Tag Archives: money

The Venus Flytrap: If Money Isn’t Found In Books…

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When I took a workplace sabbatical to become a consultant, one of the first things I researched was whether going many days at a time without wearing a bra causes sagging. I am happy to tell you that Google told me the opposite is true, but the reason I can enjoy this at all is because of another, far greater, luxury: to work largely out of home, at least for long as I can manage it. Lest you think I’m sitting in some posh veranda, blowing bubbles, bra-lessly contemplating Deep Thoughts and quilling Poems with a peacock feather – when I say working out of home, I still mean working for other people, writing or editing a variety of things for them so that they, in turn, can write me cheques. “Other work”, you see, is what all artists who don’t have inheritances, spouses with sizable incomes or a steady stream of foreign commissions or royalties must do. And that is the vast majority of us.

But don’t we make pots of money from our books, you ask? There are outliers in commercial fiction and selected non-fiction (like celebrity memoirs), but literary work sells very poorly in India. The agent Kanishka Gupta has written extensively about these nitty-gritties, but to break it down for you: the average author makes about 10% on the cover price of each sold book. I remember buying a box of sweets for my former office, a mid-sized advertising agency, when I signed a publishing contract and thinking – only if every single colleague bought a copy of my book would I make enough in royalties to cover the cost of that treat.

Like me, many authors work in allied fields like communications, journalism, media, academia and publishing. Then there are those who can’t or choose not to monetize their literary skills, whose breadwinning careers are unrelated. To give you just a few examples: Upamanyu Chatterjee is an IAS officer. Tanuj Solanki works in life insurance. Kaushik Barua works for the UN. Mainik Dhar manages a global food company. Amrita Narayanan is a psychologist. N.D. Rajkumar, by his own description, is a “coolie” on the Indian Railways. Poovalur Jayaraman, who is in his 80s, sells vadas and bondas from a pushcart. Kavery Nambisan is a doctor, as is Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar – who was suspended from his job as a civil surgeon last week because of a controversy about his writing.

As you can see, each person’s resources and financial security thus vary. At best, any literary income usually only supplements a base revenue from another profession. At worst, as in Dr. Shekhar’s case, even that is risked by the fact that there is very little respect for the arts and their makers in India.

Office?” people have exclaimed to me. “But I thought you were a poet!” It’s unfashionable to admit to having a “day job”, but I want to demystify the idea that we don’t need one. Unless one is extremely fortunate or already privileged, the pragmatic reality is that we do. Readers, this is what goes on behind the curtain. Aspiring authors, this is only some of what you’re in for…

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 17th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Even The High Priestess Has To Hustle

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In the classic Sex And The City episode, “A Woman’s Right To Shoes”, Carrie – a successful, single writer – attends a birthday party for the child of an old friend. She is requested to remove her shoes at the door. When she goes to retrieve them as she leaves, she finds that someone with the same size and very little impulse control has strutted off in them. Specifically, in $485 Manolo Blahnik heels.

After a few days, Carrie sheepishly goes back to check if the shoes may have turned up. Her friend offers to pay for them, balks at their cost, tells Carrie she finds it ridiculous and gives her less than half instead. She thoroughly shames her for what she calls her “extravagant lifestyle” and compares it unfavourably against her choices: kids, houses and the like.

Carries leaves, feeling awful, and eventually comes to her senses: if she has spent large sums of money on gifts for this friend at all the “milestones” of her life (most recently, her child’s party), why does her friend begrudge the achievements of hers, just because they don’t involve matrimony and mortgages? She finds an ingenious way to prove her point that plays right into her friend’s bourgeois worldview.

I recently watched this episode again after many years and found myself quite emotionally invested in it. I identified with Carrie’s shame and indignation, and wished for myself her audacity in fixing the situation. Instead of stewing in a pot of polite resentment, as I’ve been doing.

In October, I had not one but two new books published: The High Priestess Never Marries and The Ammuchi Puchi. My social media feeds right now alternate between the evocative red of the first’s cover and the vibrant jewel tones of the second’s pages. But each time I talk or share about my books, I feel guilty and apologetic.

Because you see, ultimately, devotion to art is not seen as legitimate in the eyes of most of society. It’s the thing you do because you’re selfish. It’s the thing you do because you snub approved goalposts. It’s the thing you do because a girl like you with so much time on her hands needs a hobby.

I don’t believe any of that. But I’m affected by it. What a catch-22: if I didn’t care, I wouldn’t have made the labours of love that I have made.

Why should I feel like I’m hustling when all I’m doing is showing you my heart? And my heart isn’t composed of hashtags, it isn’t crowdsourced attention, it isn’t app-friendly. My heart isn’t the hubris of overnight success, it isn’t borrowed or bought.

Not your baby’s first poop, but my baby’s first reader. Not my selfie of the day, but my selfhood, woven in words. Not a smile plastered on in hungover honeymoon photos, but the tears I wasn’t afraid to let anyone see. Not a posh new address on Papa’s money, but the sanctuary I am building with my own hands and the gifts and curses life gave me.

I cheer on the choices you make. Why can’t you cheer on the chances I take?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 10th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Compulsive Creator

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In the age of the Twitter trending topic, nothing exalts the artist quite like death. When Dennis Hopper, Hollywood maverick and counterculture icon, died a few months ago, this happened in a more interesting way than usual: not only was Hopper remembered for his work in cinema, but a resurgence of curiosity in his photography was sparked. Lauded for half a century as an actor, director and screenwriter, his work with still film – although widely published – came as news to many.

Hopper taught himself photography at 25, and expertly chronicled Americana and the art(ists) of that generation. His subjects included his friends – Paul Newman, Andy Warhol, Tuesday Weld, Ed Rushcha – but mostly, a certain milieu and moment. A self-described “compulsive creator”, Hopper was not unlike many artists, who visibly succeed in one field, but whose body of work runs along several parallel tracks.

What the audience receives is distillation; in the artist’s life, these tracks converge. Back when I first began to develop an Internet presence, I perhaps injudiciously let my bios tip over in their exuberance, listing the various things I did: dance, painting, photography, theatre and (oh yeah) writing. This was meant without conceit, for truly, I was passionate about all of those things, and had yet to understand the benefits of streamlining. Writing was not the first love, only the most extant.

In the same way, it took years for me to think of myself as a poet (instead of as a fiction writer who sometimes wrote poems). When I stumbled into journalism at 16, I did so thinking it a lesser form, with not a shred of the admiration I have for non-fiction now! But now I’m a manquée novelist, a dabbler in many things, but mostly a writer of poetry and non-fiction. Art must necessarily be incidental in a life fully lived (the ash of a life that burns well, as Cohen – who himself was a bard turned balladeer – put it). Recognition is even more secondary, and what one becomes recognized for is almost arbitrary.

Then there’s the question of money. The starving artist is increasingly something of an anachronism: art requires money, be it to buy time, materials, or enough to eat so that the spiritual hunger supersedes the visceral one. So, knowing that both terms of recognition and market value are vagaries, at what point does one become a sellout? At the point of commercial success, or at the point of intention?

Still, the life of a piece of art cannot be charted at the outset. Even sincere intentions can be diverted. Tamra Davis, director of a new film about the legendary Jean-Michel Basquiat, says that toward the end of his life Basquiat was saddened when friends would sell his gifts, if they contained his artwork. They valued it less than their buyers, or their giver.

In some ways nearly everything I do, creatively, is a vanity project. But some things are more likely to succeed than others (and what does success mean? Ah, perhaps another time…). I find the best way to balance ambition with humility is to go back to the naïveté with which I proclaimed all my many passions: to do all of it, love all of it, and then let it go, allowing it to become what it will.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Petty Change

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I like auto drivers. I really do. I’ve met some very nice ones, and employ the services of the yellow brigade on an almost daily basis. Three years of quarrelling, fleecing and one slightly infamous incident with a live chicken in the backseat have neither made me learn how to drive nor kept me homebound unless chauffeured. (The bus? Another story.) I’ve long accepted that I live in a mafia town – and while I can ignore the sambhar mafia, the maami mafia, the bad restaurant music mafia, the Tambrahm Twitter mafia and various other such coteries, the auto mafia has, if not my loyalty, at least my cooperation.

But not without grumbling.

The trick to negotiating life in a mafia town is to claim the small victories. Particularly the hard-boiled ones. Those warm fuzzy moments when the auto driver bypasses the haggling repartee and accepts your first quote, or doesn’t charge you at all and attains moksha immediately are either (a) rare or (b) fantasies you invent to drown out his bitching. All that is just petty change. Fine if it suits you, but it’s fun to just let him keep it.

And let him have it, too. Some people enjoy the victories that end in a blaze of cussing, working out suppressed aggression, or working it up, so they stay edgy and cutthroat for the rest of their office hours. Some like a spot of intimidation, some rude mudras and grimacing perhaps – nothing like a shot of mock macho to start the day. For some, if it doesn’t end in a movie-style chase, it’s not even worth it.

Because, let’s face it, no one who can afford to take autos at all needs that ten rupees enough for that much drama. He knows it, and so do we. The time-waste tango takes two. All that effort for a matter of principle – wouldn’t it be interesting if we applied the same in situations with more at stake?

Personally, what I claim as a victory is having the last word. I have a standard line for when I’m refused the change I’m rightfully due. It loses its histrionic imperiousness in English, but retains its underlying intent to shame philosophically: “If you lie to and cheat people like this, the money you earn won’t stay in your hands”. And with that I saunter off on the moral high ground. My karmic smugness gets further boosted by giving the same amount I was ripped off to the next beggar I encounter.

In my imagination, the auto driver’s conscience is a prickly one. This isn’t wishful thinking. As I said, its bad apples aside, I like the auto mafia. They work hard, stay loyal to each other, have inspiringly syncretic dashboard pantheons – and no one else north of Pondicherry loves that yellow ochre as much as I and these guys do. In a city as harsh as Chennai, they are my intrepid navigators. Holidaying here once years ago, I looked over my photographs and noted how ubiquitous autorickshaws were, noting in a journal entry how they “enter frame after frame of my pictures like seashells caught in a net for fish”. Love it or loathe it, they are the city’s spine. Its ethos – ours – owes more to them than any small change can adequately convey.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.