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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

What Can Authors Do?

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

Over years of reading, some authors are likely to emerge as your favourites for various reasons and occupy the venerated position forever. When an author enters your list of favourites, you tend to grow intolerant of criticism of his work or personal life, even on valid grounds. All the foibles are tossed aside as natural or unavoidable. There is no chance of losing respect once an author achieves that glorified status in the eyes of a reader.  

Authors of classics are favourites when you are growing-up. They are the first ones to grab your imagination – much before contemporary authors mesmerise you with their narratives and styles. Since they are no longer around, they are admired for leaving behind a wealth of creative assets.

Reading one book makes you eager to read more from the same author and you end up reading everything the author wrote during his lifetime. This fondness makes you curious to read books by the author and books on the author. You dig up the archives, read what his contemporaries wrote about him, what his lovers and friends disclosed about him. The process of unearthing the mysteries throws up shocking disclosures.

One day you discover writings from established names that project him as a brothel-visitor, sadist, voyeur, or sexual pervert. As these graphic details emerge from multiple reliable sources, you are left to wonder why such great, exalted writers had such a dark, kinky side.

Your adoration suffers a jolt as you fail to deify him further. Even though the creative side keeps you inspired to become a good writer, the shady personal life scares you like hell. You begin to wonder whether writing actually involves dilution of character. Is it going to make the lovely people in your life suffer at your hands?  

Favourite authors are often reread. They hold a special place in your heart and your bookshelf. If you are proud of displaying your acquisitions, books by your favourite authors will be displayed in front. In case you are secretive, you prefer to conceal your favourites – hide them in the back of the bookshelf to escape getting noticed by others. Many people would like to borrow such titles and you are not ready to lend it to any person – not even to your best friend.

You always prefer to buy books by your favourite authors in hardbound cover – the paperback edition is not meant for you. Your favourite authors are part of your treasured collection that you wish to leave behind for future generations.

Your favourite authors share an intimate relationship with you. You take them to your bed and bedside. You go to sleep reading their writing and wake up fresh. Their magical words would have a soothing effect on your senses.

Sometimes you think these authors should not be read casually. So, you prefer to sit straight in your study and relish the prose with all seriousness. This is also a shade of respect you accord to your favourites. You never dog-ear the pages of your favourite tomes and prefer to place roses, feathers, or bookmarks inside. The sepia pages smell fragrant even after years and you inhale the evergreen freshness and revive the pleasurable experience of reading the long cherished book.

You tell the world who your favourite authors are and the reasons why they hold this exalted status with the fond hope that the other people will agree instantly. You want all your acquaintances to know you have found your favourites and the names should make them feel proud of you.

When you want more people to read your favourite author, you behave like an influencer and hope to multiply the flock of admirers. Adulation expressed with logic or emotion – or with a mix of both – tends to surprise your family and friends who never thought it was easy to select favourites from the vast world of writing and it required some kind of scholarship to be able to do so.

As a reader, if you have simply enjoyed the prose without trying to understand what great literary insight they offered, you are likely to find your favourite authors with ease. The readability factor coupled with reader engagement. A stage when you simply restrict yourself to one concrete line of confirmed admiration: I just love his words. This closes further debate and discussion. No power on earth can stop you from loving their books.   

If any of your favourite authors happens to be a living one, anywhere in the world, you consider yourself fortunate to be living in the era of such great writers. You feel a strong urge to connect with them, wish them on their birthday, buy their signed, autographed copies and flaunt the edition.

You take printouts of their photographs and put them up on the bedroom wall just as teenagers treat their rock stars. You pick up the favourite quotes from their books and frame those in your study to inspire and motivate you to greater heights – to credit the source of enrichment of your understanding of the complex world. On many occasions you feel the urge to quote their lines and express your fondness.

Such adulation rarely turns critical because you have grown up loving literature through their works. Their esteemed position remains unchallenged even if the erudite critics have contrary views to offer. After several years if you do not manage to write brilliantly, you remain in awe of their magical powers of expression. 

Sometimes, you pick up a few favourites but they are not quite the famous kind. They have not written much but their output appeals to you. The inhibition to mention their names remains within you but your clandestine admiration also stays alive.

Having a favourite author who is not famous is not an aberration. After all, it is an intimate relationship between the author and the reader. In case your list of favourite authors comprises some lesser known types, you sometimes feel the strong urge to pronounce their name and make the world know these writers deserved to be on the top list but they could not make the cut.

Your repeated thrust on those names does not change public perception but if your voice counts, you can surely evoke interest in some people who visit their works to find merit in your observations. As a sincere reader, you have the freedom to get them back in the reckoning – even if the outcome fails to meet your expectations. Your homage and tributes certainly go a long way in reviving the long-forgotten authors who slipped into obscurity.  

Favourite writers from your familiar world – the world you live in – and from distant lands leave you with a similar set of experiences. Space and time cease to matter and the reading experience alone decides the worth. When you have favourites from both the worlds, it shows you have no borders in the land of imagination and you respond with emotional force depending on the power of the prose.

Advice doled out by your favourite authors is revered and followed if you harbour literary ambition. You know these literary heavyweights share pearls of wisdom and hope the worth of their words gets recognised by people across boundaries and generations. Some people tend to keep one favourite, some have many favourites and some keep adding to their favourite list from different genres and countries. Whatever be the basis of cherry-picking the favourites, the installation is supposed to remain rooted in the fertile soil of your creative mind.  

Sometimes you notice a trend to honour great literary names by picking on famous names and quoting them in your work. Sometimes you begin to like real people with same names as those given to characters of your favourite writer, and sometimes you rename them with those dear names. When a character becomes famous like the author, there is definitely more life in the creation.  

Talking about my choices and the kind of relationship I share with my favourites, I must clarify that the choice was made on the basis of reading comfort alone. I had no idea about how great writers are judged and the parameters to define them. It was purely on the basis of pleasure of reading. Pleasure sounds a petty, sinful word for enlightened minds – a basic urge not worth writing about. As I derived pleasure from reading certain authors, I began to read more of them and that is how the relationship grew over the years.

Apart from the pleasure of reading a good story told in a lively manner, in refreshing prose, no other factor made me return to any author. Indulgent writing to show off literary flair put me off. Simple writing appealed a lot. Some living authors entered my system for these qualities. I do not say these alone should be the reasons to select your favourites, but in my case these became the glue factor. When I read A Suitable Boy (less than half), I realised simple writing is not easy. When I read A Fine Balance (just half), I realised simple writing is not easy. When I read The Guide (more than half), I realised simple writing is not easy.

Being a writer you aspire to become someone’s favourite one day and you keep working in that direction. You want a reader to confess your book transformed his life or made him look at writing in a fresh way. The list of favourites will continue to occupy the same slot in my mind. Even if respect does not come out in glowing terms, I feel inspired to write a book with such amazing simplicity some day. More than the name of the author, the name of the book leaves a lasting impact.  

I do not foresee the expansion of the list of favourites any further even if there is genuine merit in doing so. Right from early years of my growth as a reader, they have fired my imagination. So I prefer to be guided by the benchmark already set high. Being far, far away from that, despite years of reading and writing, generates a sense of remorse within. The intent is not to surpass these great works but to produce something that celebrates the inclusion of the strengths these works carried. There is no sense of competition of any kind – just the desire to give a new life to the qualities these works were raised with.

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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

Happiness: Heart in a Casket

By Rana Preet Gill

I look up to find the evening sky stretch out like a canvas with a multitude of hues, change like a kaleidoscope of colours. It is the like the work of an artist, our Creator. I have often been startled by the beauty of life amidst my own fake despair.

I do not have many concrete problems in life. Not the ones that could be touched with bare hands, seen with naked eyes. Not the ones that could be described with a flourish. Not as if problems could ever be explained.

The world is a living, breathing cauldron. A little whimper gets turned into a moan, a slight regret gets carried into a lament, an awkward glance becomes a fleeting affair and dissatisfaction with life snowballs into melancholy.  Disclosures of unhappiness are difficult to make. Affability comes with ease. Life is often dictated by societal norms. And the mind is in constant harmony as one amongst them.   

The evening sky beacons for an escape. The birds wielding their wings high up in the sky, pumping the air beneath their wings, soar high, up and up away. I wonder what it takes to be happy, to be alive for them. I wonder if they suffer the throes of existential chaos.  I wonder what life would be like, bereft of any problems, of any conflict, of misery. Why cannot it be a perpetual ride of ease and comfort?

I am not particularly unhappy. I am positive, rearing to go. I can talk endlessly about my dreams. My dreams about my life, my future, security, approval, turning the negatives into positive in times of lockdown and much more.

I have a privileged life. I have the money, enough to satiate the needs of my life. Enough to buy me clothes of myriad shades of colors and designs.

Yes, not the very expensive ones. I know my reach. Salaried middle class. But there have been days I have spent thousands of rupees on things I never cared to wear. The money trapped in my greed for something new had lain in the closet for months and sometimes years. It’s only when the cloth have aged enough, humbled by its disregard that I have picked it up and given it an audience.

My tendency has been only to hoard. I have not felt any concrete need or significance of that particular object in my life. My happiness has been short lived. It has dazzled me with its existence but it only turned out to be a mirage.

Happiness can never be found in what you wear. It gives you a momentary delight to be dressed in the choicest of clothes. But for that prolonged calm and poise clothes are a far cry. The closets are full of clothes new as well as old yet somedays there is nothing to wear.

The stark nakedness of the soul shines on those days. This depravity, the greed for more reflects on me. There are people who have nothing to wear yet brave life with a smile embarrassing us with their unseemly flesh on display. And here I am all covered in swathes of sequined clothes yet I am unhappy, grumbling, complaining about an imaginary chaos in my life. I will only be able to see clearly when the dust settles. But I never stopped spinning like a top around my axis. How will I ever see what my mind tells me to see? It’s the haze that whirrs around me unsettling me with the frivolous.

Food!  I wonder if that provides a semblance of happiness. We eat to live or we live to eat! Making a living to buy the essentials or splurging it all on mindless eating leading to flabs of flesh. How much meat do I need around my bones?

The aroma of food being cooked at home fizzles into my nostrils but when I sit down to eat I am not hungry at all. As if the very thought of food has inundated my palate filling it up to the brim.

I am often enamoured by the colorful paraphernalia of junk present on display in shops. The packet of chips, biscuits and other knick-knacks in iridescent colours; red, blue, green, neon, beckon with delusions. Just one wafer thin chip can bring dollops of pleasure with the crunchiness alone. As long as the packet tempts me I think about the buying it and parting with a few rupees from my wallet.

I keep on putting this momentary satisfaction away, of being able to possess them is madness. What food value does this frivolous entity have?  It is not the worth my money. But the temptation of the color and taste finally leads me to the shop.

The packet unopened, uncared will lie in the drawer for many hours before I decide to open it. I look for the promised happiness displayed on the cover of the packet. A smile of a nondescript man, so profuse, deep, enchanting, carrying assurances unbeknown. And yet the savory did nothing to fulfill the promise of that happiness.  

I grab the packet and give it away to the household help. Her children would be grateful for this treat. Food does not give comfort. When you do not have the means to buy it, it becomes the single motivating factor in your life. When you have the luxury of choice, the comfort of having too much on your plate, you lose the narrative. Enough money can buy enough food but not a healthy appetite.

I live in a big home. Big enough to the eyes of the outsiders who would often throw a casual remark just looking at the façade. There are two floors and a couple of rooms. I often do not have the place to keep my stuff which lies on bed and chairs, crying for my attention. There are not enough cupboards? I rue the lack of storage facilities. I take my home for granted.

While the homeless of the world scourge for a roof above their heads, I pompously shun the comfort of my abode to look for more privacy inside my home.  I need a snug home, like a kennel, something to wrap around myself. Something too close for comfort yet close enough to fill my senses.

Those with bigger houses are oblivious to the luxury of space while those with smaller homes keep on pandering about their desires. Life becomes a never-ending desire to escape from the real.

A mad dash to be somewhere else. In some other country, state, city, village, travelling to far off places — all the while contemplating the comforts of home. Comparing, making notes, concluding that life is best lived in the sanctity of home. And once back, the confined existence of home is repressive. Start another search, home if far away.

There is no comfort and joy to be found living in well-furnished big houses. Home is where heart is! And the heart needs to be molded to fit in a casket to be cared for a life time.

Home is valuable yet not valued enough, heartfelt desires often soar high escaping the restraints of one home. I have multiple homes in a surreal world and I often flit from one to another. Only there is no comfort grand enough to chain me to one amongst them. In the real world, home looks miniscule, a tiny room, a tinier closet, a heart in the casket. Some days I gasp for breath and rush out of my house.

I have often searched for the meaning of being happy. A comfortable home, lots of material comforts, oodles of tasty and expensive food, money in the wallet as having a limitless purchasing power is never a guarantee of bliss. It’s a reason for dissatisfaction for some.

Why we have it all when there are people who do not have anything and yet they are living with an aplomb, a carefree life?  Their remorse at living ill-equipped lives does not reflect on their faces somedays depriving me of the perverse pleasure which I derive while making comparisons. An absence creates a want, fulfillment of that particular need. The alleviation of it becomes the sole purpose of life promulgating happiness. But then what do I know about the needs of those who sleep on the roads with an empty stomach, search for shelters during the rain, garble for morsels of food, for them home is a distant dream.

I wonder if happiness is empathy. Only being sympathetic yet not taking any concrete steps to alleviate the suffering. But then I do not think about the destitute of the world all the time. My mind is crammed with my very own self. My own attempts at navigating my life seems gargantuan. My own attempts to find peace, hope, salvation outwit me into thinking as I assume that my problems are larger than life yet they are not.

As I sit in the verdant lawn in front of my home wondering about life and happiness, a world of silver oak trees, palm spruces, rose bushes, peaches and plums in full bloom, ripe with fruit, fecund, living, breathing reach out to me. The honey bees buzz around collecting nectar of flowers. The butterflies flit from one bloom to another.

For a fleeting moment, one with silken wings alights on my shoulder. It has pink and yellow wings, a combination so strange. It looks hideous and, yet, I wonder if it is blessed with the knowledge to castigate itself.

It is happy. And for a moment, just for that brief moment that happiness is transferred to me. Amidst constant movement the unassuming insect gives stillness to my mind.  Shrouded in the constant chaos of nature, my mind feels at peace. The butterfly on my shoulder with its fluttering motion lends me its momentary joy before making its way towards the evanescent dusk.

A brief snitch of happiness before I start the tireless journey full of recriminations. But I am glad there was a moment to escape. I wonder if the constant fluttering of its wings unsettles the winged one as it seems to be on perpetual move. A life in motion yet in peace. I spread my dormant wings to give myself a push. I make them flutter only to imagine myself taking that giant leap towards the sky.

It is constant work to keep myself above the ground but I guess this is what life is all about. Working, moving, flying, spreading your wings, striving to meet the horizon, dreaming, desiring the beautiful, happiness untamed. As I close my eyes to let myself soar I could see million butterflies let lose in the sky. Living, breathing, jostling to color the evening sky.

To give untamed hopes and dreams, wild desires, unleash the madness yet guide it with a serenity to halt that drive with a serene composure — what is it?

Happiness is above all a search, a thought, a way to live amidst constant contemplation.

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Rana Preet Gill is a Veterinary Officer with the government of Punjab, India. Her articles and short stories have been published in The Tribune, Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Statesman, The New Indian Express, Deccan Herald, The Hitavada, Daily Post, Women’s era, Commonwealth writers. org, Himal, Spillwords press, Setu Bilingual, Active Muse and Indian Ruminations. She has compiled some of her published pieces into a book titled Finding Julia. She has also written two novels – Those College Years and The Misadventures of a Vet.

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

Categories
Interview

A Renaissance Poet in the Twenty-First Century?

Dustin Pickering in conversation with Mitali Chakravarty

He talks of love and religion and writes poetry that is often critiqued by some as similar to verses from the past. And his role model is from the Renaissance — Michelangelo. To some, he is a loyal friend in need, a person who whips up essays and articles on demand. He is often published within India, which could well be his second literary home. He is prolific with his writing and publishing. He also does paintings and sings songs with a guitar on you tube. Some might have guessed by now — he is Dustin Pickering.

Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press. This year one of their books, Neon Apolcalypse by Jake Tringali, has been nominated for the Elgin Award 2020 along with names like Ilya Kaminsky, Marge Simon and Brian Dietrich. Pickering is also the founding editor of Harbinger Asylum, which  was nominated for best poetry journal by the National Poetry Awards in 2013. That same year, Pickering participated in Houston’s Public Poetry reading series and was interviewed on 88.7 KUHF. He has been a featured poet for Ethos Literary Journal, a contributor to Huffington Post, and has published essays in Cafe Dissensus, Countercurrents, Borderless, Journal of Liberty and International Affairs, as well as reviews in The Statesman (India), Tuck Magazine, Lost Coast Review, World Literature Today, and Inverse Journal. He placed as a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal‘s 2018 short story contest, and was a Pushcart nominee in 2019.

His books include The Daunting Ephemeral, The Future of Poetry is NOW: bones picking at death’s howl, Salt and Sorrow, A Matter of Degrees, Knows No End, Frenetic/No Contest, The Alderman: spurious conversations with Jim Morrison, O’Riordan: spurious conversations with Dolores, The Madman and Fu, Be Not Afraid of What You May Find, The Red Velvet Robe, The Forever Abode, and a collaboration with Dory Williams called Imitations of Love Poems. He recently attended New York City Poetry Festival, and has been a reader at Austin International Poetry Festival many times. He hosts the interview and oddities for authors site thedailypoetsite.com. He co-edited the anthology Selfhood: Varieties of Experience, and published its companion Epiphanies and Late Realizations of Love. He has written introductions for books by Amit Saha Sankar, Kiriti Sengupta, Bitan Chakraborty, and Jagari Mukhergee. He was given a Jury Prize at Friendswood Library’s Ekphrastic reading in 2019, and was awarded with honourable mention by The Friends of Guido Gozzano in 2019. He lives in Houston, Texas, USA. In this exclusive, Pickering reflects on his journey as a writer.

Why do you write?

Within me, there seems to be a deep passion and yearning for something inexplicable. I also write to combat doubts, leave a record of my thoughts for myself, and to tell the world whatever interior mysteries I uncover within my own mind and studies.

When and why did you start writing?

Very young. One boring day at home in 1st grade, I asked my grandmother what sort of activity I should do. She suggested I write a story about something I wanted but didn’t have. I wrote a children’s book called The Little Red Wagon about a child who loses a wheel on his wagon. He looks everywhere for it and finds it behind a tree where he least expected to find it.

What form came to you before — poetry or prose?

Prose, but poetry is always more natural to me.

Lots of your essays and poetry have to do with God or spirituality. What makes you weave these into your lore?

I was raised Catholic, and as they say, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” I model myself after an early hero of my teen years, Michelangelo. I consider myself a person of Renaissance nature. I also believe we are in a pivotal moment in human history where the guidance of God and Spirit is needed. I think poets are the best people to bring this message to the world, that science and faith are compatible.

You have a whole book dedicated on God, I believe, which did rather well — Salt and Sorrow. Do you believe in God or are you an atheist? Do you believe in any religion? If you are an atheist why do you write on God?

I counted myself an atheist for many years, beginning at age 13. I was probably led there by the punk band Bad Religion and may have inherited it from my mother whose father was also an atheist. Yet some part of me felt connected to the mysteries of Spirit I could not apprehend and did not want to. Something moves the world and the universe, but I believe that is something I am inclined to believe is sentient, not merely pure accidental motion. I believe this because my life has always felt purposeful to me. I also borrow from Christian humanists such as Erasmus, the Renaissance artists, Shakespeare, many others who share a love for humanity and a sense of purpose for our existence. Although Macbeth did say:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.”

The use of the word “signifying” is mysterious to me. It seems to designate a sense of randomness or entropy — perhaps humankind is the idiot? Yet life is a tale told, passionately!

You have published Salt and Sorrow in India. Was there a reason for that?

I connected with publisher Kiriti Sengupta a few years ago after publishing the acclaimed Indian poet Usha Akella’s masterful work The Rosary of Latitudes. He saw a lot of my Facebook posts at the time concerning spirituality and asked me to write a collection that brought out “the God of the Bible.” For some reason, perhaps my sensibilities, I have developed a strong presence in India. I have never visited, but I hope to someday!

You often refer to fossil in your poetry, especially in your upcoming collection, The Skin of Reality, you have a poem that says, “I stare but see an empty fossil:/ what is final is never the end.” To what purport do you see the fossil? Is it a relic from the past? Why do you use the image of fossil?

The simple answer is I am fascinated by rocks, fossils, embodiments of history. What came before. It is still present in the very earth we walk on. I believe the human genome is a record of where we have been, and it also records where we are individually and contains a lot of animal history. Jung’s archetypes and collective consciousness seem to indicate this as well. As a child age 5, I used to sit on the playground where there were a lot of rocks. I picked them up, observed them. I kept some but the teacher told me I could not take them home. I told her they were fossils. She examined them herself and agreed, surprised. She allowed me to take one home. I still have it. That line seeks to illumine the truth I see that death is not final—who we are leaves an impression on the world irrevocably.

Where will you be bringing out this collection? In India or US?

I don’t have a publication plan right now. It is still in its infancy.

Where do you find/seek your inspiration?

Most of my ideas come from a lot of readings and thought. I don’t even entirely understand a lot of what I read, but it shapes my creative impulse in an extraordinary way. I am very forgetful too, so I have to continuously reinvent myself and how I choose to express my ideas. A lot of my imagery comes from life, including my long battle with mental health struggles.

Which writers fascinate you the most? Have any of them influenced your writing?

I cite as my primary influences in thought and writing the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and The Holy Bible, particularly The Old Testament. I also am intrigued by mystical writings from the Kabbalah, St. John of the Cross, sacred Hindu texts such as The Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, St. Francis of Assisi, and the endless list of mystics. I also found metaphysical poetry interesting in my college years. I accidentally stumbled upon John Donne and found him interesting. Milton influenced me in my teen years as well. My senior yearbook quote was, “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a hell of heaven, a heaven of hell.”

I love the surrealist poetry of David Gascoyne. I read all of William Blake, W H Auden, and a long list of others, but those seemed to have left the strongest impression. I’m also interested in psychoanalysis and have read a lot of Anthony Storr, Freud, Jung, Kay Redfield Jamison, and several others.

I appreciate philosophy too, and enjoy works by Plato and Aristotle, Heidegger, Sartre, Emerson, Burton, and many others. Among fiction writers, I enjoy Henry James, Tennessee Williams, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Hermann Melville, Dostoevsky, and many others. I especially love Dostoevsky’s psychological acumen in The Double. I tend to prefer short fiction but have read all of Joyce. Nietzsche has invaluable insights into the art of writing, but you have to mine them.

You bring out a popular quarterly, Harbinger Asylum. Did you start that? When and why?

I founded the journal in 2010 with my longtime friend Alex Maass who sometimes writes the “Not Quite a Political Column” and suggests themes. I started it after a poetry gathering at University of Houston-Clear Lake. I was invited by my new friend at the time Dru Watkins, who was an early contributor, and after coming home I thought about how I could better serve the literary community. The journal started with an anarchist bent and I published a lot of libertarian writing. I also included writing by friends. Over the years, we’ve had submissions from highly regarded poets such as Simon Perchik, Joseph Bottone, and others whose names I ran across before getting their submissions. Later on, we acquired two new editors Z. M. Wise and Stuti Shree. Z. M. is my good friend and business partner, and Stuti is a university student in India.

You run a blog that belongs to Transcendent Zero Press. It is a strange name. Any reason for calling it as such?

Transcendent Zero Press is the company through which I publish Harbinger Asylum, as well as other books. It’s the name of my publishing company. Years ago, it was my punk band that never happened. I liked the concept. So, I re-made it into the publishing company.

It began with a word I read in the dictionary combined with the popular song “Zero” by Smashing Pumpkins. I thought it had a distinct conceptual flavor. Ultimately, I also designed the logo to be conceptual. On one side of the zero, there is a dark crescent. The other side has a bright crescent. This symbolizes Ultimate Nothingness, the idea that all is in harmony. Essentially my own mystical concept. Then a “T” crosses it, symbolizing the axis of the universe. I also conceived of God as having the qualities the Tao ascribes to great leaders. A person who does nothing yet let’s all happen. Lao Tzu wrote, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, we did it ourselves.” Zero signifies such an approach to life.

What are your future plans as a writer, editor and publisher?

We recently expanded into publishing literary criticism. So far, the books have dealt with Indian works in English. I would like to publish more literary criticism but about literature in other countries. We will soon have an anthology of Albanian poetry released. I’m interested in Southeast European literature as well. I may publish a broad collection of Edgar Lee Masters’ lesser known work. I have a friend, Dr. Ryan Guth, who plans to work that out for us.

Any message for aspiring writers?

My English teacher in high school Mrs. Teltschik used to say, “Write because you have to.” Something in you must answer a call. Write to contribute but write for yourself. It is hard to break in at all. Don’t shoot high if you are young unless you have exceptional talent, connections, or both. Work your way through. Don’t be afraid to learn. Be thankful and mindful of all your successes, and consider failure and rejection an instructor, not an obstacle. Don’t fear revision. Stay focused. Write a lot. Read a lot. Find what makes you spin rapturously and write about it. Keep a journal, especially if you are young. Don’t throw away your writing. Mine old material or edit when you are dry on inspiration. Most of all, learn to enjoy! Live as well as write. Travel!

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Categories
Musings

Write in the way you love to write…

By Devraj Singh Kalsi

I had never felt the need to move out of the city. Let me correct myself here. I had never felt the urge to move out of the city. All my friends were determined to leave the city after completing their studies. They had convinced themselves that there were no opportunities here. A better future, a dream career was only possible elsewhere. I did not buy this sentiment. I was not swept by the tide of majoritarian thinking. I was a loner marooned on the tiny island of my hardcore beliefs that withstood the winds of change.  

I had always felt that a writer does not necessarily need to move out except for commercial compulsions. If he moves out, it does take him away from his roots and the intimate world he belongs to. He writes wistfully of the lost world and tries to draw a connection.

If I wish to write well, I have to read well. This can happen in the small town as well. Why should I leave the city I had grown up in? This was the kind of idealism that restrained me. I was convinced to hear this reassuring voice urging me to lock myself down where I was and just read and write. I listened to it and stayed back. For almost two decades.  

While they moved at a frenzied pace made more furious by their ambition within, I was the one who remained out of this race, to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, finding bliss in buying vegetables from farmers, plucking guavas and mangoes, having long walks to breathe in the fresh air, and listening to birds and their different voices. Something must be terribly lacking in such a person who opts for things nobody cares about. Must be a nervous chap afraid of failing who refuses to participate.

Relatives and family members came down heavily, suspecting the lack of the seeds of ambition. Inspirational stories of success abroad were narrated. When these did not push me hard to go out and compete, they realised the futility of it and dismissed my cowardice and lethargy as a tell-tale sign of impending doom. A person who lives to commit professional blunder. Such abuse came my way. I brushed it all aside. Nothing went deep inside to stir me, to jolt me, to make me feel insulted, to feel challenged, to come out and fight the usual survival wars of middle-class existence.   

Most of the friends became journalists and editors and rose to the eminence of the kind they had visualised. I was still reading and writing and undergoing the angst of creative puberty, waiting for the first novel to burst out of me. When they heard of my long, endless struggle, they advised me to become flexible and practical, move to a cosmopolitan city and build contacts.

I knew from my college days I had chosen a path less travelled. Okay, I was late in meeting them at the thoroughfare of success. But does it mean I have to change my chosen path now? Their words did not persuade me. I still believed in what I had chosen long ago. I was ready to face the consequences. My experiences of failure kept me grounded. I never thought I was desperate to meet success, never pleading for the gates of success to let me in.    

The hectic pace of life never made me change my languid pace. I followed my speed, never rushing into anything. I had the time to stand and absorb the beauty of flowers blooming all around, I had the time to sit by the riverside and watch its languid flow. I had the time to sit under the shady tree and distance myself from the world around me. I had the time to observe hordes of people in the market.

While I did work in advertising as a copywriter for my bread and butter, I stayed away from the stressful world and chose to work from home. It gave me a flexible routine, offered extra time to think and write for myself. I felt I was going to lose this fine balance if I went elsewhere. The ideal state of composure would be lost forever.

A compromise would scuttle my romance with nature. I was convinced even if I had to write for any other medium, I would still do it from my hometown. If the creative output was impressive, the terms and conditions would be made flexible. I was not going to relocate for career gains.  

The world is full of stories of people leaving homes for jobs. In the creative world, such stories of migration and struggle are also common. I was perhaps the uncommon kind who was convinced of the lack of the need to go anywhere else. Perhaps, it was true that the urge to make pots of money was not there. Or maybe I always believed big money was going to come if I wrote big stuff. Location was immaterial. Nobody really cares to know where the writer wrote the story so long as his work was good. When I read about respected authors who were grocers, postal clerks, and ration-shop owners, the entire perspective changed.

If I make it, I will be proved right. Perhaps I am wrong to think so. Sometimes, I wonder why I have this stubborn streak.

Is it because I love the city? Or I am afraid of finding myself fighting the same predictable battles as others do? Is it that I hate to come out of my comfort zone? Hurl any such reasoning. I am unruffled.   

This makes me think hard again. Is it the love of people and places? Why don’t I try once to leave and see how it pans out? As I tell myself to change, something tells me not to get distracted. Stay on the path I have been following. Do not think like others, say no to herd mentality. But when others question my present life, they do not think I chose it. They think I could not secure a better one. It is a defeat when I have nothing to tell them, to show them, to silence them.

The world I live in is relatively small, but it is nurturing my system well. While the city-based people have also suffered a lot, their success hides everything else. My failures strip me of the barest cover to defend myself.  

Take the counterpoint now. If life is so good here, why is your creativity not blooming and booming in the small town? Those city-based ones are writing best-sellers and you make tall claims of being a good writer. When it does not show in terms of success, isn’t it a wasted life?  

More important to find out is whether the writer in me feels exhausted or wasted. I have a word with the writer within every morning. He says he is still connected and happy to be here, not regretting the choice I made long ago.  

Agreed, creativity did not blossom here for me, but what is the guarantee it would have flourished elsewhere? They argue the chaos of survival, the urge to prove would have brought out my creativity. This slow life did not let it happen. They mean creativity comes out under stress. Well, it is an opinion and a possibility. But for me, I never like to write a single sentence under pressure.  

At this stage in life, with nothing worth to showcase as a fancy badge of success, I have no regret for not moving out, of being content with whatever creativity I could muster to tell a few stories. Did I wait too long for creativity to bloom instead of trying to force it? So long as I can create something decent even if it is not conventionally successful, I am happy for myself. Nothing else matters – not even the harshest criticism of my choices.   

The creativity I see around is non-competitive and complete in itself. Only humans want their creativity to become competitive, get acknowledged and recognised. I am happy to blossom the way my world wants me to bloom. Even if I do not, absolutely no regrets. Many creative folks have already gone down this path. I am not the first one to disappear without leaving behind a substantial body of work.

But the belief that brilliant stuff does not always have to come out of a metro-centric environment remains firm. All creative folks are not bound to create great art during their lifetime. Much of their existence is dedicated to the admiration of creative beauty in various forms. Forget the charm and trappings of success. Write in the way you love to write. This harmony is more important for the seeker within.      

                                                  

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