I was happy in my own world, living my own life, playing with my best group of friends; cricket, football, riding bicycles, climbing trees, wrestling in the mud, swimming in the lake. It was the time (probably it still is) when we hadn’t heard about a dirty word called,’cleanliness’. Apart from our school uniforms (which looked OK only in the morning) we wore brown clothes all the time, or perhaps they looked brown, no matter what their original colours were.
We were playing hide and seek when she moved into our neighbourhood, along with her humpy-dumpty-looking parents. It was then the confusion started. It was then that so many questions cropped up in my head. Dressed in white frock and white shoes, she looked so clean and out of place. How anyone can be so clean, I wondered. When the workers started unloading the furniture from the truck, Mr. Humpty-Dumpty picked her up and walked towards their house. I frowned. When my mother came outside and stood beside me, I asked, “Is that an angel?” It was a serious question. My mother laughed, “Why don’t you ask her whether she is one?” I never did.
How could a 6-year-old boy ask that? Let me rephrase that question. How could a boy of any age ask that? He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. He shouldn’t. Some questions are never meant to be asked or answered. Else, the magic will be lost. And she was magical.
She was not seen for the next two days; although we played cricket right in front of her house to get a glimpse of her. Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty called us in. We threw our bats and ball, and ran inside. We sat on the sofa with a ‘thump’ as angel’s mother brought us orange juice. Our eyes swept the house as we drank, producing all sorts of creative sounds. One of my friends even rinsed his mouth with a gurgling sound.
“Manasvi has gone out with her father,” Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty said.
We were four boys in all and everyone chanted the name one after the other, as if the name was a difficult poem. Years later I would realize that she was indeed a poem. Difficult, yes. But also lovely. Manasvi, Manasvi, Manasvi, Manasvi … The name had a beautiful ring to it. Sitting in her house that day, drinking juice, I didn’t know that I would be chanting her name for the rest of my life.
The next day when I saw her in my class, my happiness knew no bounds. I kept grinning and the girl who was sitting beside me kept staring at me. “I know that girl. Her house is nearby our house,” I said, as if she was a celebrity. The girl didn’t respond. And I didn’t care.
After our class prayer, our class-teacher called the new girl and introduced her to the whole class. Manasvi stood there and surveyed the class. For some reason I’ve never found Barbie Dolls cute, but if the makers of those dolls had seen Manasvi that day they would have agreed with me too, for all the dolls looked pale in comparison to her. Her uniform – blue and white chequered shirt, blue skirt, black shoes and white socks – was spotless. Her hair was neatly combed and two pony tails were tied with blue ribbons; not a strand of hair was out of place. Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty had taken good care of her.
Her sparkling eyes surveyed the whole class as I tried to look bigger by sitting straight. A moment later our class-teacher sent her back to her place. I scowled. Years later when I asked her whether she noticed me in the class that day, she said, flatly, “I don’t even remember my first day.” Splendid.
I could never talk to her in my primary school days. Though she lived nearby (she still does), went to the same school in the same school bus, studied in the same section, I could never make friends with her. All those monkey tactics I tried to impress her and get her attention never worked: deliberately playing in front of her house, falling down and bruising my legs, smiling when it hurt like hell. Nothing worked. Now when I recently asked her about it, she said, sadly, “I was jealous of all the boys. I wanted to play cricket and football too, but my mother never allowed me. So, no. I was busy imagining as to how I would’ve played when I stood behind the gate like a prisoner.” I silently thanked Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty, for I preferred a girl who was girlie; not a tomboy.
I was in 10th standard when I talked to her for the first time. I had practiced it for five days and when the D-day arrived, I delivered the line with utmost honesty and confidence: “How is your preparation for the exams?” And she sweetly replied, “Good.” And that was the most beautiful word I’d ever heard until then. Well, it was a start.
Manasvi had become quite popular already; dancing, singing, et al. And the competition to get her attention was fierce. As the exams were coming up, I couldn’t think much about it. But there was improvement finally. It was the day of our first exam. We were going through our books during the final moments. She passed in front of me, looking down at her book. “Hey Manasvi,” I called out. She looked up and raised her eyebrows, her lips still moving.
“Studied well?” I asked.
Ah. She asked me something. Finally. Looking back, I don’t know whether my answer would have meant anything, but I am an eternal optimist, you see. So I really thought she was interested to know.
“Yes. Kind of.”
“Kind of? It’s our board exam, for heavens’ sake,” she laughed.
Let me not describe how she looked when she laughed and how I felt about it, for I’m afraid I’m going to bore you to death. On second thoughts, I don’t care. So listen. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen her laugh. But it certainly was the first time in front of me, in response to my answer. We had our English exam that day, and W.B. Yeats, P. B. Shelley and many others’ poems were being learned by heart, ferociously, without understanding what they actually meant. Our English teacher had repeatedly said, ‘Understand the poems properly. Only then you’ll be able to enjoy them.’ None of the students seemed to have grasped it. I was the only exception – to a certain extent. When others were reading and reciting poems, I was literally seeing one in front of me. I do not know whether I understood it (I still don’t know whether I do), but I thoroughly enjoyed its beauty.
I was lost. She said when I didn’t reply, “All right. You seem to be tensed. Good luck, Sawant.”
“Huh? Oh, yes, thank you. You too.”
Do I really have such a good name or is it just that it sounded good because she said it, I asked myself. And I still don’t know the answer. Though I strongly feel it’s the latter. Well, I think it is the latter. Wait a second. I think? No, it is the latter.
When the results came, I had scored more than she. I didn’t know it until she said it.
“You’ve scored well. You’ve scored more than I. Damn it. How did it happen?” she said in mock anger.
“Maybe because you wished me before exams.” I swear I wasn’t flirting.
She laughed, wholeheartedly. “That’s very sweet of you.”
School days were over. But that didn’t bother me much, for I was looking forward to my new life ahead. I was sad about only one thing: Manasvi would not be there. Luckily, I was wrong. She had taken admission in the same Pre University College as I. Boy, was I happy that day!
I had taken Biology and I was interested in only Anatomy. But my specimen had chosen Statistics. Whatever for, I didn’t know.
Two years passed in a jiffy; tensions, headaches, worries – about board exams, CETs, etc. I sometimes wonder; from the day we are born, we are made to think in only one direction. Work hard to get good grades; work hard to get good grades in 10th standard, work hard to get good percentage in plus two, which will land you in a good college; work hard to get good percentage in college, work hard to get a good job, work hard to get a promotion, work hard to get a salary hike, work hard to get a good wife, work hard to make children, work hard to make your children work hard, work hard to get them into good colleges, work hard to die peacefully. So basically you only live to die. Is that it? Monday blues on Mondays and TGIF on Fridays. Aren’t we supposed to do something that doesn’t require hard work but lots of love and smart work? Aren’t we supposed to do something where Monday blues and TGIF do not exist? But every day of the week is pure fun?
My mind was wavering, trying to find answers to all these questions. I was also aware that nobody was going to ask me these questions. Everyone would ask only one question: how much did you score?
In the midst of all these ‘mental’ problems if there was one thing that kept my sanity, it was certainly Manasvi’s presence. Unfortunately I could never talk to her much in those two years and I thought she’d go away after plus two, to some ‘top’ college. I was about to be proved wrong.
I had turned eighteen, and along with the driver’s license, I had also secured a license to practice Ornithology. I brazenly did it. I believe practicing ornithology and flirting is every boy’s birth right. No one can take it away from him. All these things came to an end on the third day of my college life, for Manasvi arrived on the third day.
I was astonished. “How come you are here? I thought you were going to Mysore.”
“No, I chose to stay. I had come to your house last evening. Didn’t your mother tell you?”
“No. I was off station. Returned this morning. She must have forgotten.”
“OK. Seems like we are going to be together for the next four years,” she laughed. Years had passed but her laughter had never changed. Perfection can’t be improved, you see.
We were together for the past twelve years, I wanted to say. But didn’t.
Though we had known each other and stayed in the same neighbourhood for twelve years, we had never really become friends, or perhaps I had never tried. This changed soon. We became good friends in college. And it wasn’t a good thing. Being ‘just friends’ with the girl you love is very dangerous, because there are good chances of remaining ‘just friends’ forever. ‘Make your intentions known’ is the mantra, and I never chanted it.
The only good thing was I got to spend time with her: College, library, movies, parties, visiting each other’s house during festivals and exams. But I was still ‘just a friend’. I didn’t complain, thinking that I had three more years to let her know about my feelings for her. I was wrong. Time was running out.
We were in our second year when she announced that she had a crush on Abhilash, the so-called ‘hunk’. They became friends very soon. As the days progressed she started spending less time with me. I was her friend and I was supposed to ‘understand’ it.
‘Hunk’ had one more name: Ghost Rider. There is a curious story behind the name. He had a Royal Enfield Bullet Electra 350cc bike. It suited well for his personality. When every boy in college either had a Pulsar or Yamaha or TVS, our hunk stood apart with his monster bike. When he was in first year he had a girlfriend named Namitha, who seemed to be a permanent pillion rider. Nobody ever saw him alone on his bike. Now, Namitha darling was a dark girl and weighed around 80 kilograms (conditions apply). She had an amazing dressing sense. We sometimes wondered whether her father owned a textile factory. Not because her clothes were distinct, but because we never believed that jeans pants came in such distinct sizes. They had to be specially made. Another thing was that four days in a week she wore tribal dress; the ones with tiny, round shaped mirrors all over. As an icing on a cake, her hair was always let loose. And like a double icing on a cake, she had loads of ‘additude’ (not attitude). Some called her African jungle baby, some of us simply called her, The Ghost. So she was the ghost, who rode pillion on ‘hunk’s bike. Hence the hunk became Ghost Rider.
And now, my love rode pillion on his bike. Though the name Ghost Rider stuck, everyone changed his tone: ‘He finally has a nice-looking girlfriend.’ Needless to say, my stomach churned.
There were only a few minor differences between me and Ghost Rider. He was well over six feet tall; I was (and am) five-seven. He had a well-built body, whereas I only had a body (like everybody does). He had a monster bike, and I had an old Hero Honda Splendour. He participated in glamorous activities like dancing and music (he played guitar for a band) and I took part in dramas and skits. He played Basket-Ball and I played chess. He anchored and gave opening/closing speeches to important college functions, whereas I wrote speeches, which somebody else delivered and got the fame. The bugger even studied well.
When an incredibly beautiful girl like Manasvi falls for such a guy, it’s not a surprise. Now what was I supposed to do? I didn’t know. So I didn’t do anything.
“So tell me, Sawant. Do you have a girlfriend?” Ghost Rider asked.
We were sitting in an ice-cream parlour. It was owned by a local boxer and Ghost Rider was a good friend of his. Both went to the same gym. Since it was a boxer’s ice-cream parlour, all the ice-creams had distinct names.
Ghost Rider was about to say something when the waiter arrived.
“What will you have?” asked my arch rival.
He was already eating Rocky Marciano and I don’t know what Manasvi was eating. Perhaps she was having Laila Ali. I didn’t want to be left alone, so I ordered Raging Bull. Five minutes later when my ice-cream arrived I found that it wasn’t as good as its name. Just like Ghost Rider.
I took another spoonful when Ghost Rider asked, “Don’t you really have a girlfriend?”
I eyed him once. He was definitely well-toned. He was definitely more handsome than I. There was no way I could have challenged him and made Manasvi promote me from ‘just a friend’ to ‘someone special’. But as my Guruji Mark Twain once said, ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’ I fought on.
“As a matter of fact I do,” I said, taking another spoonful of Raging Bull.
Manasvi stopped eating and looked up.
“But there is a small problem,” I continued, “I’m not her boyfriend.”
Angel raised her eyebrows and tilted her head sideways, as if asking, ‘What are you talking about?’
“What’s the problem?” It was he.
“She is with someone else.”
“You never told me,” Manasvi cried.
“I wanted to tell you, Mans. But the time wasn’t right.” Irony, that.
“You are such a moron. Who is she? From our college? Do I know her?” It was a typical girlie question. She wanted to know everything at the same time, irrespective of the priorities.
Before I could think of something, she said, giggling, “I think I know. It’s Ashwini, right? I knew you had a thing for her.”
“So what is it? It’s just a crush or you have feelings for her?” Ghost Rider asked.
“More on that later. Now let me ask you the same question. Is it just a crush or do you really love Manasvi?” I said, smiling at both of them. It was a very direct question and it startled them to the core.
When none of them replied, I said again, “Tell me. Where is it going?”
“I’m not sure,” he faltered. I looked at Manasvi. She didn’t respond.
“So you are just friends?” I probed further.
“No,” he was quick.
“Then? You are not just friends; you are not sure whether you love her. So what’s the name of this relationship?”
“She is my girlfriend.” There was some mild anger in his voice.
“That’s the problem these days,” I said. “Everybody says the same thing. ‘She is my girlfriend. He is my boyfriend.’ But what nobody says nowadays is, ‘I love her or I love him’. Saying that you are in love with a girl is termed old-fashioned,” I paused for a few seconds, letting the words sink, and then continued. “All right. She is your girlfriend. Or perhaps your Champion’s Trophy. Right?”
Manasvi didn’t speak a word. Perhaps she wanted to know what her ‘boyfriend’ would say.
“Look, here’s the thing,” Ghost Rider began. “It’s like this. Before you buy a bike, you have to take a lot of test drives. Once you are convinced that a certain bike is comfortable, you go for it.”
I didn’t dare look at Manasvi. Rather I asked, simply, “So, how many test drives have you had so far?”
It was then it hit him hard like a thunderbolt. I had done the necessary damage. Damn it, I am not guilty of it. Everything is fair in love and war. It may sound a bit clichéd, but it is relevant.
“Oh, no, Manasvi. I didn’t really mean it that way. I was just trying to give an example …”
No use, my boy. No use.
“Answer his question, Abhi. How many test drives have you had so far? And how many do you intend to have in the future?”
Gosh, was I enjoying this! If I was, I didn’t evince it.
“Why don’t girls understand me?” he cried.
Oscar Wilde came in handy then. I said, “Women are meant to be loved, not to be understood, you know.” That was some salt on his wound.
I could see Manasvi from the corner of my eye. She was staring at me.
Oscar Wilde had fallen on his deaf ears. He said to Manasvi, ignoring me, “Come on. Don’t say that. I can die for you, you know.”
I suddenly looked at the wall behind me and checked the calendar. It was unquestionable. The year was 2010, all right. For a moment, after hearing Ghost Rider’s dialogue, I was a bit confused. I thought it was 1960.
“Oh, really? You can die for me, yet you don’t know where this relationship is going, huh?”
He opened his mouth to say something, but words wouldn’t come out.
Moments later she got up and left. I followed suit. Ghost Rider was left alone among boxers.
Ghost Rider was really a nice person. I liked him a lot. But the boy didn’t know what he really wanted and how to say things. If he were not Manasvi’s ‘boyfriend’ we would have been good friends.
Over the next few days he kept trying to reach Manasvi, but to no avail. She didn’t return my calls either. Why would she? After all, I was the culprit.
They were back together a week later. They had somehow reconciled. And I was back to square one. I was still ‘just a friend’.
She invited me and a few other friends (including Ghost Rider) to her house. It was her birthday. Over the past few years I had just wished her, verbally. This time I wanted to give something adorable, something worth remembering. But what? I had no idea.
Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty welcomed me, lovingly. I had grown fond of her over the years and she always treated me like her own son. So, naturally, I was the star guest. Two hours earlier I had decorated the house for the party. It wasn’t too grand, but had an aura of elegance. Manasvi didn’t speak much, as she was still angry with me over the ice-cream parlour incident. At least I thought like that.
After the cake-cutting ceremony, snacks were served. Everyone had bought cool presents: Teddy bears, big, musical greeting cards, a pair of high-heeled sandals (girls, I tell you!), etc. A huge, life-sized teddy bear was of course given by Ghost Rider.
When my turn came, I carefully took out a thin 5” X 5” square gift-wrapped pouch, with a silver-coloured ribbon on it. Manasvi said a mild ‘thank you’ and opened the wrapper. It was a DVD.
“What’s in it?” she asked.
I shrugged my shoulders.
Everyone was eager to know. Manasvi ran the disc in her DVD player, connected to TV. A movie started to play on the screen.
I have always believed that going to a gift shop and buying gifts is easy. It’s too formal, it’s too frivolous. Also, birthdays are not remembered these days. Mark Zuckerberg reminds people of their ‘friends’’ birthdays. Telling the birthday boy/girl, ‘I remembered your birthday and bought you a present’ is not important. But showing how much his/her birthday means to you is. This could be your birthday, but it’s my special day too. Time is the greatest gift one can ever give to a friend.
What I had done was simple. I had compiled all her photos; right from her childhood days, right from the day she moved into our neighbourhood. Photos of her birthday parties when she was a child and all the little boys and girls of our neighbourhood were her guests; photos of school days, photos of her on stage, reciting a poem or singing or dancing along with other participants; photos of her in the hospital when she was sick with typhoid (I had taken it without anyone’s knowledge), photos of send-off parties in school and PUC; photos of little trips we had been to, along with other classmates, and many more. Almost every type of emotion was captured. In fact many photos were being seen for the first time. Even Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty was surprised. “When was this?” she kept asking me from time to time. Bottom line: Her whole life ran like a movie, with suitable captions and quotes and mellifluous music in the background.
I was increasingly becoming emotional with every photograph. I got up to go, but Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty wouldn’t let me. The movie got over. Everyone looked at me. Two girls that had come were impressed. But the birthday girl stayed silent. Not a word.
“But how come you are not there in a single photograph? Those Deepavali photos. You were here that day. Why haven’t you included a photo with you in it? Not even one?” asked Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty.
“At least you could have put your name in the end. Something like, ‘Video created by Sawant’,” said a girl.
I cleared my throat and replied, candidly, quoting Oscar Wilde, “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.”
After that I couldn’t stay there. I wished her once again and left. Had I stayed there a moment longer, they would’ve noticed tears welling up in my eyes.
Manasvi didn’t talk to me for over a week and I didn’t try. I left her alone. Then one day she called me and asked me to meet her in the reading room of our college.
“Thanks,” she said.
“For the memories.”
I said a moment later, “That hospital photo is damn good, isn’t it?”
“Yes, right. Get ready to die.”
We laughed, deliciously, holding each other’s hands.
I began when the laughter had subsided, “Look, Mans. I never got a chance to apologize. I’m really sorry about the other day. I should have kept my mouth shut.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m not with him anymore.”
I was shocked and happy at the same time.
“What? What happened?”
“Nothing big. We didn’t have a fight. It’s just that I realized that he was not my type and I was not his type. Also, thanks to you. I wouldn’t have realized this if not for you. Whatever you said made sense to me later. Abhilash is a good guy, but not good enough for me.”
They had never had a fight after the ice-cream parlour incident. As the days progressed they had drifted away, respectfully, in a decent manner. No goodbyes, no ‘let’s break up’, no nothing. Just a simple understanding.
“I’m so sorry,” I mumbled.
“Don’t be,” she snapped.
Days and weeks passed and we started spending a lot of time with each other. It was just like before. One day when we were sitting in the reading room, writing our lab records, she suddenly asked, “What about Ashwini?”
“Ash who?” I asked, without looking up.
“Don’t act now. You were about to say something about your secret one-sided love story in the ice-cream parlour the other day when the conversation took a different turn. Now tell me about it in detail.”
I stopped writing. “Forget it.”
“I won’t, my dear.”
“It’s not Ashwini, all right.”
I had always fantasized about my proposal; a nice evening in a restaurant, with a magnificent gift in hand, and so many other filmi things. But when I actually did propose to her, it was in the most awful, unromantic place on earth (college reading room), at the most awful time (two-thirty in the afternoon, when the sun was having its vengeance on innocent college boys and girls), wearing the most atrocious dress possible (jeans, t-shirt, sandals).
“You,” I said, flatly, looking straight into her eyes.
She stared at me, probably looking for some sign of naughtiness.
None of us spoke for two minutes. Then she said, “You are serious, aren’t you?”
“Of course, I am. Since eternity. I just wanted to play with you when you moved into our neighbourhood; I wanted to make friends with you in high school. We did become good friends later on and we still are. Whatever happens, I hope this will never change. But the fact remains. I’ve always loved you. If there is any girl with whom I want to spend the rest of my life, it’s you.”
She didn’t respond. I continued, “Throughout the centuries people have been telling that a boy should find a girl to die for. Somehow it doesn’t apply in my case; it doesn’t make any sense to me; because you are the girl I want to live for.” I paused for a minute. Her expression remained inscrutable. “Look, I know this is coming as a shock to you. I wanted to tell you two years ago, but I ran out of time. You were with Abhilash already. Never found the right time. I still do not know whether this is the right time.”
Silence sang in the air again. “I know I am not a romantic person. I won’t say that I’m going to die if you don’t accept me. I won’t become a lovelorn tragic hero. I love myself too much for that. But remember this: You were, you are and you will always be the one. Whatever I do with my life, you’ll always be my muse, my love, my reason to live and achieve.”
Several minutes passed and she still hadn’t said anything. She never took her eyes off mine. And then, without saying anything, she collected her books and walked away.
The next two weeks were unbearable. She neither called me nor replied to my calls and messages. I was confused. I had already lost hope of even being ‘just a friend’. I thought I had lost her forever. But if such a thing had happened, I wouldn’t have had any purpose to write this.
She visited my house one evening. After having a pep talk with my mother she entered my room. I was writing my assignment then. She came and stood next to my table. I got up. Our eyes met. A moment later she slapped me hard across my face. What just happened? I was about to find out.
“Who said you were not romantic, you moron,” she said as a tear rolled down her cheek.
“Wh … wha ... –,” she slapped me again.
“That video you made me says everything. I should’ve understood it then. In fact a thought crossed my mind, but how should I’ve known for sure? You’ve no idea how many times I’ve watched it in the last ten days. Why didn’t you tell me before?” she burst into tears as she slapped me once again and hugged me.
I held her in my arms, not wanting to let her go. She didn’t mind. A few minutes later I asked, smelling her hair, “Hey, Mans, your hair smells great.”
“Wish I could say the same about your hair, your shirt, your room. Such a dirty scumbag you are.”
A new problem had begun. Cleanliness. It was only my mother till now. Now there were two women. God, where are women manufactured? Sterilized room of a perfume factory?
It was Valentine’s Day. We were sitting in a cozy restaurant, enjoying every second. Today was a special occasion and she looked ravishing in her red dress. I could never take my eyes off her. “Thank you,” she said, brushing her curls to the back of her ears. I don’t know why but I’ve always loved to see a girl do it. And when the girl is Manasvi, it’s still better.
“So what’s that you are hiding in that bag?” she asked.
I took out a neatly bound book, which had Manasvi written on it, and pushed it towards her, on the table.
“Manasvi? What is it?”
“Remember that video I made for you?”
“What kind of question is that? Of course I remember.”
“Well, this is the book version of it. I’ve penned down everything. From the day you moved into our neighbourhood; from the time I asked my mother whether you were an angel to the recent times. A sort of memoir, an epistle, a symphony to my Valentine.”
She didn’t say anything for a few minutes as she leafed through the pages. The book was handwritten.
“You are a nerd. Do you know that?” she said at last.
“I knew you’d say something like this. That’s why I’ve also bought a big box of chocolates, a fancy greeting card and a teddy. Here, take them. Enjoy,” I said, handing over the bag.
She pushed the bag aside, without taking a look inside, and continued to go through the book, all the while smiling. I knew she was overwhelmed with joy, but would never admit it. When she couldn’t go further she kept the book back inside the bag and asked me, “Tell me something. What’s the most you can do for me? It’s Valentine’s Day and I have a right to know.” She was anything but foolishly romantic. My lady love was just teasing me.
“The most I can do for you, Mans, is to be with you always,” I said, looking at her delightful face.
She smiled and looked away, not knowing how to react.
My Guruji Mark Twain once said, ‘Never say the obvious thing, but leave the obvious thing to commonplace and inexperience people to say.’
Sorry, Guruji. It doesn’t work always. I’ve learned from experience that when you are with a girl, don’t act smart. Just say the very obvious thing.
Copyright © Karthik 2011
No. I don’t believe in god, or to be specific, I don’t believe in superpower. I’ve always believed that my conscience was my God and my parents were my conscience. Apart from this belief, if there is one person whom I believe is capable of doing the impossible, the one who is capable of turning my world topsy-turvy with his stupendous imagination, which feels nothing less than real; who inspires me every time I hear his name, or see his picture – it is certainly Frederick Forsyth. My God.
Born on 25th August, 1938 in Ashford, Kent, England, he became the youngest pilot in RAF at the age of 19, serving from 1956 to 1958. For the next three and a half years, he worked as a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press in Norfolk and became a correspondent for Reuters in 1961, in Paris, at the age of 23 and then in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
After returning to London in 1965, he worked as a radio and television reporter for the BBC. As assistant diplomatic correspondent, he covered the Biafran side of the Biafra-Nigeria war from July to September 1967.
He didn’t know that all this experience would come in handy during his later years as a novelist. “I became a novelist by fluke,” he says, matter-of-factly. “In January 1970, I had no job, no commission, and no money in my bank account either. So went back to the notion I had for the novel about the assassination of Charles De Gaulle. Sat down to write and finished the novel in 35 days.”
And thus the world came in possession of a genius. To this day, The Day of the Jackal is one of the most astounding books ever to be written.
“As a boy I had two burning passions - to fly for the RAF and travel all over the world,” he recalls. “Journalism National service achieved the first, and journalism and fiction writing accomplished the second.”
His style of writing is one of a kind. When most authors create a central character first and then weave a story around him/her, Forsyth creates the plot first and then introduces the character as per the needs of the story. Though the heroes in his novels are fascinating, plots play a bigger role, and a central character is just a necessity. In The Devil’s Alternative, the hero Adam Munro doesn’t realize his true role until the end, and so does the reader. There are bigger players playing the game.
The first few chapters are always slow. The reader doesn’t understand as to what is happening and why. The hero is not introduced so early in the novel. For example, Quinn, the protagonist in The Negotiator, doesn’t appear until 130 pages into the novel. Everything is under wraps. To quote him: “Unlike most novels, it (while talking about The Day of the Jackal) takes off rather slow. I’d like to set out my chess pieces in an orderly sequence. My novels start with a gentle arrangement of chess pieces.”
Reading Forsyth’s novels is like watching a masterful game of chess. You’ll have to read in order to understand what I’m talking about.
His novels are full of information about the minutest technical details: money laundering, illegal arms dealing, identity theft. The conversation between the Jackal and the gun-maker in The Day of the Jackal goes on for more than ten pages. The description of the rifle itself goes on for more than five pages. And in The Fourth Protocol, he actually gives detailed explanation about building a tiny nuclear bomb. And entire chapter is dedicated to it. And so is the burglary scene in the beginning of the novel. So is the case when he explains about the ship in The Devil’s Alternative. No wonder he takes about 2-3 years to research for each book. Every sentence reeks of authenticity; every little thing seems so real. And he doesn’t write about such things in detail to show off his research work, but to show what kind of world his characters live in. They are necessary, they are important.
Some may not want so much detail while reading a novel, but in my opinion, these are the things that make the stories look authentic. So if you are the kind of person who enjoys Twilight and Mills and Boon and the lot, Forsyth is not for you. As he says, the world is made up of predators and prey, and only the strong survive.
You read a headline in a newspaper and move on. Forsyth doesn’t. His novels are all about what might have happened behind those headlines. The “What If” scenario. His books show the ways in which mercenaries, terrorists, diplomats, mafias go about their business – behind the screens. For example, the Jackal in The Day of the Jackal doesn’t just buy a rifle and goes for the kill. He does a meticulous research on the man he wants to kill. He goes to the library and studies his target, obtains a false identity, tests his weapon in an isolated place. Months of research to kill a man. That’s Frederick Forsyth’s world.
Forsyth was the man who first introduced an easy, yet effective way of stealing someone’s identity, in a novel. That kind of identity theft was not heard until then, until The Day of the Jackal. Once the book came out, many assassins used the same technique to obtain false papers. When Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (popularly known as Carlos the Jackal), one of the most elusive fugitives, was caught, The Guardian gave him the nickname Jackal. Reason was simple. A copy of The Day of the Jackal was found in his bag.
This is one of the reasons why sometimes Forsyth is a headache for the secret agencies. When he writes about a building in a ‘specific area’ that is posing as a tax office, but in fact is a hideous front of CIA or FBI or MI5, you can believe it without questioning. The research is that accurate. When he talks about the world of ruthless arms dealers, drug dealers, mercenaries, the Nazi underworld, every scenario is entirely plausible. In The Afghan, the Al-Quaeda uses a ship to carry out an attack, similar to 9/11. In fact, there is a rumour that Forsyth coined the idea in the late nineties, about a terrorist group hijacking an airplane and how they are stopped from ramming the biggest building in the biggest city. He had to drop the idea when 9/11 happened.
But then again, as they say, one has to suffer for one’s art. Fresh from the success of The Day of the Jackal, when Forsyth traveled to Hamburg to research for his third book, The Dogs of War (a novel about a British businessman, who hires mercenaries to pull off a coup d’etat and establish a puppet regime), he ingeniously infiltrated into the group of arms dealers, posing as an arms buyer from South Africa. As co-incidence would have it, one of the gang members saw his picture in a nearby book shop under the advertisement of The Day of the Jackal. His cover was blown. A few minutes later Forsyth received a phone call from his contact, who informed him about his cover being blown. He had 80 seconds to leave the country.
In his own words, “I managed to penetrate their world and was feeling rather proud of myself actually. What I didn’t know was that the arms dealer had passed a bookshop shortly after our meeting. And there, in the window, was The Day of the Jackal. With a great big picture of me – the man he thought was a South African arms buyer – on the back cover.
“I left all my clothes, grabbed my money and passport and ran across the square to the train station. There was a train pulling out so I did a parachute roll through the window, landing on a bewildered businessman. The ticket conductor asked me where I was going. I asked him where the train was going and he said Amsterdam. So am I, I said.”
Now, can you imagine the risk involved? All for the sake of a novel. On the other hand, there are a bunch of so-called best-selling authors in India. (No, I'm not talking about geniuses like Amitav Ghosh, Vikas Swarup, Vikram Seth and the lot. I'm talking about those who write cheap and sell cheap.) The only research they do for their novels is as to how to have sex in the most uncomfortable places, in the most uncomfortable situations. In the backseat of a car parked in a parking lot, when the couple’s friends are within earshot; on the terrace, when the girl’s family is celebrating downstairs, to name a few. Anyway, let me not divert your attention.
So, coming back to the real man; the risk he took to research for his latest novel, The Cobra – released in August 2010, after a gap of four years, with the last novel being The Afghan, released in 2006 – was nothing less. He flew to Guinea-Bissau in 2009 (at the age of 71) to investigate its role in moving cocaine from South America to markets across Europe. The tiny West African country is the hub of the international drugs trade according to UN officials, and billions of dollars worth of cocaine are believed to pass through the poor, weak nations of the region.
Forsyth, posing as a bird-watcher, flew there, only to find himself in the middle of chaos.
“It was just my luck that I landed during a coup d’etat. Someone had blown up the head of the army, and the army were coming into town to avenge whoever did it, and I landed about an hour before they came. I installed myself in a hotel, couldn’t sleep, was reading and heard a hell of a bang down the street and I knew it was not thunder but an explosion.”
The blast was actually an attack on President Joao Bernado Vieira, who was killed in revenge for the assassination of armed forces chief of staff General Batista Tagme Na Wei, hours earlier.
On his return, Forsyth contracted septicemia in his left leg, from a sting in Africa, and spent several weeks in hospital before resuming his research.
During his stay in Guinea-Bissau, he borrowed a phone from someone (he doesn’t use cell-phones) and dictated about 1,000 words to Daily Express, for which he writes a column, about what was happening in the region. This was intercepted by NSA (National Security Agency) and his wife’s laptop was hacked.
“Unfortunately, the American intelligence services listened to it and wasted my wife’s computer screen and totaled all her lunch dates.”
He claims his suspicions were confirmed to him by his sources – the people who provide information for his books – whom he likes to describe as his “friends in low places”.
“Everything up there in the ether is intercepted, probably by the NSA at Fort Meade in Maryland, and I think my report ended up somewhere on a desk at Fort Meade.”
According to him, they assumed he might be involved in the attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau in some way, because he had previous experience in the region, and had written about a fictional coup in Equatorial Guinea in The Dogs of War.
He had also discussed the details of such a coup in 1973 with real-life plotters and given them money in return for information. The coup never materialized as the participants were arrested before it came off.
Now, isn’t he the man who lives on the edge?
Here is a man, who doesn’t trust the material found on the internet. He doesn’t use a computer, let alone the internet. He doesn’t even use cell-phones. He still uses an old Canon typewriter to write his novels, which he does at a rattling speed. “Twelve pages a day, 3,000 words a day, seven days a week. But it’s the research that takes time. I can finish off writing in about 40 days. And, yes, I have to force myself to write. Sounds ungrateful, I know.” He further adds, “I am slightly mercenary. I write for money. I feel no compulsion to write. If someone said, ‘You are not going to write another word of fiction,’ it wouldn’t matter a damn.”
Pretty unlikely for a brilliant author. Maybe only a man of his stature can say something like that.
He’s been chased by arms dealers, stripped down by the KGB and interrogated, and many more. Once, when he was researching for a novel in Prague, he was constantly followed by the secret agency, the StB. One night, at a disco, he met a girl called Jana. “We had a drink and a dance. It was a hot August night, and I suggested we have a swim in the lake. So we went skinny dipping, then I spread out a rug and we made love. As I drove her back to the hotel, I remarked that there were no headlights in my rear view mirror. ‘Where the hell are the STB?’ I said. She replied, ‘You just made love to it’.”
That’s Frederick Forsyth for you. I can brazenly say that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who have read his novels and those who haven’t. I am happy I belong to the former.
Read Avenger, and Cal Dexter will put Rambo to shame. Read The Fist of God and The Afghan, and Mike Martin will tell you that heroes are made of steel. Read The Odessa File, and you’ll understand what it really takes to investigate. Read The Negotiator, and Quinn will give you the real definition of intelligence. Read The Devil’s Alternative, and you’ll know how the game of international politics is played. Read The Fourth Protocol and The Cobra, and you’ll know how plans are made and executed to perfection. Read The Dogs of War, and you’ll understand the world of mercenaries and what they are capable of doing. Read The Deceiver, and marvel at Sam McCready’s deceptions. And I don’t need to say why one should read The Day of the Jackal. It is compulsory. Period. I’m yet to read Icon and No Comebacks. The latter is a collection of ten short stories. I’m saving them for difficult times. If I read it, I won’t be having anything marvelous left to read.
Whichever book you read, in the end you’ll be left with a single question: Was it fact or fiction? Believe me; you won’t be able to answer it.
With The Cobra, the 73-year-old genius has announced his retirement. He insists that he has no plans to write any more books. “I’ve said that at least three times now. So, who knows?” he says with a chuckle.
Hope he doesn’t hang up his typewriter. May he live long, may he write more, and may we read more.
The answer is simple: because I want to.
When once the itch of literature comes over a man, nothing can cure it but the scratching of a pen. But if you have not a pen, I suppose you must scratch any way you can. ~ Samuel Lover, Handy Andy, 1842
I prefer scratching of a pen and not otherwise. Hence the writing.
I read somewhere that writing clears your head. But in my case it is nothing less than a fallacy. Writing has never cleared my head and I am happier that way. It’s awe-inspiring to see my thoughts manifest into words on a piece of paper.
Painting pictures with words is one of the most fascinating things I’ve experienced so far, and I am certain that pleasure will continue for the rest of my life.
In writing, I find solace.
In writing, I find happiness.
In writing, I find peace and tranquility of mind.
Most of my rambling thoughts have found their way on to the paper, because I’ve stuck to the basic principle of writing: ‘Writers Write.’ But I don’t wish to trouble anyone who visits this blog with those unbridled feelings of mine (Just in case if I get an overwhelming urge to share something sometime, I may do so. You will have to bear with me then).
I’ve always been enchanted by stories and that’s where my main interest in writing lies.
So mainly I shall be posting short stories and occasionally, an article, or an experience.
If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. ~ Toni Morrison
Someday, I will.