touch with yourself. You start writing nonsense, which still gets shortlisted for the big prizes (because you are Dexter), and so you continue to write nonsense because there is no one to tell you that what you write is piffle. By now, no one knows what is what and how good or bad; it’s the reputation on auto-pilot that’s propelling the books.

Mayanti, in the meanwhile, hasn’t stopped writing. She continues to evolve at her own pace, in her own beautiful vacuum. Some of her work she puts out on Amazon or on her blog, some, if she is lucky, from a mainstream press. She is spared the public gaze of success. Her literary sense of self belongs to her and her alone. She remains an amateur in the eyes of the world, an ‘outsider artist’. The subterranean writer continues to commune with herself and put down the words as and when. If the universe likes it, it’s a bonus. That’s the definition of literature.

Dexter thinks he’s in the game but he is actually out of it.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  BLink

 

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

Published on December 19, 2019
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