(Published in the Business Standard, Speaking Volumes, June 20, 2006)
It took two writers to create three interesting bylines. Kalpana Swaminathan is a surgeon working in Bombay. She is also the author of several books. Ambrosia for Afters , Bougainvillea House , Cryptic Death and The Page Three Murders , as well as several children’s books, including Ordinary Mr Pai and Jaldi and Friends .
Ishrat Syed, also a surgeon, rarely writes on his own, though he has collaborated often with Kalpana Swaminathan. They write together as Kalpish Ratna, and before I learned it was a common byline, I marvelled at the erudition of this extraordinary person. In articles and reviews, s/he appeared to tackle literature, science, health and food with élan as well as toss off the odd guide to energy healing. This month, Kalpish Ratna came out with Nyagrodha , the first part of The Ficus Chronicles . Volume One of the Chronicles does a thoroughly entertaining mashup of The Panchatantra , where the trials of three children are woven together with retellings of the old tales.
Nyagrodha testifies to the seamless nature of the collaboration between Syed and Swaminathan. It starts with the name itself; as the blurb explains, “Kalpish Ratna” is an anagram of their first names, which blends two languages, Persian and Sanskrit. Translated, it means: “the pleasures of imagination”. Nyagrodha takes its structure from the fig tree; stories set down roots and grow into new stories. The tales of Khokla the Jackal, Ton’Tona the turtle or Bazurg the crane are nested within the overarching stories of the three children and the running narrative of Simha the lion, whose friendship with Jeev the bull is threatened by the scheming of Charak the jackal.
Swaminathan and Syed are rare among authors. The most successful collaborations have been in the arena of pulp and popular fiction; from Barbara Cartland to Tom Clancy, many writers have relied on researcher-writers who will flesh out their plots and add the necessary verisimilitude. But successful literary collaborations are rare: to pull off co-authorship in a work where imagination and style are key factors requires an understanding that goes far beyond most normal working relationships.
It’s not that hard to do a one-off, as Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman did with Good Omens several years ago. Pratchett explained: “By the time we’d gone through all the drafts, it had been written by some sort of composite entity.” Gaiman spoke of waking up and seeing the red light flashing on his answering machine, carrying a message from Pratchett: “Get up, get up, you bastard. I’ve just written a good bit.” Pratchett and Gaiman weren’t tempted to collaborate again—they were both happy returning to their own work, even though they enjoyed the experiment.
These were successful collaborations, where both authors are happy to give each other credit. It’s when the dividing line between assistance and authorship blurs that difficult questions arise.
In 1998, D T Max examined the legacy of master short story writer, Raymond Carver, against the controversial claims made by Gordon Lish, Carver’s editor. Lish felt that his contributions to Carver’s works had been overlooked. Going through the archives, Max found that Lish’s contribution was indeed considerable—in some cases, he had written the actual ending, he had slashed many stories by a third or a half. “In most cases Lish’s handwriting became part of Carver’s next draft, which became the published story,” writes Max. But Max was clear that Lish was not the co-author of Carver’s stories. He had performed the functions of an uber-editor, in the same way that Ezra Pound had shaped T S Eliot’s The Waste Land , but there was no question that Carver was the author.
In Mockingbird , a recent and brilliant biography of Harper Lee, Charles J Shields raises far more awkward questions about Lee’s contribution to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood . Lee, who’d known Capote since childhood, accompanied him on his research trips and conducted interviews for him. Capote used her notes—and her perspective—often with only minor changes. By the time In Cold Blood was published, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird had won the Pulitzer, and perhaps that was one reason why Capote acknowledged her help only cursorily.
Shields never comes right out and says it, but anyone who reads Mockingbird will be left with a sense of terrible discomfort. In Cold Blood has Capote’s voice, his style—but so much of it is seen through Lee’s eyes. She may not have wanted a co-author’s credit, but she deserved the respect due to a collaborator, and she never really got it. In the light of Mockingbird , now when I see a phrase like ” In Cold Blood , authored by Truman Capote”, it puts a question mark around the idea of authorship itself.