This year taught me how to let go, even when it was the last thing I wanted to do. I let go of people I loved dearly, of old friends, of an elderly cat (our Grand Old Man, who was the warm, funny, caring heart of our small household), and I finally let go of characters with whom I’d spent more than five years in my imagination.
When you finish a novel, you feel a sense of completion, but also of loss. Last year, my father asked me when I embarked on yet another draft (number four, something of a magic number), “How do you know when you’re done?” He was back from yet another visit to the hospital, his shawl wrapped as elegantly as ever around his tall, straight-backed form. We were talking in his book-lined study. I faced a row of books and authors he’d introduced me to, writers of novels, poems and short stories so perfect that I could not imagine them ever struggling with messy drafts and outtakes, and yet, from Toni Morrison to Czeslaw Milosz, Gunter Grass to Nadine Gordimer, they must have paused at some point and asked themselves the same question: were they done? Was this the final draft?
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When you read for a living, as an editor or a reviewer, a book columnist or a literary agent, you develop a sixth sense for a manuscript. You can feel a break in the writer’s imagination, or sense a gap in the structure, and you can also feel the magic when a novel has landed, when everything has finally come together in that rich stew of skill and inventiveness, hard work and creative risks we call “craft”.
Few writers, even the most practiced, can read their own work with dispassion, which is why it’s so hard to know when you’re finally done with something as vast and promising — and unwieldy and demanding — as a novel. It is a world, a universe, and it’s hard to tell when you’ve done full justice to what you can see so clearly, feel so keenly, experience so completely, in your imagination — and when you need to give it one more turn on the potter’s wheel. But with most of my drafts, I felt as if I was still waiting for something, I told my father, and he nodded.
“Read it to me,” he said, and through the winter of 2020 and early 2021, I read him passages from the draft I was leaving behind, from the draft I was moving towards.
You share a manuscript you’re working on with as few people as possible, only those readers you absolutely trust. I shared my work with a close friend who is a skilled editor, with my agent and old friend David, and a handful of others, mostly writers themselves. My father was not a writer, but he was a great raconteur, and his reading life had been the scaffolding of mine, his Rushdies and Kunderas migrating to my library, my Rohinton Mistrys and Lauren Groffs floating over to his study. On a gorgeous spring day in March 2021, I called him an hour earlier than our usual morning chat time, and before I could say it, he intuited it: “You’ve got it,” he said, and there was satisfaction in his voice. “This is the last draft. You’re almost there.”
That summer, our family moved from loss to loss. For a space, the world contained nothing beyond grief and mourning, heartache and sorrow. Covid and cancer took loved friends from our circle, old age took Tiglath, our venerable 21-year-old cat and companion. At the end of April, as the pandemic raged like a brushfire through the country, as hospitals collapsed, as oxygen supplies ran out, as the queues outside crematoriums and graveyards lengthened and lengthened, my father slipped out of life.
* * *
A month, two months passed. I returned to Black River, seeking neither solace nor distraction but the full-scale immersion that writing demands. If you grieved in 2021, you did not grieve alone. My friends carried the scars, the scorch marks, of their own griefs and losses, some more than others, their arms filled with multiple heartbreaks.
Perhaps we learned to breathe that air of sorrow together, taking in the sadness, struggling to let it go. We were all mourning something in this hard year of Covid and other grey fogs; some grieved family, some grieved for their partners, some grieved for their changing countries, for the loss of other things they had held precious, democracy, freedom, equality, justice.
Black River is, among other things, about a father mourning his daughter. I wrote the last few chapters with our roles reversed, now that I was a daughter unable to truly let go of my father’s hand, and I learned that sometimes the characters you create have a life of their own. Chand, Rabia, Khalid: I created them, and their lives skimming the edges of Delhi, and now in an unexpected shift, they were the ones who brought me surprising comfort, who taught me that you can and must keep moving, that your place is still in this world.
In November, I sent Black River off to my editor, Karthika VK, and my agent, David Godwin, two friends whom I trust to tell me the truth about drafts. It would take edits, shaping, trimming, but it was finally done. I could start something new, return to another novel that had been growing in the background of this one.
* * *
When is a novel done? When you know that you have to let go of these characters — these people, their lives, their landscapes, their hopes, their unspoken dreams and wishes, their griefs and heartbreaks, their struggles, their failures, the moments of transition and transcendence — and you are finally at peace with that. When the next book or the next short story or fable calls quietly to you, asking for a sliver of your time, your attention, asking whether you will leave them unborn in your imagination, or let them grow and live and breathe.
Moving between books is like crossing between the banks of a river. The ferry will take you over, and you will look up from your absent-minded reveries and marvel at how broad the river is, at the endless life it carries, at its changing and deep currents. You’ll reach the other bank, and step into new territory. You’ll write in a different key, learning this strange new landscape, leaving what you know far behind on a distant shore.
You will fail, draft after draft.
But on a cold and bright winter’s day in Delhi, you’ll suddenly realise that you have let go of the worst of the grief, scattered it on the waters, that the words on the page have started to sing. And maybe you’ll read these fresh pages out loud, even if the friends and readers you would have once shared them with are no longer here, trusting that in some mysterious way, the words will land where they should.