Four years ago, Sabbah had written eleven short stories about different generations of a family in Madurai. At the time that she submitted it to publishers, Sabbah had loved most of the stories. When ten of the stories were selected and arranged into a book called How to Eat in Madurai, Mami, she had still loved the stories. When the book finally reached the public, two years later, the delay had taken the gloss off a bit.
During the wait, it had become difficult for her not to snarl at acquaintances in Bangalore who earnestly asked her how much her advance had been and whether in her ‘professional opinion’ The White Tiger deserved the Booker. As a writer who hadn’t been published yet, she told herself, she was not required to have an opinion or to be gracious. She was not required to be anything.
During the wait, it seemed to her that the publishing house was run by strange, contrary women who sent her emails deliberately strewn with grammatical errors. The woman who called her most often had a conversational tic of saying ‘fair enough’ when nothing was being debated, driving Sabbah into a disproportionate rage. Another woman mailed her asking for her bio every three months (or so it seemed). Yet another wrote to her objecting to the titles of her stories (‘Your titles have literary resonance but don’t mean anything’) and to her photo (‘Your photo does not have any literary resonance’).
Then, when she had almost given up, a writer friend recommended that she ‘sign up with one of these new agents’. Sabbah, who’d thought that all literary agents were Jewish and lived in New York, was pleased at the prospect of meeting such an entity. (She had loved Joys of Yiddish and often gifted copies to people who she thought would appreciate the economy of wickedness in Yiddish.) Three email conversations and a trip to Delhi later, she had signed with an agent.
She was secretly disappointed that, far from being colourful and rude, her agent was a pleasant, well-spoken middle-aged woman called Shakuntala. The agent was of indeterminate North Indian origin and habitually wore smart trousers. She was vegetarian, and when Sabbah asked her whether she found it difficult to be so in Delhi, she responded, ‘Food is not a priority for me. I find eating boring.’ Sabbah, who lived in a city where people customarily greeted each other by asking whether they’d eaten, was quelled.
Whether it was the briskness of her agent or cosmic timing, she didn’t know, but a month later, her publisher suddenly woke up. Nothing would do but for the book to be out that month. She even got a miffed email reprimanding her for delaying the process by not organising her photo for the dust jacket.
“Sabbah panicked. If she said she had no ideas, would the offer of the second book vanish? Forever?”
Suddenly, the book (stories, jacket, price, photo, cover design, copyright, her name) was out in shops (well, some). Her friends had made a game of marching into Bangalore bookshops and loudly demanding the book. Unfortunately, Sabbah herself was not so proud of the book anymore. Her historical research was excellent, but her prose, she thought now, was Dolly Partonesque—big-haired and over the top. Sabbah read the stories for the first time in two years. She was more than a little horrified at how arch some of them seemed. It would have been better, she thought now, to be a bad writer than to be arch. She was a whisker away from twee. Every cliché that had ever been claimed about Indian writers seemed to be there. Mango-monsoon-pudding, she spat at herself.
But the publishing house offered her a second book ‘if she had any ideas, preferably historical’.
‘Ideas? Do you have any?’ Shakuntala wanted to know on the phone. There was more than a hint of impatience in her voice.
Sabbah panicked. If she said she had no ideas, would the offer of the second book vanish? Forever?
‘Well, I had this one idea. There is a character from the second story, she is a very minor character, but I think…interesting. Jamuna, the Gujarati bride?’
‘Yes, the Gujarati bride is brought to Madurai in the 1800s. I had hinted that she is from a shipping family. I thought I could develop a novel around her…about how her family were originally slave traders and how they change from that…’
‘Hmmm,’ said Shakuntala. ‘Send me an email. It sounds workable. Don’t be like Vikram Chandra and take eight years, though.’ Shakuntala was not joking. Sabbah resented how little joking there seemed to be in publishing.
Fuelled by panic and the chance to redeem herself, Sabbah dashed off a proposal. A few months later, she was in business again. Which is to say that she had a year, a tiny potli of money and leave from her teaching job to write her first novel. When things got, she found herself in terror. The research itself was fairly tough. And then there was the writing. Had she been insane to agree to do it in a year? When she couldn’t even get short stories straight, what kind of effort would it take to finish a novel? What kind of publisher made it so easy for any moron to get published? The bad kind. Terrible people who didn’t care about books.
Gritting her teeth, she wrote to libraries around the country requesting permission to work in their archives. For her first stint of research, Sabbah went to Mumbai.
There was a certain glamour in being in Mumbai as a writer and not a reader. On a day filled with breeze, sunshine and Gothic architecture, could you be unhappy?
Every day, she took the fast train to town from her friend’s flat in Andheri and found a new place to eat breakfast. Then she strolled to the Asiatic Society library, ridiculously replete with the luxury of being a writer. How wonderful, how illicit to sit somewhere and scratch one’s itches.
“There was a certain glamour in being in Mumbai as a writer and not a reader. On a day filled with breeze, sunshine and Gothic architecture, could you be unhappy?”
In this new upbeat mood, Jamuna, the central character of her book, was unfortunately, already annoying. In the evenings, when Sabbah tried her hand at some writing, she found her heroine passive-aggressive and dull. Part of this was circumstantial. Sabbah did not believe in historically inaccurate emancipation for characters in historical novels. She could not make Jamuna hate her family’s slave-trading business to fit a more modern, more liberal narrative. In the one para Jamuna got in the short story, she fell in love with a Tamilian clerk and ventured across the subcontinent to live in a temple town where no one spoke her language. And that had pretty much used up her supply of courage. So why write about Jamuna? And if she didn’t care about Jamuna’s feelings, who would?
In her second week at the library, she was choked. Somewhere in this building, she had been told, is an actual manuscript of The Divine Comedy. Dante Alighieri had not sat around in the 1300s writing coy shit. Somewhere near here, Arun Kolatkar had written Jejuri and the Kala Ghoda poems. Somewhere near here, Kolatkar had died. Where in her writing was the blood, the grime, the puking on the streets and the deep stuff?
She had agreed too fast to the publisher’s offer and now her name would be mud.
Sabbah slid off to an Irani restaurant to eat berry pulao. She grinned weakly when the owner reprimanded her for eating too slowly. ‘You are slower than a snail, young lady,’ complained the octogenarian bending over her table. ‘Daddy!’ yelled his middle-aged son from behind the large cat on his cash counter. Mommy, thought Sabbah.
She went back to the Asiatic Library and would perhaps have got some work done if she had not accidentally stumbled on a collection of well-preserved posters advertising Victorian freak shows. Always a sucker for lowbrow Victoriana, she fell straight in.
Most of her subsequent weeks in Mumbai were wasted in getting better acquainted with the febrile enterprise of P.T. Barnum, the American showman who prided himself on freak shows for the entire Victorian family. She spent hours staring at the posters, enjoying their typography and their unselfconscious invitation to people to come and stare.
And that is how Sabbah caused Jamuna’s early demise.
Excerpted with permission from The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories by Nisha Susan, published by Westland/Context, August 2020.