Me, My Shelf And I: What’s Age Got To Do With It?
“You’re 40? Oh my god! Such an aunty you will become now.”
“You’re 35 and no kids! What happened?”
“At 37, you decided to do something with your life. Were you bored? Wasn’t raising kids enough?”
Age. We say it’s nothing but a number. Yet it is. More so when you are a woman in India. It is as though everything is predetermined and revolves around a number. Get married by a certain number. Do the right thing and produce children by a certain number. Take care of the family — for this one there isn’t a specific age; it’s meant to be an almost lifelong ‘job’. But, yes, things are changing. Slowly but surely. I am then compelled to compare what happens to a cishet man in this country, though you probably already know the answer. Men get naughty at 40. Men have no constraints when it comes to age. For them, it is, indeed, nothing but a number.
I love reading, a fact that has been established by now. I devour books, and most of the writing I love happens to be by ‘older’ women. These days, more by design and choice than anything else. As I read these books, I never did ask myself how they came to be. What was the process? When were they written? At what age were the authors published? Why did it take them the amount of time it did to get published? Was it deliberate? Did they simply start writing late, or was there more to it?
I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Shanta Gokhale, Sukanya Venkatraghavan and Kiran Manral — women who have, in their own ways, changed the fabric of Indian literature. The first started off at 56, the second at 42, and the third at 40. But, honestly, age had nothing to do with it. The fact of the matter is they just did what they had to and continue to do so. Between the three of them are decades of experience, and the authors are a testament to how much can be achieved after a ‘certain age’, contrary to the popular belief. They have not only broken perceptions and stereotypes but also risen above expectations, age be damned.
How easy or difficult do you think publishing is today? Is age even a consideration?
Shanta Gokhale (SG): I believe if the writing is good, there’s a publisher willing to publish it. Today, there are distinct niches for different kinds of writing. Publishers have more or less clear profiles. You need to send your work to the right one for it to be considered. Some pretty bad writing (according to literary standards) not only finds publishers but readers too. I doubt that the age or gender of the author matters. I’m not sure it ever mattered. Age matters largely when the product has a visual element, which writing does not have.
Kiran Manral (KM): I would be honest and say that I don’t know. I was published when I hit 40, and till then I had never thought of age being a factor in publishing at all. In fact, I would think that life experience was always an important factor that went into the marination of a writer before they were ready. Hindustani classical music has a lovely term for this, taiyyari. Are you prepared to be a writer? Have you done the work needed to be a writer? Have you lived a life that you can mine to be a writer? These are the things that are important according to me, age is incidental. You can have a Gatsby written by an author in his twenties and end up with such a sharp, incisive, empathetic comment on the human condition, and you can have much older writers writing terrible, monocled viewpoints. Publishing today is definitely easier if you don’t want to go the traditional route; many self-publishing options are available. Shelf space has also become quite crowded, so I think that sooner or later we are definitely going to see a shakeout. There’s so much being published, who is going to read all of it?
Sukanya Venkatraghavan (SV): I don’t think there is one right answer to this question. Everyone has their own individual journey with publishing, and some of the challenges are universal and others, unique. I think publishing today is more accessible than ever before to anyone who aspires to be a writer. For instance, I got my publishing deal for Dark Things because I won a contest that was advertised in a daily newspaper. Social media, too, has widened options for people who are not connected directly with the publishing world. I see agents abroad querying on Twitter for interesting works in progress, and some publishers in India put out wish lists too, so newer content gets published. As for age, I feel everyone gets published now, young, middle-aged, or old.
How do you think being published earlier or later in life impacts one’s career trajectory?
SG: If you publish very early and your work is lauded, it does not guarantee that your follow-up works will continue to be received well. Age matters quite a bit with a young writer whose first book is a hit. Because it excites people to know that someone who’s young can write such a good book. For example, The Catcher in the Rye came out when J. D. Salinger was 32, and he followed it up with half a dozen critically acknowledged works. Francoise Sagan wrote Bonjour Tristesse at 18, and Un certain sourire at 20. If you write your first book when you are middle-aged, you might be able to follow up with equally good works. Anita Brookner began to write at 53, won the Booker prize at 56 and continued to write practically till she died at 87. The question is, whatever your age when you start writing, how many good books do you have in you?
KM: A head start is always good…starting early would have been good, I imagine. But then, I also think had I not been a suburban school gate mom, my first book would never have happened. I mined my life for it unapologetically, and with it I found my voice and my power. Though I’ve never bothered about my career trajectory, I don’t recommend that others follow my path. I believe that good things come to you at the right time, if you are ready and have done the preparatory work. I’d done years of journalism, feature writing, blogging and reading. I was ready, so I wrote.
SV: During Dark Things, I was obsessed with the thought that people would reject my book outright, hate it and give it the worst reviews. That didn’t happen. Some readers labelled it the Indian Twilight and I took it in my stride. I wouldn’t mind Twilight’s numbers. Dark Things put me on the path to understanding the concept of equanimity. Magical Women has gotten me further down that path. Negative reviews sting hard, but I now know better. It’s not personal. Well, not usually. Subconsciously, my advice to myself has been the same: “Your job is to write and tell stories. Nothing that happens after is your business”.
Let’s talk about the generation before you. How easy was it then for women’s voices to be heard when it came to storytelling? Has that changed across the board?
SG: Two or three generations before me, there were male authors like Mulk Raj Anand, Manohar Malgonkar and R. K. Laxman, who got published regularly. But there were also the likes of Kamala Markandaya and Kamala Das. Once again, I don’t think age or gender mattered. What mattered was the number of publishers in the field. There were not as many then. Now, because of the tremendous increase in the number of people whose only creative language is English — which means both a greater output of work and a larger readership — more publishers have entered the field. If you take only Hindi among the Indian languages, some very strong women’s voices were being published: Amrita Pritam, Krishna Sobti, etc.
KM: I was in conversation with Sahitya Akademi Award winner and Padma Shri awardee Shashi Deshpande at the Women Writers Fest, Bengaluru, which I co-curate for SheThePeople.TV. We discussed her wonderful book, Listen to Me. When I read it, I realised that the battles her generation fought — for their voices, themes, and for their writing to be considered worthy — were much the same as those that we are still fighting today. Women’s writing has always been a minefield, given that it deals with ‘emotions’ and ‘domesticity’ and ‘relationships’, which are considered not broad enough canvases to mirror the human condition. While I see more women on longlists and getting awards for their writing, I also realise that women writers still face biases that they must keep countering. There’s plenty of research out there about the percentage of men’s books reviewed versus women’s, how women writers encounter the looks bias and the number of women writers who have received awards versus men. But yes, women writers are strong voices across fiction and nonfiction, genre fiction, popular fiction as well as literary fiction, and a force that won’t be denied now.
SV: Women have always been telling stories. Through our lives, bodies and voices, if not through actual publishing. We carry multiple narratives within us, ones that belonged to our ancestors, and these stories have always been expressed in some way. I grew up reading and being influenced by a host of women writers including Enid Blyton, Jane Austen, Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt, Kamala Das, Anita Desai and so many more. I do feel more and more women are writing now. Fantasy, for instance, is shining right now, with the light of women authors.
One piece of advice you’d give yourself at the time your first and last books came out?
SG: The question implies that with one publication you become aware of mistakes which you set right in the next by giving yourself advice in between. That means you write better and better books as you go along. This has not happened in my case. I began writing in full knowledge of my limitations as a writer. Within those, I had the skills to do good work. And I am a workaholic. This combination has allowed me to contribute a large number of works in my chosen areas of interest — theatre, fiction and translation. At the end of each work, I know I have done my best and could not have done better.
KM: When my first book came out, I would say, “Enjoy this first book and all the joy that comes from it”. When the last book came out: “Stop being so jaded, and enjoy writing this book”.
SV: “Don’t worry, darling. You will get better at this.”
Did the cultural and political environment have a role to play when you started writing? Would you be able to tell the same stories now? What has or hasn’t changed?
SG: Yes. When I wrote my first novel Rita Welinkar, I was hopeful both in my personal life and as a citizen of this country. My second novel, Tya Varshi, which I translated as Crowfall, came after the Babri Masjid had been demolished and riots had torn Bombay apart. These events were strongly reflected in the novel, giving it a dark patina. But there was hope in individual friendships and resistance against the new climate of violence that had set in.
KM: It’s been eight years. The cultural and political environment has definitely changed. But, yes, I continue to tell the stories I want to tell. And I tell different stories each time. Sometimes I make people laugh, at other times, I scare them, because my stories keep changing.
SV: If I worried about the climate outside, be it social, cultural or political, while writing, I wouldn’t be able to do my job. My job is to tell stories, and I must do that come what may. Is the current scenario a worrying one for artists? It definitely is. But I should hope that it doesn’t stop me in any way. What I am definitely more aware of now are the ideas of cultural appropriation and a wider instinct about how I may respect and honour and acknowledge other cultures and mythologies.
MORAL OF THE STORY
SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE PAGE.
Me, My Shelf and I is a regular column by Verve’s Culture Editor and resident bibliophile, Vivek Tejuja.