Thursday, December 01, 2011

Memoirs of a man of letters!

This tongue-in-cheek take on  ‘memoirs’ appeared in The Hans India on November 25, 2011.
‘Guruji, I need your help’, gushed a breathless Subbu. He has this habit of barging in on me with news of ‘earth-shaking events’ or ‘momentous’ requests.  Subbu is a decent sort of chap, helpful to others and eager to learn but when he gets a ‘bee in his bonnet’ he is quite a bother. Considering his nature, it would perhaps be a little unkind to say he is exasperating at times.

‘What’s it?’ I asked politely, adding sotto voce, ‘this time’ with a silent sigh. ‘Guruji, I want to publish my memoirs’, said he eagerly. I understood. This is the season for publishing memoirs. Everyone who is anyone is up to publishing them. Some do this to get ‘it’ off their chest; some because they want to bitch on their colleagues and others with whom they want to settle scores. And some do it to make a quick buck by cashing in on salacious tidbits they are privy to, before signing off. But Subbu? I couldn’t imagine the editors of Penguin, Harper-Collins or other publishing houses queuing up before Subbu’s residence to buy off his memoirs. ‘Why do you want to publish your memoirs?’ I asked politely hoping that I might be able to dissuade him. ‘I have so many memorable events in my life, which I want to share with the world.’ Of course, everyone thinks so. Only the cynics call it human weakness or vanity .

‘OK’, I said, ‘let’s begin with your childhood’. Why does everyone who writes a memoir include a chapter about childhood? “As a child, I and my friends used to play in the dusty and muddy by lanes of a small village in the outback of rural Bihar….I used to walk four miles every day to school….Our class teacher was a tyrant and he used to make us stand in the hot sun all day as a punishment.” This will help the reader understand, (a) the writer was a poor boy; (b) his heart is in the right place because he did not forget his humble beginnings and is not ashamed of speaking about them; and (c) he made it big in life although he came from a very humble beginning. 

Subbu said, ‘As a boy, I used to steal my father’s cigarettes to smoke with my friends.’ I forbore to say, show me any boy who didn't do it, for it would kill his enthusiasm. I told him, ‘we will make it cigars in the memoirs; but not the country variety. Havana or Cheroot would look classy.’ He considered it a moment, and then nodded.

‘What else did you do as a boy?’ I continued. He said, ‘I kissed Meena’. I exclaimed, ‘who’ but then added, ‘she would be old enough to be your grandmother’. ‘Oh no, I didn’t mean Meena Kumari. This girl was our neighbour in Tamil Nadu.’ ‘You couldn’t have done it’, I said, ‘because Meena is young enough to be your daughter now.’ ‘Guruji, you are mistaken’, Subbu said with a little impatience, ‘I was not referring to either the Hindi tragedienne or the Telugu movie queen; I was referring to a sweet little girl, my friend’s younger sister.’ Then his ‘kiss’ would not excite readers, sending their pulses racing. However, I did not want to dampen his enthusiasm, so I continued. ‘What made you do it?’ He said, ‘I saw my uncle, my father’s younger brother kissing our maid behind the haystack and thought I would do it too.’ Freud might be able to explain this impulse, or is it Jung? Anyway it was not up to me.

‘What next?’ I asked. ‘I would like to devote a chapter deriding the editor of…’ He named prominent English daily. Privately I was a little disappointed. I thought he would have more of the ‘kissing Meena’ stuff. There would be no queer men or naked women, which would go down well with readers and, more importantly, reviewers. For instance, no reviewer who reviewed the memoirs of a celebrity (I do not remember whose memoirs it was) left out this bit: “...and then she removed her clothes and lay completely naked before me on the carpet.” The reviewers did not tell us what happened afterwards.

‘What do you have against the editor?’ I asked.  Subbu nonchalantly replied, ‘He never published my letters. You know, I regularly write letters to the editors of various newspapers, mostly on topics of national importance.’ ‘But the editor of that newspaper doesn’t even get to see your letters’, I explained. ‘The letters are vetted by the junior most trainee sub-editor. He is directed to choose letters that broadly follow the paper’s editorial policy. His job is to correct spelling and grammar and slash the letters to make them concise. And yes, he gets to decide whether 'of' should follow 'Apropos' or not!'

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