Growing up, there were two constants in our home: books and politics. The first is simple because my family is made up of readers, albeit with vastly divergent tastes. The second is more complicated because despite no direct involvement in electoral politics, everyone is passionately concerned with the state of the world and how to improve it. But more importantly, in our home, politics are not removed from literature, and Plato, Chanakya, Fanon, Rushdie and more mingle freely with Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Gandhi and Mandela at the family dinner table. Given this upbringing, it is perhaps inevitable that reading and writing are deeply political activities for me.
Before I learned to read, my grandmother would tell me stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana (India’s two classical epics), from history and her own life. In her telling, and my listening, all these tales became components of an all-encompassing great story where we all could play a part. And I decided early that I could not choose to be a villain when I could be the story’s hero.
My earliest memories of reading are of Soviet children’s books. These often featured children – male and female – who didn’t let their age or size get in way of their convictions. Arkady Gaidar’s Timur and his Band remains a favourite, four decades after I first read it. It was an early lesson that war need not mean end of kindness and compassion, and that even the smallest amongst us has a role to play even in the times of crisis.
At the same time, our house was full of books by a generation of writers closely involved with India’s nationalist struggle and, after independence, with nation-building. Some of these writers were friends of the family so I got a closer look at the people behind the books. When they visited they would initially seem like other, normal people. But then as the discussions grew more animated, something would change. They would grow in conviction and passion. And then mysteriously, even the dullest amongst them would grow into charismatic giants.
I decided then that I wanted to grow up to be a writer. To become like these enigmatic beings whose convictions could so magically transform them.
One evening around our dinner table, I remember hearing something that my ten-year-old self decided was the secret to this magical transformation. “Write knowing that words change the world.” The voice still rings clear in my head, even though I can’t match it to anyone I know. Who said it? Was it even said? Or did the aspiring writer in me imagine it? Regardless of the fact or fiction, that mantra ensured that I’d grow up to be a writer, and a political and politicised one.
It may seem foolish to imagine that stories can change the world but I do believe it. I am convinced that to tell even a single untold story, to nurture even one uncared for tale to fruition, is like that flutter of a butterfly’s wings. Each story subtly alters the world though I may not see it and a reader never recognise it. So I tell stories that often go untold. I dig up ideas that nobody seems to value. I chase illusions, and delusions, and chimeras that few see or even want to see. And I hope that the changes my stories make are positive. Because even today, I want to be the hero not the villain.
This post is brought to you by Sunny Singh.