I was about two when I got polio. The doctors advised my parents that since polio affected the nerves they should not send me to school. I was not to be burdened with things like geometry and exams. ‘She isn’t going to become a lawyer or a professor, is she? She’ll get married, have babies, and lead a comfortable life.’ Consequentially, when I was about eight, I was handed over to Mrs Penherow a middle-aged Anglo-Indian woman, for light private tuition. I remember the solitary tedium of those hours.
When on my tenth birthday Mrs Penherow gave me Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, some favourable aspect in my horoscope must have been triggered. The novel, combined with my loneliness, propelled me into a feast of reading. Books not only took the place of family, friends, role models, and teachers, but they also unveiled the almost mystic quality that shimmers in beautiful language, and the subtle labyrinth of meaning that words lead one to explore.
By the time I was thirteen the world of books and magazines had completely taken over my life, which increasingly only existed between the pages of captivating stories that shifted me into the realm of fantasy and imagination. When I ruminate on the books I’ve read, I feel like congratulating myself on the good luck that brought them my way, and there is little doubt in my mind that my earlier polio-stricken reading fashioned me not only into a writer, but also into the almost functional woman that I am now. Contrary to the good doctor’s prediction, I became a professor. I taught at several Ivy League universities in America; I also taught briefly at Southampton University in England.
I smoked a lot when I wrote my novels. I often wrote in bed, lying on my stomach, or slouching on pillows. I wrote in my children’s exercise books, or on rough pads. My first two novels were written entirely by hand, which I typed – misspellings and all – on my father’s ancient Smith Corona typewriter. Once I got hold of a computer, I realized that what I wrote by hand in an initial draft of, say of about seven pages, expanded to more than 20 pages by the time I had worked on it on my computer. In fact while I was writing Ice-Candy Man I semi-moved to America, and it wasn’t until I received the Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe, which included a Macintosh computer, that I was able to complete the novel.
When starting out on a new novel, I never wrote an outline because a story has its own wayward way of expressing itself. One paragraph gave birth to the next and the next. If I introduced a new character, I would work from the very beginning to imbed the character throughout the story. I knew where I was heading when I started to write and I had the end in view.
I was a child when Partition took place and Ice-Candy Man stayed in me for a long time. It struck me also that I heard hushed conversations not meant for my ears about someone’s daughter-in-law, sister, or mother which bewildered me. I didn’t know what they were whispering about, but as I grew up, I discovered they were talking about hundreds of thousands of women who were kidnapped and raped during Partition. I never met anyone who admitted to having a family member taken away. This was because it would dishonour the family. In fact the brutality the women were subjected to was meant to not only dishonour the family, but also to dishonour the race, the tribe and the religion the women belonged to, whether Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim. I felt very strongly that these bestial kidnappings should be recorded.
When I started writing Ice-Candy Man, I had the image of an incident in mind. Men in carts drove into our house intent on looting, thinking we were Hindus. I have a memory of my mother standing on the veranda with her hands on mine and my brother’s heads. Apparently, and I am not sure if I actually recall this or if it is part of an oft-narrated story, our Muslim cook comes out saying ‘Bastards, they are Parsi and not Hindus’ and the men drive away. I used this incident as a climactic scene in the novel.
In fact whenever I start a novel, I imagine a scene and often it ends up at the centre of the book. What brought The Crow Eaters to my mind was a remark by my mother: ‘You know, your father wasn’t always like this. When we were introduced, he asked me ‘Which is your favourite colour?’ and I said ‘Blue’ and then he wrote me love letters on blue writing paper.’
I never had a set time to write. I wrote when the children were at school and my husband at work. I wrote whenever I could snatch a few moments to write, at other times I wrote the whole night through. I hastily wrote narrated anecdotes or thoughts that suddenly came to me while driving or at a party on scraps of paper or even napkins and receipts. The novels remained in me and I could always return to them where I had left off. I wrote when I found time.