Many years ago, a young neighbour shared a personal story with me, a deeply moving narrative from the partition of India and Pakistan. It was a tale of endurance and survival, heart-warming because neighbourly relations between people from hostile communities played a major role. The obsession for male offspring was an important thread too, while in the end it was revealed as a poignant tale of loss. In short, this real life incident contained all the elements of a powerful piece of fiction, something writers usually struggle to create.
It was so riveting that it gave me goose bumps when I heard it, and as a writer I felt blessed to have come across it. I lost no time getting down to it, but when I started typing the story into my computer, after the first few sentences I found myself stuck, completely blocked. Try as I might, despite all the dramatic incidents waiting to be described, I just could not move ahead. It was awful enough to make me want to tear my hair in frustration. Such a wonderful story, a complete story, and I couldn’t make anything of it! Was I really a writer or had I been fooling myself all this time?
I could not give up, however, though it took me three years to write that story. But how did I was manage to diagnose what was holding me up? Only when I discarded some preconceived notions that I had embraced about the craft of writing. When it struck me that my inability to ‘set the scene’ had applied the brake. Early in my writing career, someone had told me that I had a great sense of place and I had become very particular about beginning a story with a physical description. The problem here was that I had never visited the city in Pakistan where it was mostly set. And without my background I could not tell the story. Now we all know there are ways to tackle this kind of issue. There is no dearth of resources that will help fill in the gaps when you set your fiction in a locale that is outside the realm of your experience, whether in space or time. You can turn to accounts by travellers, photographs, films and television programmes or talk to friends who might have gone there.
I tried some of these resources. However, for some reason, nothing worked. Finally, I made the tough decision that if I was to write this story at all, I had to forget the descriptions of streets and houses and carry on with the actual events, and to concentrate on the emotions the characters might have experienced. To my astonishment, the story took off immediately. Not merely took off, but sped to a destination that had never been there in my map. From the heart-warming tale of neighbourly relations among people trapped in political conflict that I envisioned, it turned into the slightly chilling tale of a neglected girl reclaiming what she had longed for and never received. To this day I am at a loss to explain how this happened. But the story which I titled “Cradle Song” won a prize in a competition and has been the one most appreciated in my collection If the Earth Should Move.
More significantly, this experience turned out to be a valuable lesson. A lesson not to get bogged down by the do’s and don’ts of writing as defined by others, because each story you write is your own, and each story has its own imperatives. And that it is utterly, absolutely important to identify the element that is the true driving force of your story. A sense of place is essential if the locale dictates the action, which often happens in the adventure stories I write. But paramount in every story are the emotions that possess your characters. It is emotions that spark the conflict that will impel your story, lead to the compelling turns in the narrative that draw the reader in—simple human feelings like love or the lack of love, fear and longing, envy and empathy.
And in this context, recently I made a discovery which reinforced this notion. At a discussion on my book Caravan to Tibet in a school, a girl mentioned that it was the protagonist Debu’s love for his father and his determination to find him in the wilds of Tibet that appealed to her most. That amply proved to me that even in a story full of action and adventure it is common human emotions that make it meaningful.
It is also important to recognise the chimera of the complete plot supplied by a flesh and blood muse for what it is. A chimera that glimmers most enticingly, only, you cannot disregard the necessity to use your own sorcery to bring it to life and make it real. For even the most attention grabbing yarn will not emerge as an equally engaging piece of fiction if you persist in the belief that all you have to do is to transcribe it.
The fact is, someone else’s story usually contains hidden sub currents that have not been shared, been ignored, or simply forgotten. You have to probe further, sniff out the unidentifiable masala and scrounge around for back story that will provide motivation for your characters.
The word here is motivation. We know that motivation is the engine that propels a story to its denouement. I think when I unconsciously hit on the motivation that possessed the neglected girl; my story began to take shape.
There’s no denying that many finely crafted classics, many hugely popular pieces of fiction have been inspired by real life incidents. But that first discovery only flags off the writer’s journey and is like the cryptic map that leads you to a hidden treasure only after you have deciphered all the clues, not like the fixed itinerary created by a travel agent.