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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Chutney, decisions, and writing

'Do you want the spiced quince chutney on this, or the mango chutney?'

  It's just a corned beef sandwich, but as happens more and more frequently these days, I take a very long time to make decisions.

  It's a hard choice, you see. The quince chutney is home-made, milder and more flavoursome. The mango is shop-bought, sharper and might suit the sandwich better.

  Might. Maybe. I don't know. But a decision has to be made. Half one and half the other? Don't be a chump. Then I'd have to decide which should be eaten first. Alternate bites?

  Get real. Come on!

  'The mango.'

  It's a brave decision, powered mainly by the thought that mango was what we had as kids, only then it was home-made; brewed by Mum, or Elvie, or any one of my aunts - my father's sisters. That's a choice of seven. It wasn't Indian mango chutney, after decades of adaptation for the Australian bush palate and what was available to put into the boiler with the green mangoes.

  I'm not even sure my Indian friends would recognise it as chatni, because the varieties in India are endless, designed for particular curries. Karis. Kari is the Tamil word.

  So many Indian words the British have appropriated from India. Verandah. Pyjamas. Bungalow. Bangle. Cushy - a nice easy job. Pundit. Dulally. I love that word! It means bonkers, like Mad Dogs and Englishmen went when they went out in the midday sun at the village of Deolali or nearly anywhere else less than 5000 feet above sea level in India in the monsoon season.

  Scores of these words have enriched English, just as Indian food preparation has enhanced and diversified western cuisine. The nicer side of cultural imperialism!

  Anyway, Tracey asked that question concerning my condiment preferences just as I was about to write about something else, but you see what's happened to my mind these days. Don't click on this or it will happen to yours. You'll go dulally.

  What I was writing about was something triggered by something linked to something else **sigh!** that a dear friend alerted me to - a book that I am going to read; one of the very few of the genre I'll consent to reading. The author is a medical doctor, Delhi born but originally from a Bengali family by the look of that name. (Hence the tenuous connection with chutney, you see!) Let's not get distracted by the contents of the book just yet.

  Forgive me, Guardian newspaper, for taking a generous quote from your excellent pages. Here's the full article: do read it. What he said here was about the process of writing, not about his subject matter. He said this:
  How did the book get written? When I first began to write the book, I suffered from the fallacy, as many first-time authors do, that the trick to good writing is good equipment.

  Good writers must use good instruments, I thought. Great surgeons, I imagined, must operate with the surgical equivalent of Wusthof knives. Great cardiologists probably use high-end stethoscopes. So to be a great writer, I reasoned, I must have a great writing room. I emptied a study on the top floor of our house in Cambridge, Massachussetts, and bought a beautiful high-backed chair, a minimalist desk and a fountain pen that handled like a German revolver.

  Then I sat in the room every evening staring at the wall, writing nothing. Three weeks went by, and not a single worthwhile paragraph oozed out. I moved myself to the living room couch, and spent the day staring into the garden. Nothing. The dining room table, with the books spread out around me. Nothing.

  I went to sleep one evening, having produced another day of nothing. I woke up at about three in the morning, lying in bed, with my pillow propped up, and wrote four pages.

  The trick to my writing, it turned out, was doing so exclusively in bed. The minute I even dared to discipline myself and write at the desk, I produced mounds of nonsense. Yet, sitting in bed, I wrote easily, effortlessly, fluidly. I became the master of perfect indiscipline. If I set myself fixed hours, or forced myself to write a certain number of words, I produced complete junk.

  I once set myself a deadline: half a chapter a week, 20 minutes a day. The thought froze me instantly, like literary botox. I returned to my non-schedule: sleeping, writing 20 minutes, and then back to sleep. Breakfast in bed, with juice congealing on the sill: pages and pages began to pour out again.
  This is a mirror, albeit an imperfect one, of my experience. Well, it took me back to what I'd written here, a four-minute rant which I just re-read and surprises me that I'd forgotten so much about. For those writers with writer's block, to me the best remedy is still pen and paper by the bed, and scribble enough keywords on the page to revive the stream a bit when you do make it to the keyboard.


  1. I thought it may be that book, 'The Emperor of All Maladies', that you were talking about. I have just read some reviews of it too, and will buy it to read. The bookshops here are fantastic, of course!!! Also, I love the way he has described the elusive nature of writing, above. I STILL have not bought a note book to carry about with me here!! Sitting in the Airtel office waiting for M to fix the phone connections I badly wanted to write descriptions of the fashionable clothes of the young people..things the auto driver has said..

  2. Get the notebook, Julie, and start writing, because you are in a place where new things are going to crowd in over yesterday's - which will soon seem half a life ago.... Not that I have to tell you that! You and Michael have travelled more extensively in India than I ever will.

  3. But you know and understand India more than anyone else I've ever met. 'Extensive' is not always observant or informed.Strangely, this time I AM observing more, perhaps as I feel more at home here.Did not mean to hijack this post with 'India'!! The book and writing you've talked about is very worth discussion, thank you!


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