“We have been careful, and you had left nothing behind.”
She stared at the line for a long time. Then she closed the book and sighed. She mused, long after, about the futility of Kaushik’s life. What a perfect story Lahiri had penned!
In the afternoon, she wrote a long email to Lahiri. She had found the email address on the author’s Facebook page. She closed Gmail, and waited. After five minutes, she refreshed the Gmail app on her smart-phone. There in deep, bold letters waited the reply from VintageAnchorPublicity.
If you are trying to reach a Vintage/Anchor author, please note that Random House policy prevents us from distributing author contact information, or to forward emails.
She read the email five times, memorizing the choice words. What was the point, she thought, if you could not even send the author a note after you had finished a novel? They asked her to send a regular mail, whose receipt would never go confirmed, apparently because of the high volume of emails the publicity office dealt with. At any rate, she had no trust for snail mail; emails were cheaper and more convenient. She hoped, for a minute, that someone in the office would actually read her email. And if they did read it, they must forward it – she was confident of the urgency and honesty in the tone of her letter. But she knew what automation meant, so she moved the email to the custom Failure folder on her Gmail app.
It had started with reading the story of a local author in a fortnightly magazine. She had loved the story, and sent her comments through a contact form on the author’s website. He replied the same day from his personal email. On Twitter she wrote: Nothing like emailing an author and being replied to. Thank you @AuthorSanjay!
That was the day when she created the Success folder on Gmail and transferred Sanjay’s email to it. After that, she kept repeating the process with every book she read. She combed the internet to find a digital address to contact the author. More often than not, she met with a dead end. In the finite cases that she found an email/contact form, she sent a message instantly. Everyone loves being praised, or so she believed. Hence, she heaped on adjectives and adverbs in her emails, besides the paragraphs where she talked about how the central character affected her or how much she had loved the plot or the setting.
As soon as the author replied, the period of which varied from one day to seven days, she was ready with another email. This time she was direct: I am an aspiring author, and I simply love your style. Could you please give me some tips? Thank you so much for your time!
And so the process, effective in most cases, continued. She queried the authors about their methods of writing, about the books they read in order to write better. She even sent samples of her own writings and asked if the authors could look at them and comment. Some of the authors wrote long emails to her, trying to answer each of her questions. Others were brief and suggested links and books. On the occasions that she did not receive a reply, she put the sent email in the Failure folder. She kept checking those emails from time to time. She wondered if the author had never gotten to read the email. Or if she’d read it but chosen to ignore her. On most occasions, she assumed the second and grumbled, “One day when I am successful, you are going to mail me yourself”. She believed they owed her a reply, because she had taken the time out to read their stories and spent time to find their contact information and wrote to them. In the long stretches of time when there were no replies from any author, she constantly refreshed the Gmail app, her frustration growing with each passing day. She felt humiliated, stripped. She compensated by starting to write more, trying to distract herself by creating imaginary people in imaginary settings.
In college, she took a creative writing class for two days a week, besides studying history and ancient art. She attended seminars where established authors came. She heard them discuss their craft and took notes. She started to write more and more, on paper and on her laptop, and did not even spare the margins of newspapers and the white napkins in coffee shops, jotting down ideas for plots that she’d later build on, not limiting herself merely to the craft of email-writing now. Her teachers said she had potential, but she needed to stop copying other authors. On the margins of her submissions they wrote, “Too much Lahiri!”, “The Coelho effect” and the like.
Frustrated, she stopped reading the authors she loved most. Around that time, their house was repainted, the chipping plasters on the walls and ceilings were redone. Things were shifted from room to room.
One day she discovered an old trunk kept in one corner of their living room, among old copper utensils and a broken chest of drawers. In that trunk she discovered an old photo album. The pictures were from a bygone age. Everything was in black and white. She recognized a few of pictures of her father from when he was younger: he had posed before tall buildings, most possibly in Bombay where she had heard he had gone. He wore bell-bottom trousers and large, square sunglasses. Apart from these, there were pictures of men, women and children she did not recognize. There were pictures of a woman wearing a lot of jewellery. Another picture had a woman holding a baby in her lap, standing by a river, surrounded by older children.
She also found old letters in the trunk that read like they were some sort of legal documents. One mentioned compensation to refugees who came to India from Bangladesh. She knew her grandparents had migrated from the then East Pakistan to India. But she had no idea about the circumstances in which they had left their homeland.
Over the next five months, she questioned her father and her relatives. She visited the house where his father had been raised, where one of her uncles still lived with his family. Slowly, she reconstructed the past as she saw it. She discovered the rice mill where his grandfather had worked, before becoming a salesman to feed his family. She discovered about the amount of gold her grandmother had received on her marriage, being the daughter of a rich landlord. She found letters from the seventies, sent by the relatives who had stayed back in Bangladesh. They spoke of the bloody struggle that she had read in history. She extrapolated the loss her family must have borne the day they became refugees.
All this time, she took notes. She typed page after page in the word processor. By the end of eight months, she had written a book.
Over the next two years she sent her manuscript to publishers who said, “Thank you very much, but we are not in a position to publish this right now.” She created her own blog, filled it with shorter stories from the era in her novel, trying to create a platform. Slowly, her audience built up.
In the third year, she found an agent who agreed to represent her manuscript. He sold the book to a medium-size publishing house. By then, she had rewritten the entire book thrice.
The book released one winter evening, at a leading bookstore in a shopping mall. She sipped cups of coffee as she read portions from her book and signed copies.
She saw her name pop up on Google search as the author of In Black and White – all the major e-tailers stocked her book. People read and reviewed the book. Slowly, emails started trickling into her mail box.
“What a wonderful book, Chandana! I am so touched.”
“You are such a wonderful writer. I can’t believe you are so young!”
“The thoroughness of your research shows in every paragraph of ‘In Black and White’. You are the next big thing in Indian writing. Waiting eagerly for your next book.”
Other authors, with whom she had stopped communicating years ago, the ones in the Success and Failure folders of her Gmail, congratulated her on her success.
She tried to reply to most of them, never discriminating between the authors and the fans, but in between the book tours and readings and writing the next novel as part of the three-book contract, time was never enough.
Then one day, she received the following email:
I received your book as a gift. I can’t tell you how touched I am. My ancestors also migrated from Bangladesh, and I have heard so many stories of their struggles. Your novel totally resonates with me. I am an aspiring author myself. How do you think I should start to reach where you are today?
What books do you suggest I read? What exactly is your writing procedure like? Do you plan and outline your plot, characters and the settings? Or do you write as they come to you?
Please reply me. I am so eager to read more of your work!
Soon after, Sohini followed her on Twitter, her Facebook page, and subscribed to her blog. The same day, Chandana called her agent and said, “Hi, can you arrange for the publishing house to deal with the fan mails from now on?”
© 2015 Arpita Pramanick