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Musings of a Copywriter

Private Lessons

Devraj Singh Kalsi takes us through a hilarious episode of elopement with a surprising conclusion

It took me quite a long time to conclude whether it was a noble act or a mischief. Those historical legends who rode away on horseback with brides and wives of their choice did not inspire me as much as my tutor with his daring act of elopement. Trains and motorbikes replaced horses and my English tutor, an aspiring novelist with a magnum opus in progress, managed to gallop ahead with élan in the hostile terrain.

He returned and churned a gripping tale – a real tour de farce – of his nocturnal conquest featuring burly cops who swooped down heavily at his door and the nail-biting chase that followed. The rush of adrenalin ejaculated a tall promise to repeat his heroic feat and make him feel proud of me as a worthy disciple who followed in his footsteps. With such an ambitious dream I entered the age of reckless youth, but ended up wrecked after a spate of rejections, with no girl ready to partner me and pillion ride on this challenging expedition.      

The English tutor suddenly disappeared when I was supposed to appear for my board exams. I was not aware he was going on a mission or else I would have rallied behind him with full moral support and offered prayers for his victory. While I was deprived of last-minute suggestions and struggled to revise my lessons, my English tutor was chalking out his strategy for the operation. He was a brave young man with dollops of chutzpah to elope in those days, invite the wrath of his family and community for displaying sapiosexual tendencies. He resurfaced with an invite almost a fortnight later, back with a taut narrative of how he and his childhood lover bribed a young priest to formalise their marital bond in a small temple after dusk and boarded the midnight train for the chills and thrills of a honeymoon in the hills.

After successful consummation, the excited couple took the earliest train to return home and seek the blessings of those who had opposed something sacred like marriage. A reception was organised at a marriage hall. I was his only student who was invited to attend the function where vegetarian food and liquor were served.

He introduced me to his erudite wife who looked pretty tired of meeting strangers with a faux smile. She was teaching English in a private school while he was looking after his family business to disguise his joblessness. The courage to marry without a job made him a role model in my eyes. His audacity to run away from the city with the daughter of a retired cop was a dramatic coup of sorts that would kindle interest for its potential as a frothy Bollywood caper. Visualise night sky and temple, gunshots in the air, and the married couple in sherwani and lehenga racing ahead on a wobbly motorbike and a police van chasing them on a highway. Get the drift. 

My English tutor revealed that he was working on a literary novel — slightly autobiographical as it was inspired by the childhood events. He could wait for another couple of years to get suitably employed and within this period he had to climax his literary worth as his wife had married him because of his literary prowess. A child arrived the next year, and his literary dream was aborted. He began teaching part-time, perhaps feeling insecure of his ability to produce something magical in words, feeling a surge of chauvinistic umbrage as his spouse worked hard to run the home like a householder while he sat brooding at his teakwood desk, looking at the window and the world outside, waiting for inspiration to strike.  

Even though our meetings became scarce after my school days, he remained my first idol. He was an exemplary teacher who taught practical lessons and encouraged me to outperform him — though outperform had several connotations and I was not quite sure of the context and what he implied.   

He legitimised running away to marry and became a hero of sorts even though there were other members in the family who married outside the community. Here was my teacher inspiring me with his love story, to elope if required and achieve success in the mission. I had grave doubts about my ability to convince a girl to do the same but he became a love guru I consulted later in my career. His wife discouraged his interactions with the former students and so we grew apart. His novel did not appear in print — not even as a self-published masterpiece. It is more than twenty years now. His social media profile updates mention Headmaster of a primary school.

When I sent him my writing samples online, he wished me good luck in my writing journey. The despatched links have not been seen even after three months — perhaps he has lost interest in reading and writing. The closed chapter of life he does not wish to revisit. I resisted the urge to ask him about the fate of his literary novel — and let it remain unclear, inconclusive and open-ended like his favourite Night Train At Deoli.    

*sherwani: A long formal coat worn often by grooms in India

*lehenga: A long skirt worn often at weddings by the bride in India

Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  


PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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Musings of a Copywriter

Pray to Win

Devraj Singh Kalsi gives an entertaining account of ‘Tumpji pujas’ across India during the US elections

The strength he mustered to defy the writing on the Mexican wall and challenge the mandate had come from a country he had called dirty just a few days ago. We do not mind his saying so because our own writers and filmmakers have sold this image to the West for several decades.  

Faith can move mountains. Orisons can deliver miracles even in Arizona and the man in office – By Georgia! – knew something incredibly magical was on his way from the East. Kudos to the cabal of jingoist well-wishers who were engaged in performing yajnas* and havans* with pure desi* ghee to propitiate the powers of heaven to spread dollops of glee on his face, to ensure another term for him in Safed Ghar* and keep the world supposedly safe though I ran away from this false belief amid fears of a lurking strike in his second innings. Every nuke and corner of the world under his glaring watch would upset and reset the ticking clock of global peace. 

The feisty flames inflamed the mercurial man who was determined to trump his foes with his planetary virility. He spewed balls of fire to hang on and refused to cow down, setting a new precedent as a president in the history of the nation. Only if the organisers could spell his name correctly instead of Tump, the omnipotent gods would have transferred the votes he required to win, by influencing the counting officials to detect more inaccuracies with the postal votes that went against him.     

The inner voice guided and goaded him to prove winners never quit and quitters never win. He felt re-elected in his mind despite the mismanaged pandemic and wished to make a bonfire of all anti-incumbency votes in the havankund* – only if he could get those picked out by an invisible force in the closely contested polls conducted in the few crucial states that slowed down his juggernaut. Most of the leaders who swept to power around the time he had won were given another term and they would now feel lonely without his bombastic company and pack of white lies. 

Praying to win is a common – and effective – practice among contestants the world over. Cadres of all parties do so for their beloved leaders during election time. Sometimes the native people pour unadulterated love for global leaders perceived as friendly and helpful for the home country – those who can be a pillar of support against hostile neighbours. Tump Ji is one such beneficiary of generous and spontaneous love showered by legions of admirers here. 

Havankund and yajnas are also performed for friendly countries and their leaders. We want these friends to occupy the office for a long period. Though we cannot elect or re-elect them through the voting process, we can surely seek divine deliverance for them. Even if we have few friends around the world, a powerful ally is what we need to keep our neighbours under control. If Tump Ji remains in favour, we do not fear our neighbours. With Tump Ji as the ring master, the Chinese cannot drag on further with their LAC plans. He has been a pillar of support for us in the past few years – the one guy we can ring up any time to share our woes and he jumps to our defence by scolding our mischievous neighbours with veiled threats and dire warnings. 

When the news finally reached Tump Ji that the land of seers has the divine power to flip electoral outcomes and influence voters without any fraud, he was elated and wondered why his Indian buddies did not part with the secret mantras of success earlier. He suspected a conspiracy of sorts hatched in the native village of a democrat. He was now told there were many pundits with manic and talismanic powers who could swing the verdict right in his favour before the voting was over, but it was a tough call to reverse what was already cast. He was told of the potency of keeping red hibiscus and marigold underneath his pillow for nine consecutive nights to avoid getting pilloried. He was advised to chant Jo(e) Boley So Nahin Hovey555 times every daySuch tweets and messages were sent to him and he read and followed them all. 

Tump Ji was also advised to avoid kissing during this critical phase as it would suck out the chances of victory and spell the proverbial kiss of death for him. He was told to eat a vegetarian diet as this sacrifice would prove rewarding. Simple lifestyle modifications: Drink tall glasses of buttermilk instead of wine to show power without intoxication. He was assured of a divine shower of blessings if he stayed away from sausages and beef. As the election results began to pour in and his drubbing became imminent, he overheard his better half talking of a possible split though he could not be very sure whether she talked of a split in votes or their marriage.  

Coming to the aspect of divine intervention, the chanting of mantras gifted him with nerves of steel. He pinned high hopes on the judiciary to act as his saviour – the supreme power would reside in the unanimous verdict of judges. This would allow him the opportunity to ride back to power and occupy the same house instead of indulging in frivolous thinking of constructing another one on the opposite side because he still believed he was wanted by half of his countrymen. It was impossible to accept defeat with grace as he felt he was still very much in the presidential race. 

*yavanas, havan: prayers around the fire

*Desi ghee: Ghee made from cow’s milk

*Safed Ghar: White House

*Havankund: The container in which a fire is built for prayers

*Joe boley so nahin hovey: A take off that means whatever Joe utters shall not be fulfilled. The take off is from the shout of victory and exaltation among Sikhs, Bole so nihal.

Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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Musings of a Copywriter

My Encounters With Tenants

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

I have absorbed more about life from tenants than teachers. The lessons were practical and harsh – involving critical issues that challenged my problem-solving skills.

I did not know what to do when a tenant hired a pack of goons who climbed our boundary wall with hammers to hone their demolition skills. I stood near the verandah and witnessed the post-dinner horrific sight of cracking up the newly-constructed brick wall. When I wanted to know the reason, one burly shadow approached me with his face half-covered with a towel and explained the encroachment had a mission: construction of a club. I identified the man from his hoarse voice – a tenant who sold cattle fodder and ran a transport business. I did not wish to have any truck with him as I feared he could get me bumped off on any main road or highway anytime. Those freak accidents to seek revenge that get reported but never get solved as murders.  

I was angry at his audacity. But I could not hurl expletives to vent my anger – not even in my mother-tongue. His agile team had tools to conduct any lethal operation, chop off my tongue in the medieval style of torture, and feed it to the stray dogs barking at the full moon. While I was still trying to persuade him politely to suspend the act of vandalism, he was unwilling to cave in. What caved in and collapsed like a pack of cards in front of my blood-red eyes was my red brick wall. He threw an open challenge, egging me to approach the police for succour.

I rushed to the nearest police station in my cosy nightwear, with full faith in the rule of law. Furious to hear my complaint, the cop asked me to get into the police van with great respect. We reached the spot in five minutes, with a clear intent of swinging into rapid action and throwing those scoundrels out by firing gunshots in the air. The burly tenant emerged from a deserted lane and blocked our path, and then escorted the officer aside for a briefing session near a paan shop. The cop returned thoroughly brainwashed and comforted me, urging me to settle the dispute through mutual understanding with the local people and politicians. It was a blatant act of trespassing and he dismissed it as a dispute.

I was shocked to hear his advice. As political approval was with the tenant, the cop decided to stay out of the messy situation. It was my first brush with political power – earlier seen only in Bollywood films where leaders control the men in uniform for vendetta.  

The next day was an eye-opener of sorts as the tenant had grabbed the vacant land by erecting a makeshift structure with bamboo, placing a king-size carrom board with a bulb lighting it up with electricity hooked from the nearest pole. His henchmen drank liquor, played loud music, and lungi-danced to celebrate their big win. When I met that tenant again, he took me to the local leader for a meeting. It was my first encounter with the maverick leader who pretended to hear impartially and then urged me to accept the valid demands of the tenant. It was clear that the aggrieved tenant wanted the land in our backyard. It was a trick to scare and browbeat the landowners into submission, to draw their attention without any serious intent of causing physical harm. A second-generation tenant picking up stones to hurl at the landlord and his family in the middle of the night was playing an attention-seeking game, not trying to usher in any revolution. 

A portion of the land was already grabbed so there was no question of negotiation. The land belonged to him – though without ownership papers. He wanted to maintain cordial terms even after this episode to get it duly registered in his name. He arranged a meeting with his cabinet and revealed he had a divine vision in which he was ordered by a popular God to build a temple on this land. He was merely executing the Lord’s will – there was nothing morally wrong with it. Imagine a devotee making this appeal with folded hands and vermilion smeared on his forehead.  

To cut a long story short, he paid half price and grabbed the entire plot. I was expecting a grand temple to be raised on the land we had donated. I was hoping to be invited as the chief guest to inaugurate the temple since my contribution was legendary. My name should be recorded as the land donor in some corner of the holy premises for future generations and history to remember me. Instead of constructing a temple, the tenant built his double-storey house and sold the ground floor to a fellow trader. His magical story-telling conned me – it was fabricated to soften the god-loving and god-fearing guy in me. The tenant is still alive, and I wish to meet him someday and ask how it feels to fool people in the name of God and religion. 

There was another tenant who always said his business was down though I found new stock whenever I went to his shop. He used to sell innerwear and T-shirts. For several years I picked up clothes to adjust with the rent. He was happy not to pay any rent. I was not a landlord who forced him to pay but a benevolent one who arrived as a customer at his store with rent receipts as gift vouchers to redeem. He complimented me, called me handsome whenever he saw me wearing the T-shirt from his shop. He promised to get me more fancy stuff every month. Soon other tenants began their woeful narrative of poor business to make me buy something from their shops as well. One tenant ran a gift store and he expected me to have lots of girlfriends to buy something for their birthdays and Valentine Day. He was a soft toy specialist who wanted to offload teddy bears and puppies, those heart-shaped red balloons, and cute busty dolls. 

Since it was hot inside the market, the tenants got together to raise demands for air-conditioning without accepting any hike in rent. They complained to their business association. The president and the secretary found it an opportunity to interfere and lord over. One afternoon, the tenants took off their sweat-soaked shirts and sat half-naked in front of the collapsible main gate. The local media crew invited to cover their bulging bellies while they raised fists and slogans, seeking an end to this torture. They called the market complex a blast furnace, a gas chamber, and what not. They decided to look for a cheaper solution when a hike in rent was proposed again. They hired a local jobless engineer to supervise the breaking of the concrete roof to install exhaust fans for cooling, without the approval of the property owner.  

I was surprised to find my name splashed in the local tabloid. Some quotes were attributed to me though I did not utter a single word. I was projected as a torturous, inhuman, insensitive landlord whose black hands needed to be broken and burnt.

My effigy going up in flames is a memorable sight that amuses me even today. It is a rare distinction that I should add to my resume. Some of my local friends and girlfriends found me not a nice guy to know after this – a debauched, exploitative landlord from the ignoble past. All the allegations flying around soiled my reputation. Those who knew me well also knew the people who were sponsoring these protests – the affluent business families who wanted to grab the prime property by making it difficult for us, creating adverse situations that compelled us to flee for the safety of our lives. It was a learning exercise to get dubbed as a notorious villain who did not have any traces of humanity left in him. The importance of smear campaign and negative publicity gave a clear idea of how to use it cleverly in advertising to edge past your competitors.

I cannot wrap up without mentioning one tenant who ran a wine shop. I had to go to his liquor shop to collect rent. Many respected people, bhodrolok types including my tutors saw me in front of the crowded wine store. They spread the news that I was a spoilt brat who had started frequenting the liquor shop after my father’s untimely death. I did not stop going to the wine store despite negative publicity as I liked looking at the fancy bottles. Such intoxicating stories brewed in the small town and many well-wishers supported and justified by saying Sardarjis start drinking early. The relationship between perception and reality is a dicey one. It is a different story that I have not started drinking yet! 

Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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Musings of a Copywriter

A Story of Attachments

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Thirty years ago, she boiled an egg in it for her husband who died a week later. There is no link between his untimely demise and the egg boiler, but it was special because the last egg her husband ate was boiled in that egg-boiler. It was respected as an important kitchen appliance and showcased in the cabinet like a trophy. Every year it was taken out for a customary wash, but no egg was boiled in it. She wiped it clean with a soft cloth and plugged it in just once to check whether it blinked red or not. She was happy that the egg boiler was still alive and blinking.  

I was not fond of having boiled eggs, so I never used it. But sometimes I wonder how she would have reacted in case I had tried to boil an egg in it. Maybe, get hysterical and call it sacrilegious. Maybe, dub it inauspicious to use anything belonging to the deceased. This seemed unlikely because I have defied many superstitious practices and still managed to escape her outburst. Isn’t there hypocrisy in the fact that the possessions of the deceased are classified as valuables and disposables? Ever seen a gold ring belonging to the deceased getting dumped in a trashcan by the roadside or tossed into the bowl of a beggar on the streets? Mighty inheritors of family wealth relinquishing their right to inheritance.  

Several items belonging to my late father have fascinated me for various reasons. I have used them with the proud feeling of inheritance, without traces of guilt. I did not fear his ghost would stake an ownership claim or force me to surrender those items – as brigands do at gunpoint. Monkeying around wearing his monkey cap during winter for the past twenty years has been a regular indulgence. I have walked down desolate streets in the dark without feeling the spooky chills. Encountered stray dogs and feline creatures but they did not lose composure in front of my covered face. My jovial spirits did not let them sense any paranormal activity around me.   

The camera was one of his prized possessions that conveyed his immortal passion for images, so I did not let it go. More than a tribute to the artist, the camera helped me learn the ropes of photography. On a bright sunny day, I took it out from the snug corner of his almirah where it was kept wrapped in a bath towel with naphthalene balls for company. A historic day that marked my tryst with photography. I did not find any attention-seeking ghost in the viewfinder when I focused on beautiful women walking down the street. No phantom chiding me for ogling at them with my father’s camera. Deep within, I felt my father would be blessing me with flashes of creativity to click models of international repute someday.  

There were many neckties in my father’s wardrobe. I kept the silk ones with me and gave the rest to the gardener who found an easy way to become a Sahib in his locality. I wanted to wear a necktie during job interviews, hoping to derive confidence from his symbolic presence, to help me sail through smoothly. When I got rejected in interviews despite wearing my father’s necktie, I realised his necktie was not a source of blessings anymore. Perhaps I should attend wild parties wearing his necktie and seek the attention of lissome beauties instead. The casually dressed guys were devilishly cooler to flirt with while those in formals were looked at with cold prejudice – as salesmen selling water-purifiers and chimneys. 

Another irresistible item belonging to my father was the fancy denim jacket he was gifted by his sister from Canada. Since it was in mint condition, I kept it aside while my mother donated all his clothes to the elderly guard with six grown-up sons. When it was discovered in my almirah, she did not recognise it or maybe she pretended not to recognise it. Her strategy to overlook where she did not wish to interfere explained her response.   

She had lost the ground to criticise me for being attached to my father’s worldly possessions. She used his leather suitcase for long-distance travel even after his death. She could claim it was hers because it was also used when both of them travelled together. Probably the shared memories related to the suitcase made her feel safe during long journeys – as both of them carried their clothes in that suitcase. When she opened it for packing her items, I saw her using half the space while the other half was left vacant. She was still following the rule of giving equal space to her partner even though he was not around.      

Dumped in her dark, unlit storeroom was an aluminum trunk full of letters and sepia photographs of the dead. I had seen many of them during my childhood days and had faint memories. She kept those photographs and letters away from my reach. She followed a balanced classification of good and painful memories. Many times, I wanted to see the stuff, but she refused to grant me access. She kept it locked as if the simple act of privacy would keep the past locked as well.  

She believed the son follows the father and so she kept his beer mugs and wine glasses in the cabinet. She was surprised when I turned out to be the first teetotaller in the family. After I confirmed I was not going to try it ever in my life even if I was spurned in matters of love, she was relieved and merrily gifted the entire set to the cook.  

Twenty years of attachment is quite a long period and I can say it is largely over for me. During a recent clean-up drive, I tried discarding the egg-boiler but was strongly opposed by her. I told her I do not eat boiled eggs so there was no point in retaining the egg boiler as a relic from the past. She tried to make me understand by emphasizing that I have to buy a new one in case I changed my mind later. This was certainly an example that established her attachment was still far from over.  

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Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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Humour Musings

Courting Controversies

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

When I read some short stories and found the writer dragged to court for writing bold stuff, I felt that the author created a larger ripple when slapped with a lawsuit. I was fully prepared to face any trial, waiting for a nerd or herd to feel offended and seek umbrage. The glorious phase of my literary career would begin once it gets caught in the legal whirlpool.

While they did not wish to be hauled up or put behind bars for their no-holds-barred writing, there exist a few brats who love to foment trouble at the drop of a hat. If only I could join their folds, the newspaper headlines should scream my name on the front page in bold font and accuse me of writing the most contemptible contemporary fiction. A liberal dose from the libellous story would generate further interest in my writing. Courting controversy would offer me the bliss of joining the august company of iconoclastic — and iconic — authors who served a sentence for writing those profane sentences.  

Despite more than a hundred short stories and articles published in various journals and magazines, not a single reader from any part of the world deemed it fit to charge me with obscenity or something similar. This is shocking and insulting for a writer who claims to command a global readership in the digital age. Forget the new generation of millennial readers, some old fogey somewhere should have pounced on me by now. I did forensic reading of my stories again but failed to gather why the sensibilities were not outraged with the intimate passages contained in them. I began to doubt whether these had been read by the right kind of people. I grew intolerant with the growing level of tolerance among discerning readers.  

I was sure that my content could trigger a wildfire, enrage some religious head or a fanatic to assign a big prize on my head. A new kind of literary prize launched for my prized head that scatters contagious thoughts of ruin. Despite the looming threat to my inconsequential existence, I would remain safe under my sturdy teakwood bed, studying and stirring up fantastic stories with gay abandon. In case the threat mounted, I would shift to my neighbour’s villa for extra security provided by his pets and home guards. Halt the train of evil thoughts and instead focus on lawsuits for the time being.    

I shared samples of short fiction with my conservative friends to create friction, urging them to forward the published links to their relatives and friends, with the fond hope that a case somewhere – even in a remote district court – would be filed against any of those stories. I could then highlight this achievement in the cover letter to the leading publishers who would merrily offer a three-book deal on the basis of the legal tussle, hailing me as the most controversial author in recent times on the book cover in order to launch a marketing blitzkrieg.

Unfortunately, my friends pronounced a favourable verdict. My writing was non-toxic and most unlikely to offend the prickly and hyper types spread across the planet. There was nothing potentially unsafe to mislead the youth, to create rebels or pollute their impressionable minds with dissent. They found my passionate stories layered with a good message in the climax. This relief was a disappointing confirmation that my literary output would never become controversial and sensational.  

I was almost convinced that the rugged path to great writing went through the dense jungles of controversy. I should think of something ahead of the times in terms of plot and narrative in my forthcoming collection of stories. I should ruffle feathers, shake the branches, and strike at the roots to raise a literary storm.   

When I showed the first draft of my new stories to a friend, she said there was nothing mildly, faintly, or remotely controversial. She said she had read bolder stuff and even those pieces were unable to stir any controversy. Becoming a controversial author, she suggested, was far more difficult than becoming a good author. Perhaps the surest way to raking up one was to do something controversial in real life instead of trying it on the pages.  

This feedback received further boost when I was told that I was a timid writer pretending to be a bold one. The person who diagnosed my frailties was my former English teacher and he advised I should give up the romantic notion of becoming a controversial writer as I did not possess that streak. I was advised to write what I enjoyed writing in a freewheeling manner, with large doses of humour.

The sight of a cop at the traffic light scared me. An open window generated fear of thieves and kept me awake the whole night. A person horribly scared of snakes and dogs was most unlikely to show symptoms of bravery on the page. No point visualizing myself being grilled inside a packed courtroom, in front of a battery of lawyers, accused and sued for hurting and offending sensibilities with my writings.  

I re-read some of the authors who hit big-time because their stories took them to court and thence, put them in spotlight. There was nothing derogatory or defamatory in terms of content that made them face the ordeal they did. So, there was a glimmer of hope that a lawsuit does come your way even if there is nothing objectionable or hurtful. Just as the writer is creative in weaving stories, some people turn creative in finding controversial elements. Such critics cross the writer’s path only if they are sure to gain something bigger for stoking it in favour of the wordsmith.

The desire to be hauled up and slapped with a lawsuit turned real and raw when a self-publishing project deal ran into rough weather recently, with the publisher demanding an upfront payment since the pre-orders for my book, despite sending the pre-order links to all my friends, relatives, and colleagues, failed to cross the agreed threshold number of copies. The publisher threatened to sue me for failing to shell out the money and I decided to shoo him away. To save my soft skin and all the vital organs I needed to lead a healthy life, I initiated the cancellation process but the advance paid was forfeited. The harrowing experience of writing an unpublished book and facing legal threats for non-payment jolted me. I realised there is no frisson of excitement in a legal battle as it rattles the mind and affects the writing output every day. The dream of being a controversial author was finally aborted after this nightmarish experience.   

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Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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Musings

Lost in the Mists of Time

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Before I ventured into the choppy waters of publishing and experienced what it means to have a book that sank without a trace, I had a somewhat condescending attitude of ignoring books that failed to acquire readership or impress critics. In the wake of my literary misadventure, I realised I should not feel ashamed of reading or holding an obscure book that nobody in my circle has even heard of.  

Being an unknown author, I have acquired adequate compassion for books languishing in anonymity. Instead of flashing best-sellers, I have overcome the shyness to identify myself with small-time, unknown writers. Now it is comforting to identify with their plight and feel I am also one of their kind.  

This transition happened when I tried something unusual last year. Call it an experiment to shape new thinking, to accommodate divergence, to stir empathy, to reboot my system. I must confess that the entire exercise turned out to be therapeutic in more ways than one.  

Inside a bookstore, I picked up a title lying upside down on the congested shelves, fighting for space to survive in the saturated market. The passport-size colour photograph of the author on the back cover made it look like one of the photographs clicked when he was applying for clerical jobs. As I checked out the year of its publication, it became clear that the title was resting there for more than a year. Some other queries bubbled in my mind. Was this the only copy left unsold? Or was this the only copy in stock? There was no way to know the facts so I had the freedom to imagine what I wished to imagine.   

It must have been a big high for the author when it was formally launched, when it found space on the shelves of the esteemed bookstore. As the failure of finding readers capsized the literary boat, the short-lived euphoria of the gift-wrapped copies stifled his spirits and expectations, pushing him into the morass of darkness, just as quickly as he was brought to public gaze. Left without any choice, he became another suitable candidate for the ever-growing club of authors who exist to launch another struggle to get rid of the stigma of commercial setback after enduring the long struggle of finding a publisher.   

Holding the book without any hesitation was the next step of boldness. An unfamiliar strength coursed through the hands as I began to rummage it. I felt overjoyed with this liberating and cathartic act – unable to recollect having done something noble of this kind before. While other readers around cherry-picked best-sellers and recommended titles, I held this one in my hands and continued reading it with seriousness. I was not conscious of the reality of reading an obscure book. If there was no sense of pride, there was no sense of guilt or shame either.  

After reading a few pages, I understood that readability was not the reason why the author failed or why the book collapsed. Probably the marketing apparatus was responsible for its dismal fate. Such mishaps do happen from time to time – almost forgotten like accidents that do not make any significant difference.

I imagined being a source of pleasure for the author who found no readers or very few readers. If he found me here reading his work, he would be thrilled to spot a live reader right in front of his eyes. I did think of clicking a photograph with the book and mailing it to the publisher who would hopefully forward it to the author. Maybe this small act to cheer him up would stimulate him and make him feel that his book actually created some difference in the life of a reader. Maybe, he will then pick up the pen and bangs out another book. I could be that spark to ignite his passion to write.   

I proceeded to the sales counter and the cashier gave me a strange look while trying to understand my choice. He appeared close to suggesting I should seek the assistance of sales staff. Without looking up, he said this title offered no discount. He billed me and dumped the copy on the desk without offering a carry bag. Before leaving, I asked him whether this author had any other release. He did not check the computer or bother to respond to my query.

I came out flashing the new purchase and planned to give it more visibility. I entered a nearby café and occupied a strategic spot from where it was possible to see the book cover. When nothing worked, I placed it on the table beside my cup of coffee, hoping the young couples seated nearby would cast a fleeting glance, raise a polite query or seek to hold the copy in hand out of curiosity. An hour passed. My best attempt to give exposure to the unknown author failed.

After coming out of the café, I took a bus and sat with the copy on my lap. The same response disappointed me and I returned home with a heavy heart. In the next few days, I read the book in the balcony. Then I displayed it on the tea-table in the living room, hoping that my guests would pick it up to read or at least flip through it. Perhaps the plain cover did not evoke interest. 

A week later, I posted the book cover on my social media handles, highlighting it as my current read. Only a few close friends and relatives pressed the like button without posting any comments. Finally, I donated the book to the public library in my neighbourhood — with the hope it would find some readers here.

Almost a month later, I ventured there and asked the librarian how many people borrowed the title to read. He was unwilling to dampen my spirit and said he had read it and found it nice. His words of fake praise did make me feel better and I thanked him warmly, behaving like the author of the work he had read. Such close identification with an anonymous author transformed my way of thinking, making it more collective in nature. I felt a sense of relief that I had done something good –- even if it was trivial for an unrecognized author completely unknown to me.   

Earlier, I loved to rummage through best-seller or recommendation sections inside bookstores. Now I realise how authors hire marketing and PR agencies to give traction to their books – both offline and online. As a result, I have lost interest in picking up such titles unless a reliable source refers it to me. I am far more comfortable browsing unknown writers from the shelves, looking for an occasional good pick that compels me to read beyond the first page. 

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Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

                                                           

Categories
Musings

Relatives in a Writer’s Life

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

When condemnation comes from a decorated officer with eight medals in his kitty, you are left without any defence. He throws one salvo after another, bombards you with criticism – your self-esteem blown up in smithereens. Being one of the most successful among all your cousins, his fusillade is not dismissed as the rant of a demented relative. Every single word he uses without caution is accorded profound respect.

When such a relative decides to pour scorn on your ordinary life stripped of the essentials such as achievements and recognition, you have the entire cabal of relatives including maternal uncles and aunts echoing similar sentiment, rallying behind him with unequivocal support, attacking you for not choosing a proper career, for not taking life seriously, for not working hard to achieve success.

Yes, he did nothing worthwhile in life. All these years he was writing. But what did he write? Did he produce anything worthwhile? Wasn’t he aware that writing is a hobby? Has anyone ever made it a career choice? Absolutely lazy, crazy idiot! Writing is not for the middle-class people. Does that moron really think life is so easy that writing can sustain it?  

These are some common – and caustic – comments that my relatives have shared to define my existence as a hopeless writer. Some sympathisers and gossipmongers have forwarded these Whatsapp exchanges to me – perhaps to stoke further enmity and enjoy a crossfire.

Earlier, such poor assessment used to affect my peace of mind.Over the years, I have learnt to ignore it all. Most of my relatives – elders and peers – are blatant in rejection of my pursuit. My litany of failures has given them the courage and space to doubt my skills.

One relative took a jibe the other day, saying her college-going daughter has started writing stories. She clarified it is her passion to write, and she is interested to build a career in law. She made it clear that a second-year law student has the maturity to decide that writing is not meant for a living and one needs a full-fledged career for that. I should understand the clear and powerful message conveyed through the example of her daughter. She could not have put it more directly. Bang on!

As I was yet to gather myself and say something, she sprang up with another well-crafted one. Pretending to take interest in my writing, she suggested I should share the manuscript I was working on with her daughter for editorial assessment.

Well, she could be one of the trainee editors in publishing houses who rarely read from the slush pile and promptly write rejection notes to those who think they have produced literary gems. Despite my battered, residual ego that I had preserved to keep my self-respect alive, the relationship we shared and the yawning age gap, perhaps as wide as generation gap, I expressed willingness to share my work in progress with her daughter.   

If you want to pursue writing, make sure you are able to become successful around the time people from other professions become successful and stable. If you are not able to garner success within that time frame, you are a miserable loser, an awful misfit. Relatives find it difficult to introduce you in their circle of friends when you visit them. Some even do not feel like shaking hands with you – those corporate, ring-studded hands always ready for movers and shakers from around the world.

I was foolish to offer my hand to a relative who worked as a successful manager. He refused to accept the proffered hand in front of a fairly large crowd and simply walked away from me. Such humiliation – in the presence of other relatives – did not shake or stir me. I have learnt to digest insults very well.

Since then, I am careful not to offer my unsuccessful hand for a handshake. I live with the fantasy of the hand being kissed on book covers, the fingers that crafted sensitive prose feel like tender skin on the pages.

My long-drawn struggle brought sympathy from a clutch of superannuated relatives. Uncles warned me of the dangers looming ahead as middle-age was approaching fast like a thunderstorm to rampage me. It would be fair to switch to an alternate career before things went haywire. I should perhaps think of setting up a small restaurant, become an insurance or property agent.

None of these professions are bad per se. But by the manner in which the shortlist of career options was prepared and laid out, it was a clear attempt to suggest I was not worth anything more than this and there were limited options available for me at this stage of life. These relatives wished to be considered my well-wishers, but this was a polished way of taking potshots. Their pearls of wisdom scattered and bounced on the rugged floor of my mind, sending short, sharp, tinkling spasms of pain to my almost-deaf ears.   

As a writer, should I engage in a war of words or retreat? When it is most unlikely to change their perspective, it is better not to respond and aggravate the situation. They will surround me on all sides and attempt to weaken my position and resolve. Focus on the work and forget the noise around. Your best output will silence all critics at home and outside. This brings temporary relief like a painkiller administered to treat a chronic ailment.   

Now I prefer to isolate myself and this helps me recover faster. I do not bother to call them or message them. Because there is very little worth exchanging with them after health and weather queries get exhausted. They have the same set of questions and I have the same answers to offer. When will this era of struggle end? When will I wake them up with the disturbing news of my success in writing? From when, the question has now become will I ever?   

Those who have by now grown fairly accustomed to my long list of failures will find themselves in discomfort zone, will have to review my status and think of adding a rich, smooth and creamy layer of respect that appears appetizing. 

They will be faster than chameleon if they find me published. They will say they always knew I had the innate potential to write and I wrote really well. They will say I was just an unlucky writer ignored by lady luck all these years. From sheer rejection to complete acceptance not only from publishers but also from relatives proves success is what matters everywhere, in every profession.  

If you have faced tough times and still not contemplated giving up your struggle, you have the genetic code of a writer. If repeated insults have not made you think of suicide, you have already succeeded as a writer. Remember, your reason to write is not the same as what they think you write for.   

A life without relatives is what you are compelled to seek at times. Would it be a better life if your relatives had not misbehaved or snubbed you? Think from a different perspective. These episodes have vaccinated you in multiple ways and you should be thankful to them for making you develop a strong immunity as a writer who has to face criticism throughout his life’s work. They are your god-gifted critics before critics enter your life. This training is so essential and when it comes from your own people, you understand how the literary world full of strangers behaves and functions.

Ideally speaking, you should not seek encouragement or support from others to write – that should always come from within just like creativity. Rejection from others in your group of relatives is far more enriching as it hurts you, but you still carry on writing. Because you know there is a voice of a writer inside you and you will not kill it – no matter what others say. You will surely bring it into this world. May not be at the end of nine months, maybe in nine years.  

Swallow all the crap that comes from relatives, let them throw more rubbish at you. These are what you need more – to get toughened, to become a writer with a heart of gold. It is true they criticize you for their enjoyment, to feel superior, to get a boost, but it  actually benefits you a lot in the process. Their gains are petty and superficial. Yours are permanent. Convey heartfelt thanks to acerbic relatives in your prayers.    

When you publish a book that is hailed as a success in the world of writing, their loaded guns will automatically fall silent. Wait for that day!

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Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

Categories
Musings

Observer at Home

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

During the lockdown phase, I started taking interest in what did not interest me earlier. As a writer fond of observing people and the world outside, my operating space was restricted now. Everything inside the house began to draw my attention. The small, minor issues and objects assumed greater importance than they actually deserved. My appetite for keen observation was evident every hour of the day.  

I had no memory that the ceramic mug I drank coffee from every morning was chipped. Quite like the small scratches you do not notice when they first appear. I held it close to my eyes to check whether it was fresh. Unable to reach a definite conclusion, I shared my observation with my partner to see how she reacted. My words did not elicit her glance in my direction so I placed the coffee mug on the table without making the slightest noise.  

After a long-drawn silence in which I had forgotten my query, she confirmed the coffee mug was chipped due to an accidental brush against the gushing steel tap in the sink almost month ago. Since it was emblazoned with her favourite motivational quote, she decided not to discard it. Maybe the coffee mug supplied her with the daily dose of positivity when I sat in front of her, holding it in my hand. A visual meditation with open eyes.  

It was amazing to discover the curtains of the windows in my study had two colours. Unwilling to blindly trust my vision, I walked to the window, held the fabric and double-checked it. What I had considered beige had a tinge of pink as well. I resisted for a while the urge to ask my partner to spell out the colours. I framed it a bit differently soon: Is the curtain in my study room baby pink?

Her reply was prompt this time: The curtain has been washed so many times that from fuschia pink it was now turned into pale baby pink. The presence of subtle elements in everything surrounding a writer is always elevating. Subtleties make art richer. And writers always look for possible signs of it. After this observation, I was filled with the joy of imagining a reader who finds a new shade of meaning in my stories years later. Maybe someone who reads my works with great passion is the one who locates fresh sensibilities in my writing.

On the top of my bookshelf, there had been a miniature terracotta elephant and a horse. I do not exactly remember when I last saw them there. But I remember seeing them whenever I looked that side. I found them missing for the first time in three years since they were purchased from the local arts fair and placed right on top. I needed an update regarding their present location. Had they been shifted elsewhere recently? I asked my partner about the elephant first. 

Thank God, you noticed that.  When they came, they were small. Now they have grown up. How can they fit in there?  

I was not getting what she was trying to imply through her sarcasm. Finding a blank expression on my sullen face, she said she had moved them to the terrace last year. For one year I had not noticed this change of location. It showed how unfamiliar I was with the house I was living in.

I know the rooms of my characters very well. Every nook and corner is vivid in my mind. When the world of fiction becomes so real, the real world the writer lives in tends to grow distant. Something of this kind had happened in my case.

While shaving during the afternoon, I noticed the mirror was not square anymore. The mystery of how it had become rectangle deepened. Various implausible plot angles took shape in my fecund mind. Laying them at rest because thrillers are not my genre, I rushed to seek clarity regarding my visual disturbance from my spouse who was ironing clothes.

Holding the hot iron in one hand like a shield, she looked vexed with arched eyebrows. She dismissed my repeated attempts at observing more inside the house and clarified that the square mirror fell off the wall last winter. Maybe the lizards engaged in combat had toppled it to gain more space. 

I realised this tendency would continue in this manner for weeks. Many striking differences would come to my attention and it was useless to irritate others with my queries. Instead of trying to update myself with the changes I was observing quite late now, I should ignore them all and give more rest to my frenzied brain during the lockdown phase.    

Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.  

                                                           

Categories
Musings

Life in Times of Corona

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Her multiple complications turned worse around the time the first case came to light. During her last medical check-up, she was diagnosed with aggravated problems related to heart, liver, and gall bladder functioning. Hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, and cataract left out as routine and manageable disorders. She heard the doctor warn her of fatal consequences if angioplasty was not done immediately. She chose to bypass it with a smirk that offended the doctor and he prescribed three new tests at his specified diagnostic centre to locate more illnesses residing within her. 

Two months later, she heard the doctor had passed away. She was curious to know how his untimely end came. This is when she heard about COVID-19 for the first time. It sounded more like a prescription drug to her rather than a life-threatening infectious disease. When I simplified it with corona and explained what it was and how it was caused and transmitted, she grew interested in the pandemic, sneezed all of a sudden and asked: Can I get it? It was like —Am I eligible for it?

As the elderly folks with co-morbidity are at a higher risk, I urged her to practice social distancing. She did not get it, so I asked her to stay six feet away from people. She took this opportunity to cancel her scheduled blood pressure check-ups and blood sugar tests for a month.

She bombarded me with several questions. I searched online for the best answers to update her. From her facial expression she was not happy to learn that it came from China. Her xenophobic mind began to function. She blamed the Chinese for almost every evil in the world. She wanted to see a pangolin on my phone. After a proper look at the poor fellow looking cute and innocent, she said with regret: What else do you expect from people who eat snakes and dogs? She had no visible anger for bats or pangolins — only for the wet markets in China. 

She began to create conspiracy stories with impossible plots and angles, and this assured me that my creative streak was most certainly derived from her. She was not any different from what others were thinking except the fact that she did not know anything about bio-weapons. 

She took advantage of the fact that I was not born when China attacked India. She dramatized a few episodes. I had no option to verify. Since her emotional investment was evident from her expression, I chose not to interrupt her flow and nodded without conviction. Pakistan and China were the two countries she loved to bash indiscriminately whenever she got an opportunity or a person who harboured similar thoughts. Somehow, she had realised over the years that my intolerance for any nation had not peaked yet.   

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Every day, from morning to night, she pops fifteen pills. But today she decided to skip pills. Just like people skip meals for dieting. I did not know how to react. Should I administer those pills with a word of caution or just let her do what she wanted to do? It appeared she was confident heart attack was unlikely to be the cause of her death. She did what she wanted to do — flirt with death.  

I told her to wear a mask for safety and she opened the window to see whether the lady in the adjacent house was wearing one. When she saw she was not wearing it at home, she refused to wear it. She kept the mask and said she would wear it when I entered her room after coming from the grocery store. To show she was taking some precaution, she agreed to keep the bottle of hand sanitizer with her.  

Although I myself was not sure about many possible ways of its spread, I added them all for extra safety. I mentioned how it behaves on various surfaces, how many days it lives, how easily it kills. This deepened her worry. She wanted to know whether her relatives were safe. She called them up to find out.

Armed with the knowledge derived from me, she began to use words like pandemic and social distancing and repeated preventive tips. She observed behavioural change in her close relatives. Those who used to express the desire to meet her were quiet now. She sought umbrage because nobody had invited her. I told her that relatives will not entertain or invite guests for one year at least. She said most of these were fake invites and so there was no harm in extending them, just to make others feel good. I explained that people were unwilling to take any kind of risk. You never know which crackpot turns up with a burning desire to meet once trains start running on the tracks.

The virus shared many attributes with God. It was also invisible just like God. She kept reading the holy texts as usual. I told her she must realise death is not caused by God’s will. Even a virus can kill people and faith cannot save people from Corona virus. This posed a big challenge to her faith. She began looking for a line of defence: Tell me, who created this virus? It is also God’s creation.

For once, she did not blame China for creating it. Before I could ask her why she felt so, she asked me to repeat the symptoms. I told her the virus can live in the human body for 21 days or more without any symptom. Now she got really worried and scared. She wore the mask and abused the virus in filthy language without showing any mercy – much of it I did not hear and what I heard I cannot put down.  

Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.