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!
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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