Friday, February 19, 2021

Written in the Stars

Who is someone in your life who has been supportive of your writing? What was their impact?

By Abir

It’s Friday again, and we have another fascinating question this week. There are so many people I could thank, whom I should thank, for supporting my writing, but the question is, where to start?

Do I mention my English teacher, Mr Simon who helped inculcate a love of language and literature within me? Or do I start with Alison Hennessey, the editor who helped me craft my first novel and who pretty much taught me how to write? Or my agent ‘Handsome’ Sam Copeland, who took a chance on me, having only read 5000 words of my work? Or the many, many people who’ve helped me at every stage of my writing career? They all deserve my gratitude and more thanks than I could ever give them.

But as you know, I tend to use this blog as a form of personal therapy, so I’m going to start closer to home and tell you about my dad.

So. My dad came to the UK in 1964. He’d been born into a lower middle class family in India, the eldest son in a family of about 100 siblings (I have a LOT of  cousins). Anyway, after siring a boat load of kids, my grandad promptly passed away, possibly from exhaustion, leaving my dad, at the age of about fifteen, to look after his mum and raise his brothers and sisters (a task he took on for the next twenty five years of his life and managed with varying degrees of lack of success) but I digress. At the same time, he managed to put himself through school and university, working a number of part-time jobs (including in a Chinese laundry, on the railways, and in a textile factory, where he developed a life-long appreciation for twill weaves and inhaled so many fibres as to leave him with life-long asthma). All the while, though, dad had this innate belief that he was destined for better things

Then, one day in 1951, dad went to visit an astrologer. Now astrology plays a big role in Indian society. Many folks believe that the exact time and place of your birth, together with the alignment of the heavenly bodies, can act as a map to your whole life. Indeed it’s said that several Prime Ministers of modern India made sure to consult their astrologers before making important decisions.

This is where things get complicated. The astrologer was a chap by the name of Professor S.N. Bose, Bachelor of Arts, based at the Swami Premananda Ashram in Dum Dum, Calcutta, an institute which, according to its letterhead, “has received the highest commendation…from the Leading Journals and the Public throughout India, Burma and Ceylon”. Professor Bose, after asking my dad loads of questions and consulting star charts and other astrological wizardry (in which India is far in advance of NASA) wrote him a letter setting out the course of the rest of his life.

Dad's horoscope - the document which started it all

One paragraph in particular sticks out:

"Going to Foreign Land: There is indication of your going overseas but there is delay: towards the second half of 1953 such a chance indicated."

This may have been the first time that dad thought seriously about leaving India, or maybe it had always been in his stars. In the end, Professor Bose was out in terms of timing. The delay he put at two years, turned out to be thirteen, but in astrological terms which cover billions of years, being a decade out ain't bad.

The problem for dad was that he had no money and no connections and brothers and sisters to raise. Another man might have given up, but not my dad. You see, dad was born with a few, very useful gifts:

1.     He was as stubborn as a goat. Once he got something into his head, no matter how ridiculous, he would pursue it to the bitter end. (One day I might tell you the story of how, at the age of 83, and after winning the talent competition on the QE2,  he decided he wanted to become a singer on a cruise ship. There’s not enough space here to go through that whole bizarre saga).

2.     He was never short of confidence. Dad never let small things like a lack of talent, ability or opportunity stand in his way. He was supremely, unshakeably, self-confident. Some might consider this arrogant, but when you’re born in a land of a billion people, with very little scope to progress without money, self-confidence can be a life-changer.

3.     He was really quite handsome. I mean the man looked better at 45 than I did at 25.

It would take thirteen years and all three of these traits for him to realise the goal of coming to the UK. 

Over time, dad became an accountant and talked himself into a job in a company owned by a rather rich industrialist. The story goes (and I only have dad’s word for this, so it might not be 100% accurate) that the industrialist took quite a shine to dad, hoping to set him up with his daughter. Dad demurred, on the grounds that he wanted to go overseas for further education (“but also the girl, she was not good looking”). Long story short, the industrialist paid for dad’s passage to the UK and acted as his sponsor on all the paperwork. Dad got on a ship in Bombay and, a month later arrived in the UK.

He enrolled at college and set to work, studiously failing the year end exams, not once but twice, until the industrialist and his daughter got tired of waiting and arranged her marriage to someone else. Dad then promptly passed his exams.

In 1968 he returned to India to find a wife, “because I couldn’t cook, and other people were getting sick of cooking for me and I was losing weight.”

He was introduced to my maternal grandfather, an educational reformer in Calcutta and an Anglophile. The fact that dad was living in London was enough to convince grandad to let dad marry his daughter. Alas, Grandpa Banerjee failed to do much due diligence. If he had done, he’d have realised that my dad was 40, while his daughter was 25. Mum only found out after they were married when she saw his passport at the airport. Dad’s defence: “What? I thought they knew. I was so handsome and young-looking that they must have thought I was 25. If they asked, I would have told them!”

A little while after they got married.
Poor mum. 

Anyway, the following years in England were a struggle – especially for mum – going from a house and servants in sunny Calcutta to a one room bedsit in rainy Shepherd’s Bush, West London, with a shared kitchen and bathroom – it wasn’t exactly the married life she’d been expecting. But they had fun, got through the hard times and were inordinately blessed when I came along (and less so when my sister arrived some time later).

Anyway, one of dad’s ambitions (alongside cruise ship singer and being a film star – he was in the queue for auditions the day, Bengali film legend Uttam Kumar got his big break. Dad claims he missed out when he left the queue to get a cup of tea) was to become a novelist. He had a rather active imagination, and loved writing short stories. He even got a book of them published in Bengali and spent the next six months haranguing the staff at our local village library in Scotland until the finally gave in and stocked his book, even though no one could actually read it.

He then started writing a novel in English – going to the library each afternoon and writing the thing out longhand. Over four years, he wrote the whole thing. I was a teenager at the time. I remember the hours he put into it. I remember family friends scoffing at the idea of him writing a novel. They passed it off as just one more of his eccentricities. There was no way anyone would publish a novel by an Indian immigrant whose English wasn’t quite good enough. Who would want to read it? But he kept going, with that sheer bloody minded persistence and self-belief that he brought to everything. He told them he’d prove them wrong. Of course it never was published. As far as I know, he never even showed it to an agent or a publisher. He wouldn’t have known how to go about it, or even where to start. 

Was it a wasted effort? Was it worth the snide comments from members of the community? Was it worth the financial and mental strain on the family? Who knows? But years later, when I told him I was considering quitting a good job to become a writer, he didn’t react the way a lot of Asian parents do, which is either with horror or disinterest; he understood why I wanted to write, and why I had to write. He asked me if I was sure I wanted to do it, he was worried about what it might mean financially – I had a wife and a young family after all, but he was supportive.

They say that fathers live vicariously through their sons, and that boys live their lives to fulfil the dreams of their fathers. Maybe there’s something in that. Maybe I’m a writer today because, on some level, I wanted to vindicate my father's choices. 

He never lived to see my first novel published, but he knew I’d got a publishing deal and that the book was coming. I hope he'd have enjoyed it,  and I know he’d have said he'd always had faith in me. Because, he'd tell me, unlike him, I’d been born under a very good star.

One of the most stubborn men in history


James W. Ziskin said...

Great story, Abir. And a lovely tribute to your dad.


Abir said...

Cheers Jim!

Clea Simon said...

What a lovely tribute. I suspect I know the answer to this, but did you ever get to read your dad's novel? Maybe it's better this way – and I'm so glad he got to hear that you'd fulfilled a shared dream. Thanks for sharing this.

Brenda Chapman said...

A lovely tribute to your dad, Abir. He'd be mighty proud of you today. (and he was stunningly handsome :-)

Susan C Shea said...

You bring your optimistic, energetic, big dreaming, handsome dad to life so well that if I were in a crowded room and he were (by some cosmic trick) there too, I know I'd pick him out instantly. What a lovely essay. I hope it and otehrs from your life wind up in a memoir. You're a wonderful storyteller.

Mary P said...

I love this. The affection shines through and made me a little tearful, as all good stories should. Thanks

Abir said...

Hi Clea. Thank you for your kind words. I'm afraid I never did get to read that novel. We never found the manuscript when we went through his things, though that was when weM found his horoscope from 1951.

Abir said...

Cheers Brenda! He loved people calling him handsome!

Abir said...

Thanks Susan, and yes you're spot on. You could always identify my dad in a room full of people. He had that sort of personality. I've often thought about writing such a memoir, but I think I'd write it from my mum's perspective. Now that would be a real story!

Abir said...

Hi Mary! Thank you for your kind words. He really was a very special man. I'm so glad you liked the post.