How Mr Doig taught me to write
Reflections on a remarkable editor who taught me almost everything I know today about how to bring words to life on a printed page.
Every so often, I hear from a certain devoted reader called Ganesh Wagle (of course not his real name). His last email, for example, went: "Your article in mid-day titled What if God was really, really small? was a fun, insightful read. I want to write for newspapers. Can you give me an opportunity?"
I replied that I lived in Thailand and that he should contact Indian newspapers directly.
He asked me for the contacts of newspapers. I suggested he use Google and work his phone a little.
He wrote back: "May I talk with you about writing and get your precious advice and inputs?"
My patience worn through, I replied: "There are two kinds of writers — those who want to discuss writing and those who write. If you want to write, there is nothing to discuss, sir. Start writing. Find a topic, go online and research, read books by good writers, think a lot and write for two hours every morning. One day, you will get published. This is what my journalism guru taught me."
There really was a guru though I don't know if he was even aware of being one. Irish, gay, ebullient and charismatic, the late Desmond Doig edited the cult-like JS, India's first and only youth magazine in the 1970s. I was both roving reporter and resident prankster but also a 21-year-old whippersnapper of self-acknowledged literary genius. Clearly, I needed to be taken down a few notches.
It happened after I returned from an assignment to write about the re-wilding of a leopard called Prince in the jungles of Dudhwa sanctuary, Uttar Pradesh by a Herculean conservationist called Billy Arjan Singh. I went with photographer Raghu Rai, already a legend.
For three days I thrilled to the sight of a magnificent feral leopard that had grown familiar enough with humans to visit them. One night, Prince even visited me as I slept on a charpoy on the terrace. Thinking it was the dog, I tried to dislodge it from where it stood casually over my face. And then, as it moved aside, I sat up to behold a stunning cat, glorious and dappled in the full moon's light.
My demolition was to come later back in Calcutta when I sat down, full of prose and confidence, to compose my 'scoop'. The first sentence, I'd been told, was like a magic key. Get it right and the rest will come tumbling out.
The jungles of Uttar Pradesh are dense with sal. Not good enough. Where's the beast?
The leopard looked at the scrawny writer. Never but never bring yourself into the story unless you absolutely must.
Something spotted was moving in the undergrowth. Sounded like a Tarzan story.
I finally settled on The Great White Crested Hunting Eagle lifted itself easily from the branches of the acacia tree and soared skywards.
This was a good wildlife beginning, I thought, setting the mood correctly and promising more adventure in the paras ahead. (A frosty letter from Billy pointed out later that no such bird existed on the planet.)
My masterpiece came back from Desmond swiftly with a short comment, "Not quite there yet, I'm afraid."
Draft 2 began with: The putter-putter of the diesel jeep broke the morning stillness of Dudhwa forest like a gunshot.
It came back inside the hour with another cryptic dismissal.
I valiantly wrote my third draft (How far have you stood from an honest-to-goodness, real-life leopard?). Rejected.
Fourth draft (The leopard is a solitary animal, as those of you who have touched one will know.) Nope.
Fifth draft (Something unprecedented is happening in the jungles of Uttar Pradesh.)
Sixth draft (His jaws are deceptively soft, belying the steely strength within. Billy Arjan Singh is a match for his jungle.) Awful.
Seventh draft — deep, irretrievable depression.
Desmond seemed willing to wait patiently till the story emerged perfect, even if it took the rest of 1973. I felt like a novice trapped in a Zen koan: reconciled to endless failure and doomed to endless effort.
I analysed my writing from every angle, growing from blasé to ruthless, from sanguine to scorching, challenging myself, questioning my answers, poring over dictionaries for more precise words, re-examining the structure and logic of my writing. I double and triple checked facts; spellings were scrutinised at the gate.
Desmond never discussed my writing with me, either to tear down or build up. Like a child, he merely kept saying 'no' again and again. The writing muscles this forced me to develop keep me alive professionally today.
The story finally clicked into place. Desmond said, with a pleased smile, "Good show, la. I think we're there."
It was my 38th draft. I still remember the beginning: Morning comes to the jungle, like the first scene of an epic production.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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