Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Wait: Notes From Behind the Storyline

As some of you know, my short story, The Wait, carried last year by the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is now available in Japanese in the Hawakaya's Mystery Magazine.

The story itself is deeply personal as it is inspired by the experiences of the families of Indian Prisoners of War who were never returned by Pakistan after the 1971 war ended. When we lived in Pakistan, in the early 1980s, a delegation of these Indian families came to Islamabad to visit the prisons, looking for their missing family members. I have never been able to forget the look of desperation mingled with hope that I saw in the eyes of those who were seeking any information whatsoever about their loved ones. Even a notification of death would have been welcomed.

Meeting those families was one of the experiences that turned me from a child to an adult. I remember my father - who was the Indian embassy liaison for these families - explaining to me that neither government had any real interest in finding these missing soldiers. It was believable that Pakistan would not want to acknowledge that they had not abided by international conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war, but more horrific was the realisation that for my own government, these soldiers were expendable, and worse still, an embarrassing reminder of the state's ineptitude and callousness. The experience went a long way in shaping the way I think of governments and my cynical view of states, regardless of any and all emotional ties I feel for my country.

In many ways, The Wait, is a story that I started writing at the age of fourteen, when I met that delegation looking for their loved ones. Yet some how the story would not form itself. I wrote and rewrote, put it aside, then picked it up again, trying to write it over and over again. Through the years, I tried to make it into a novel, a play, a short film. But nothing worked.

And then strangely enough, in the summer of 2002, as I packed my bags to move to Barcelona, and was enjoying a long lazy summer at my family house in Dehradun, the story decided to birth itself. Perhaps it was the proximity of the the Indian Military Academy and the bright-eyed gentlemen-cadets that stirred the creative embers; or perhaps it was the fact that army jeeps still pull up frequently at neighbours' houses to deliver bad news about their husbands, fathers, sons; or may be it was that I saw that same look of hope and desperation again, this time in the eyes of an aged neighbour, the mother of one of those men who never returned. For all of these reasons, or none of them, the story wrote itself, rapidly, fully formed, with near minimal need for editing.

Of course, it still took many years till it was finally picked up, and for that I have to thank my extremely persistent literary agent! But since 2010, the story has developed a life of its own. Readers have emailed me after reading it, and not just from India. It seems people in many parts of the world have suffered similar losses. I read it last year at an event in Spain and was approached by a distraught Spanish woman afterwards with her own story of loss. And now, of course, it has another avatar, in Japanese!

Perhaps it is the not knowing that makes the story so resonant. Death gives us closure, or at least an ending and a place for new beginnings. Losing someone we love to an unknown fate is infinitely worse, suspending all life in a strange viscous nightmare where all time stops. And it is this sense of suspension that the Hawakaya Mystery Magazine illustration catches for the Japanese translation. I can make no judgement about the translation. In fact it took me nearly fifteen minutes to even find my story in the magazine and could only do so because of a small copyright blurb. But the illustration gave me goosebumps!

It reminded me of the porches of the AWA residences in the mountains, often occupied by widows and orphans of army officers. The old fashioned rocking chair, the slatted wood flooring, the semi-urban path stretching beyond the small wicker gate, all are not only familiar but exactly as I imagined the protagonist's home in the story. It is as if an unknown Japanese illustrator some how peered into my mind just long enough to catch my imaginary snapshot of the place. I do not remember feeling such incredible kinship with another person's artistic process as I do with the unknown illustrator of the story. But part of the magic is the mystery of not knowing him/her name, of imagining that my words alone communicated my mind with sufficient clarity.

Perhaps it should suffice to say that this is yet another magical, mysterious, moment, and I am grateful for the experience. So if the Hawakaya illustrator is reading this, a very big thank you! .