Sayantani Dasgupta: The year 1986 was especially significant in India: Chief Justice Bhagwati introduced public interest litigation, Sridevi and Amrish Puri showed us how to use drawing rooms for epic showdowns in Nagina, and I wrote my first story.
I was six-years-old, and living with my parents in New Delhi. We had moved here a year ago from Calcutta thanks to my father’s new job. When I look at pictures from that time, Ma and Baba appear young and smiling, their clothes and backdrop unmistakably 1980s India. At that age, your parents are like superheroes. They are tall. They know everything. They go from one mysterious activity, like paying taxes and sitting in cubicles, to another as if they have a secret manual full of tips and instructions. Today, though, when I look at the same pictures, I wonder how much in control they actually felt, in their new home in an unfamiliar city that was still recovering from the riots of 1984, and whose language, climate and geography they had to learn from scratch.
In the same photographs, I am usually tucked in between Ma and Baba, my hair tied up a ponytail or two. I remember that me clearly. I was homesick for Calcutta and for the grandparents, aunts and uncles left behind. I had begun to feel self-conscious about photographs and how I looked in them. And I was shy in big groups. I had just started learning Hindi, and the tsunami of its gendered words compared to none in Bangla made me feel me feel slow and stupid.
But when I read, whether in Bangla or English or even in Hindi, I felt the exact opposite. My parents bought me books and magazines like Champak and Chandamama regularly so I went on quests with kings and queens, adventured with talking animals, and fought alongside the Good to defeat Evil. It amazed me that these had come out of peoples’ heads. That someone, somewhere had simply made them up. I wanted that feeling for myself.
Despite the obstacles it had put in my way, I wrote my first story in Hindi. I wrote it in red ink, so I could be taken just as seriously as my teachers. The 4 x 7 notebook had a shiny, maroon, fake-leather cover. I read out that story, a suspicious blend of three fairy tales, to my parents. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when they applauded, it felt great. Later that year, Ma, Baba, and I went to Calcutta for a holiday. This time, I read my story to my grandparents. This time, the applause was even greater.
Despite the obstacles it had put in my way, I wrote my first story in Hindi. I wrote it in red ink, so I could be taken just as seriously as my teachers.
I was hooked. I remember thinking, I better keep writing because all these people clearly need my stories. I could do this all my life. Invent. I would never have to rely on anyone else for a story. I could just create them in my head, whenever and wherever I wanted.
I think that’s a huge reason why I write. To invent. Create. But I also write so I can understand myself, what I am thinking and why. I write to preserve the stories of my family. I write because as a professor of creating writing, this is literally my job.
Above all else, I write because it makes me happy. On days when there is no time to breathe, when I have back to back meetings, piles of grading, a myriad other deadlines and household chores, if I set a timer and write for 20 minutes, I emerge on the other side with a more positive, happier state of mind. Which automatically ensures an easier state of mind for anyone who lives or works with me.
I have now lived 15 years outside of India, and although the first story I ever wrote in my life had been in Hindi, I began writing exclusively in English soon after. A few months ago, I realised I was forgetting how to write in Hindi. There is no reason to let a language slip through my fingers. Thanks to pandemic life, and the internet, I have begun reading in Hindi. Only poems for now. I hope longer works will follow. And one day, fingers crossed, the writing will come too.
Sayantani Dasgupta is the author Women Who Misbehave. The views expressed are the author’s own.
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