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December 23, 1999
Have You Sent Your New Year Cards Yet?
Around this time each year, I begin to draw up a small list of friends to whom I need to send New Year's cards.
The same four or five names get written down quickly on the list. However, the other five or six names -- I always buy a single pack of ten cards -- pose a problem. I undergo a struggle over each one of the possible names I could include in my second set.
What about the nasty crack that X made about my softball game in July?
Why should I send a card to Y when he has never sent me one, even if it is true that he did invite me over for a Diwali dinner in Atlanta?
Z goes to the movies with X but never with me. I know, I know, by now Z has twice asked me to marry her, but still....
This way of going about the whole business is utterly ridiculous. Of course. The greater truth is that after I had mailed my nice little packet of cards yesterday, I felt very good.
I had sent out little notes to a few folks telling them that I appreciated their presence in my life and that I wished them every possible joy. I wished I could do this for everyone I knew.
The simple power of this thought made me feel embarrassed when I recalled the fact that I had wavered so pettily over a few names on my list.
Soon, the embarrassment began to give way to a feeling of well-being that bordered on faint euphoria. I began to congratulate myself on the lucidity of my understanding.
The next thought that entered my head would be described by some as market-savvy. I told myself, 'If others experience the same dilemmas, maybe I could write a self-help book.'
A Self-Help Book for the Holiday Season. How to Make Your Choices About People and Products.
This is precisely the kind of a miracle that, I guess, folks originally celebrated Christmas for. I was giddy at the thought of having found my subject matter. At last, I had found a title and a topic that would be of universal interest for readers.
This was important for me because, only a few months ago, I had begun to think that I wasn't ever going to make it as a writer. At least, I couldn't go on being a writer on narrow, ethnic themes.
At a conference in Connecticut, an editor from New York City told the audience what kind of books she didn't want. "I don't do homeopathy books," she said, "and I don't do male Indian novelists. In fact, I don't know what I'll do if I see another manuscript by an Indian male novelist."
I don't even write fiction, but, on hearing those words, I had felt doomed. I looked around the room. I was the only Indian there.
The big-shot editor was obviously only being polite when she said novelists. She clearly meant all Indian writers were now forever taboo.
Soon after that meeting, I read a short story by an Indian-American writer, Jhumpa Lahiri. In that story, an Indian man arrives in the US on the same day that the Americans first landed on the moon. Towards the end of his life, he begins to think that while the astronauts spent only hours on the moon, he has been in this country for thirty years.
This man knows that he is neither the first nor the last to leave home in search of work and good fortune.
He says: "Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination."
I felt I understood those words. I wanted to repeat them myself. In my own words, in my own writing.
And then, I remembered the New York editor's words. I also thought that I need to go further, and say something of universal interest. Like Neil Armstrong maybe. "A small step for mankind ...."
But, my steps led nowhere.
That is to say, until yesterday afternoon -- when pausing after mailing my new year's cards, I had the sudden idea that I could become rich by writing a self-help book for shoppers.
I will dispense little bits of wisdom: "Write down the name of a friend. Write next to it the reason why you think the name of that person came to you. Remember that reason and forget the rest."
Or maybe I can produce sentences that rhyme: "This is how it seems to me / Love is like therapy / Real expensive / No Guarantee."
I did not write those words -- thank God! -- Garth Brooks did.
The above lines might even appeal to the New York editor. They pretend to be universal but have the ethnic charm of country music.
In fact, I can do even better. I might simply adopt the faux universalities of a spiritual discourse -- and directly quote the mindless platitudes uttered by Kiran Desai's tree-bound protagonist in the novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard:
"Dab your mouth with honey and you will get plenty of flies... Sweep before your own door... Many a pickle makes a mickle ... Talk of chalk and hear about cheese."
And if I succeed as a self-help book writer, I shall certainly send a new year's card next time to the New York editor with a distaste for books by Indian male novelists.
Amitava Kumar is the author of Passport Photos, forthcoming from the University of California Press.
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