What is the real cost of being a poet and a writer?

What is the real cost of being a poet and a writer?
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Let’s look at the fact to begin with. To begin with because though I don’t want this piece to be a complaint, a case of special pleading on behalf of the writer, it may yet end up being one. It’s difficult not to think of the writer as a much misunderstood, much marginalised person.

It isn’t just that every single writer I personally know thinks of himself or herself in that way. Every writer who reads (and not all of them do) has that point of view flying at him from different parts of the globe like the head of an arrow. From literary journals, from distinguished academic papers, from the mouths of newborn critics, the arrows fly thick and fast. Each arrow bears a simple message: “We don’t understand you. You barely exist. We have better things to do than read your boring, morbid stuff.”

“Boring, morbid stuff” is from an article by LK Sharma which appeared in the Times of India on September 10, 1996. It deals with poetry, not all forms of writing, and refers to an Arts Council of England survey which arrived at the usual depressing (and to me, unconvincing) conclusions: that the general public saw poetry as being “out of touch, gloomy, irrelevant, effeminate, high-brow and elitist”.

Also, “Ninety-nine per cent of modern poetry is meaningless to anybody.”

The mouthpiece of the general public hath spoken, though not, obviously, from the orifice called the mouth. How does he, she or better still IT know, when IT goes nowhere near contemporary poetry?

The same article says that 2,000 titles of poetry are published in Britain every year and that going by the frequency with which unpublished manuscripts of poetry are recovered from lofts from time to time, the British have been secretly practising poetry for a long time. It’s their newly discovered secret vice.

Never mind that neither the Arts Council survey, nor anyone quoted in the report mentions the quality of the poetry discovered. We get the point and, in India, are beginning to get it more often. For the general public, our contemporary poets and their poetry are either unintelligible, gone missing or hard to locate.

I wouldn’t have thought a poet of the stature of Keki N Daruwalla is hard to locate but apparently he is.

Indian Express Delhi sends a message to Indian Express Mumbai, saying, “Find the guy. Interview him.” A caller from Indian Express Mumbai rings me and sweetly asks, “Do you have the guy’s address?” (or words to that effect.) “No,” I say. “All I know is that he lives in Delhi.”

Sweet voice is incredulous. “Are you sure, sir, sure?” she asks repeatedly. “Yes, I’m sure.” “Then how can I interview him, sir? Don’t you think they should find someone in Delhi to interview him?” “That’s a matter between you and your office,” I say. “But isn’t it surprising,” she asks, “that Indian Express Delhi doesn’t know that Daruwalla lives in Delhi?”

Isn’t it surprising? The conversation is a fact. It happened two days before I write this. Daruwalla has published seven books of poems. A book of his short stories has recently been released. He writes fairly regularly for the papers. He’s a visible writer. But not to the general public. Not, it would seem, to one of our leading newspapers.

The Press, which includes leading and misleading newspapers, may not think much of our contemporary writers. But it’s deeply interested in their money.

Ever since The Satanic Verses, we’ve been told to the point of vomit (ad nauseam in other words) about the big deals some authors have made – Vikram Seth, Vikram Chandra, Rushdie again for The Ground Beneath Her Feet, the novel he’s working on now and, more recently, Arundhati Roy, filmmaker and scriptwriter.

According to The Asian Age of September 3, she has sold the British and European rights of her first novel, The God of Small Things, “for 500,000 sterling pounds”. Eyebrows have been raised so high that in some cases they have left the face and hit the ceiling. The Asian Agehas Roy say this about the eyebrows:

“Hype won’t help. People are going around with dollar signs in their eyes but I don’t think how much I got is a measure of how good the book is.”

That’s right. It took Roy four years to write her novel. We know the price she got for it, thanks to the Press. But what did it cost her to write it?

“There’s a charge for the viewing of my heart,” Sylvia Plath wrote in one of her poems.

We pay the price for one of her books, we think that’s the charge, pocket the change and walk away. But what did it cost her to write her poems? What charge did they extort from her? Would it be much too romantic to say that her poems cost her her life?

There are people who believe that writers, especially poets, are a special kind of people who deserve special treatment; that they’re sensitive to the world in ways other people are not; that they feel more and think more than other people. I don’t believe this. I believe that if a poet knocks back a few drinks in a hooch joint, he does it for the same reasons as the carpenter sitting next to him. That is, for reasons best known to themselves, one of them being to shut the world out. The difference between them rests entirely on the materials they use for their work.

“I wish I could write like you,” people say to the novelists and poets they admire, not realizing that the novelists and poets have had to give up a lot to write as they do. The security of a nine-to-five job, for instance. For those who so casually want to be writers, I’d say: You can’t be a writer after working hours. Your working hours are your life as a writer. You can never say, like the nine-to five man, that I try not to take my work home. Your work is your home.

Ask any novelist who has stayed the course. Even on a day when he’s written his quota of 1,000 or 500 or even 100 words, he can’t stop writing. He’s already doing some of the next day’s writing in his head. Or the next day’s first sentence in his head.

Ask any poet, a line interfered with and lost forever, a line which doesn’t lead to the next line is a powerful, sometimes overpowering source of despair.

Sometimes the lines have to be brought back from where they’ve drifted to, from outer space if necessary, and without the aid of a space suit and oxygen backpack. It’s to Hell and, if lucky, back.

In an interview published in 1982, William Burroughs said that he didn’t believe writing could be taught but that there were certain prerequisites. “One,” he said, “you have to be able to spend hours at a typewriter in solitude – if you can’t, forget about being a writer.” Hours with a pen or pencil in hand, hours at the keyboard of your PC, hours staring at a blank page. Change hours to days, to years, to the rest of your life. The writing goes on and on, in the head, in the heart, in the liver.

It’s not the alcohol that kills, it’s not the drugs, but words, your own, tap-tapping away like woodpeckers at all parts of your body. If allowed total licence, to go on uncontrolled as they are often allowed to they spread to family, friends, break up relationships. All’s wood to the woodpecker word, whole flocks of them have riddled through you and your relationships. No amount publishers pay for the rights to those words can compensate. They are part of the wages of solitude. They are the cost.


A tribute to Pilloo Pochkhanawala, sculptor (1923-1986)


Maquette of God.

His many faces.

Safe house for water.

In fire,

Releaser of shades

Jailed on its person:

Popinjay, beetle, fox.


Orphaned, a tablet.

Dead, an abode.

When whole, art.

When broken, man.

Damask, slow river,

Its sheen of Masai.

Buckram, concealment,

Its life spent around

Throats and wrists,

Unable to strangle or kiss.

Lace, embalmer

Of breasts and vaginas,

Turfed-out wedding guest

The morning after.

Cotton, cold comfort.

Canvas, wall eye.


Pine, a floorshow.

Mahogany, the gloom

Under trapdoors.

Fibreboard, a body

Of needles, its blood

Crumbly as cake.

Tricky support for those

Led to the scaffold.

An unfinished stairway’s

Plot-line. Sub-text

Of temple doors.

Central to pigeons.

Agent of bloodfeuds

When its ranks in the system

Thin. Has a history of gaps

Women and convicts fill. Dull

Accordion for liftmen

In heritage buildings.

Bludgeoner of cities.

Favourite prey of salt.


Difficult partner.

No will to please.

Allows bowings

And scrapings. Divests

Body parts throughout

History. No eye

For whereabouts until

Poleaxed, fixed.

Awaits your pleasure

For months, years.

Stays its wing in its shoulder

Till finished.

Then rises, moved.

From Strays, an unfinished novel

“Do I worry you?” the Chinese boy asked.


“That’s funny. I worry everyone else.” He gulped some of the wine. “Bet you can’t tell where I’m from.”


“Try again.”

Rumi didn’t want to. His geography was non-existent.


“No. And please don’t say Tokyo. I’m from Peking. Though my parents have settled in Singapore. My name’s too strange for you to remember but you can call me Chen. Funny how they got your name wrong at the soul-wash. Rumi. Gosh.” The boy grinned, showing his broken teeth again. It was the second time he had smiled. He shook his head, “Gosh.”

“What does your father do?”

“He’s a doctor. Had a fuckin’ good practice in Peking. In 1949, we fled.”


Chen looked at Rumi incredulously. “Because of the great fuckin’ Chinese revolution, man. We ran, like the best fuckin’ running dogs of imperialism.”

Rumi reddened. Chen leaned back in his chair and looked at him curiously. “There’s one thing I notice about you Indians. You don’t know much about politics.” Before Rumi could reply the boy went on, suddenly morose. “You’re wise, very wise. Never did anyone any good. With me there was no choice. What with the Red Dragon right on our butts. My old man shipped me out to London. Like a parcel, care of an old English friend. His practice went phut but he paid for my board and lodge and other things he didn’t know of. I worked like a nigger at school. Now I’m on scholarship. With three fuckin’ years to go.”

“Studying what?”

“Engineering. I read a lot. I love reading. Do you?”


“What do they teach you in your colleges in Bombay?”

“I never went to college.” I was sent to look for my brother instead, he thought, but didn’t say it.

“That’s good. You’ll learn a lot that way. That’s the best way to learn. What do I or you need a college for? That’s why I’m going to give up fuckin’ Engineering. Can’t work, can’t think. I go about in a daze. I get so depressed thinking about my past, my parents. The chaps in my class say I look like death warmed up. They think I’m playing at being an angry young man. But it’s no act. And I’m not angry about the same things the British are. A chink can’t get angry about Suez or about fuckin’ class distinctions. Or he can’t get boozed up in bars and sing about bloody Wales like a poet. I’m angry about something else. About what I saw in China as a boy. And I’m most angry that I have no fuckin’ language of my own to be angry in.”

Excerpted with permission from I Dreamt a Horse Fell From the Sky: Poems, Fiction and Non-Fiction, Adil Jussawalla, Hachette.