Following the Tightrope

Posted on 04/03/2014
By Commonwealth Foundation



Long, black, straight lines of ink. There’s atonement in words. In writing to the secret imagination of a forgiver, who will listen without response, question, or furrowed brow and will, at the end, forgive. This is all really a forgiveness game. A small bet with an empty room and a silent, heavy filament light. To see if at the end of narrative, or of confession, there will be closing.
In a flash, too easily, I can travel time. I can touch the cold, stone wall of our school chapel, surrounded by its bougainvillea; in one inhalation, with the right pull of a memory, I can bring back those sounds from the grounds, as the two of us listened to them, our plastic lunchboxes balanced on our knees. A sea of blue shorts and white long slacks. An ocean of sweaty competition for just its sake: of cricket and ‘catches’, of traded plans and wanted girls. We’d listen to it all. Sitting on the ledge of the chapel veranda, eating through Maggi noodles and Marmite bread.
I’d say, “Give me a minute,” after the food and go inside. He’d sit there and wait for me.
I’d kneel at a pew, under the huge, ethereal dome, and put father-son, and say a prayer. A habit of faith. Or a faith in habit. It’s a quick secret that I whisper to God, a familiar favour that I ask for. Just fifteen seconds. Maybe a little bit more.
I liked, I remember, to sit there at the edge of the polished, shining, years-old pew and listen to the cocooned silence of the chapel. But, then again, it wasn’t really a silence at all, because the noises from the grounds danced around, echoing, hollow.
Viresh would wait for me, I know, and in this way, that game back then was also a balancing game. The allure of cocoons balanced with the allure of something else. Nothing notorious, of course. Nothing so predictably banal as an attraction. We had a total of one hour – maybe even a little less – in a day: because when the bells rang, we went back to our own ages. Our own respective elderness and youngerness and, commonly, alienness. But between two bells in a day, we had each other, and though we (or I) didn’t know the true value of it then, we were diligent with it. Religious, almost. Ironically, too: sitting outside both the chapel and the boy-games with our food on our laps.
But where does the story begin. What instant of reversal shall I pick? There aren’t, outside novels, clear places of beginning. A first page, a filigreed drop-cap. We were outsiders. And that’s how I must start.
Viresh loved it, in this courageous way of his: how strange he was. One whole year, he owned everything in pink. Book covers, lunchbox, schoolbag. He told me, sitting on one of the lacquered tree stumps near the quad, behind the chapel, “It’s hideous, isn’t it. All this horrible pink.” He threw a piece of sausage at Popo, the mongrel (christened by Viresh) who sat around our heels waiting for exactly that. “Ah, well. It’s the price you pay.” The flick of his donkey-fringe was a rehearsed quirk.
“Can you stop that, ah. People are staring,” I said. I enjoyed his company, but he also embarrassed me endlessly. I would have tolerated him better were we alone – but the idea of being found alone with Viresh, along with his pink lunchbox, came with its own dilemma.
“Imagined fears bring imagined eyes, Jayjay,” he said, in his best impression of a sagacious, Oscar-Wilde tone.
“That doesn’t even make sense. And stop calling me that.”
“Why, why? Does it rhyme too much with gay-gay?”
“Fuck you.”
He laughed. “It’s a sira name, you bugger. Much better than Jayakishan, machan.” This time, a dim ruggerite’s boom.
I laughed. “You’re right, actually. Anything’s probably better than Jayakishan. But can’t we just settle on Jay?”
“Still rhymes with ‘gay’, no? Sure you can handle that?”
I stood up suddenly – Popo jumped out of the way, startled. “You know, not everything has to always revolve around that. Why do you always have to go there?”
He said, still picking out the sausages in his lunch, “Here, can you just sit down without being a drama queen?”
“I am not like you. I like girls. I like Tasha. I shagged last night thinking about her. So stop calling me that.”
“Tasha doesn’t know you exist – here, Popo, come here, boy. You’ve scared him. See?”
I slumped back on to my tree stump. “Even … even you. You’re, like, still sixteen. Don’t you think all of this is too early? These labels and things.”
At this, he finally gives me his full attention, and a look of happy scandal. “I know who I am. Even if I’ve had to make up my mind about this pink business. So, no. Not too early. Just the right time.”
Our classes were in two opposite sides of the school, so when the bell rang and it was time for Angelus, we said quick byes and see-you-arounds and headed our own ways. I loved these walks, cutting unnoticed through a tidal wave of schoolmates all pushing themselves in one direction, drenched in sweat, their white uniforms browned in tell-tale places like the knees and the bums, their shirts untucked and buttoned askew. I was possibly the only one clean, usually the only one alone. And I slipped easily through the throng that gathered near the Vice Rector’s office, as he doled out instruction and punishment. Someone patted me on the back, a friend from a parallel class, who, with a soggy handkerchief in one hand, was dabbing at the sweat on his face. “Oi, Jejja. Anything to eat in the lunchbox?”
“Sorry, men. All finished.”
“Ah, shape shape, no worries. Gonna go wash face a bit, bung. See you around.”


So far, this is the best beginning to a story I’ve written. But, though I began writing it more than a year ago, I still have not been able to finish it. Now, I am beginning to think, I will never finish it.
There are a few uncompleted stories stashed away in some corner of my hard drive. Every once in a while, on a bored Wednesday night, say, I pull them out and go over them, one at a time, wondering if there’s a way to pull them back, beat them into an ending, talk the characters through to some resolution, a denouement. So far, this has almost always failed.


Some people, I’ve heard them explain, have the story mapped out in their minds by the time they sit down to write it all out: their characters built up, well attributed, and moulded into plot. It’s easy to get the sense that this is the way to go; at some workshops I have sat in, writers are guided through their craft, as if there is some form to be taught, some conventions, some (as they say) tried and tested methods. Yet others have said the contrary. They don’t map it out, they just confirm a vague plotline in their head, sit down and work their way through the vagueness, letting the story accrete as they make progress.
There is so much to be learnt in listening to other writers talk about how they do what they do. If nothing else, you are exposed, through these conversations, to the simple truth (and, sometimes, the relief) that there isn’t just one way to tell a story. Besides, there’s no danger in trying them out for yourself: to see what could work, and what couldn’t.

Trickling dreams

Most of the time, blocking out an entire plot poses one danger: without the mystery of not knowing where you could be taking your characters, the journey itself could become insipid, uninteresting to write about. Then again, even a vague plot could obstruct the larger story: the bare details could be so stark that they dominate your vision until they eclipse all other points of expansion, leaving nothing worthy of a story in the end.
In this way, writing out a full story is a mind game. You can’t think too much about it, but you can’t think too little about it either. It’s like forcing yourself to remember a dream when you’ve been suddenly shaken awake: the details are slipping away, trickling through your fingers like water, and the only way you can remember them is by tricking yourself that you’re not trying to remember them. Like walking a tightrope: if you look down you lose your balance.
When the opening to Sarong-Man was first written, I had no idea where it was headed. The image of an old man sitting in a corridor in one of those Sri Lankan-styled armchairs that had intrigued me so much as a child came all on its own. It was only eventually that I noticed the possibility of connecting that image to a problem I had been waiting to disentangle, and that is endemic to queer men, in a country like mine. How do they deal with regret at old age, if it ever comes, when they look back at the choices they made when they were younger and, perhaps, more short-sighted?
The flashback technique which I used in Sarong-Man was ideal for this line of thinking. But during the initial process of writing, the flashbacks appeared as digressions. I had imagined the younger Wijey stealing a kiss with his shoulder and, suddenly, nothing would do until I got him there, to that bed, with the darkness and music of a rainy night, and his shoulder pressed against his new friend’s sleeping lips. Once I had written it, the seemingly reckless digression had brought me exactly where I wanted to get to in the first place. It required some editing, but the two separate threads eventually coalesced into one story, one struggle told in two threads of narrative.

Getting lucky

It’s plain that writing has a lot to do with luck, in this way. Even with Santhush, I knew how to dissect, with ‘a little, sharp toothpick’ if needed, the feelings that made me want to write the story. Yet, beyond the image of a man searching for the idea of the bones of someone he had loved, I had no idea where the story was to go. The moments, written like extracts from a larger life-story, came one by one. Of them meeting for the first time, of them spending time together, of them losing each other, and then the aftermath. It certainly helps to know what you are writing about: if I had allowed myself to forget that the story was about the nexus between public grief and private closure, it could have easily turned into a blander story about two boys who were in love and then were separated by a natural disaster. But, then again, not knowing anything more than that allowed me the freedom to feel my way through the dark, to meet Santhush’s mother, to meet the narrator’s own family, to imagine being ‘picked up’ after something as huge as death and having to pretend everything was more normal than they actually were.
You can’t look down, if you want to keep your balance. But, sometimes, even when you are as balanced as you will ever be, the rope disappears into utter darkness. And, then, it’s better to turn back, to return, to abandon the trip. Not all stories will turn out successfully. Default Scars, I copped out of finishing, writing a nearly random sentence in closing, after being stuck on it for months on end. The Photo in the Shoebox completed itself, but somehow doesn’t stand as a story without the explanatory note at the end that reads like a paragraph pulled from a school Lit answer-script. And then there’s the untitled, unfinished story you just read, about Viresh and Jay, two fully-fledged characters with nowhere more to go, or with no more means of getting to where they have to go. Stories are fickle things – maybe they will tell themselves, in their own good time. And, if they won’t, maybe there’s a reason for that, too.