On death and writing (2005)
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On death and writing

By Margaret Mascarenhas


When the clock struck midnight on December 31, 2004, I was relieved to put a bad year behind me. A year that ended in tsunami tragedy for Asia. A year that saw the re-election of George Bush. A year in which communalism here on the home turf is irresponsibly fomented by propaganda masquerading as “education.” A year during which I lost four close friends and four family members. Then there was the spillover into the new year. Another family member died. We used to be close, but fell out over something major and stuck to our guns for a good twelve years with bulldog tenacity, one of the less endearing markers embedded in my family genetic code. I’m not the sentimental type. Still, I was sad when I remembered earlier times, and thought it even sadder that there was no old friend or family member to stand up and deliver even the briefest of eulogies at his funeral. 


It’s true what they say: the number of funerals you attend increases exponentially when you hit forty. I was attending one when Tony Martins, whom I had never met, dropped off his manuscript. He had been pointed in my direction by The Other India Press. In an email exchange with Martins, I agreed to “have a look” at his work, and, in a telephone exchange with Claude Alvares, learned that he had inquired about, and been informed of, my professional fees.


Contrary to popular opinion, writers of literary fiction rarely make a killing. Most of us have other jobs. My primary and most reliable income comes from editorial services and workshops. I generally receive between three and ten edit requests per month, so I have a lot of manuscripts piled on my desk or stashed on my computer at any given time of the year, and, while I do provide free services on occasion, there is a limit to how much pro bono I can take on. My priority on freebees is to read/edit for exceptional and committed students of creative writing who as yet have no source of income, and serious writer friends who frequently return the favour.


Anyway, when Martins turned up, cash was low. I had just moved and was saving money to redo the precarious roof of my house. I was also short on time: I was working on my new novel and editing several manuscripts. I had no domestic help, so, in addition to being the sole breadwinner, I was also my own maid, cook, driver, shopper, dog walker, gardener and repairman. After reading the work, I turned down Martins’ cavalier pitch that I edit it for free, briefly explaining my time and financial constraints. He asked for my rates, I gave them. He claimed he couldn’t afford those rates, or any rates whatsoever. Then he phoned my neighbor’s daughter, whom he had met in my absence, and asked her to deliver the MS to him in Panjim. The girl’s mother didn’t like the idea, and neither did I. It’s one thing not to be able to afford a professional editor. But asking a college student he’d barely met, to save him the bus fare? I requested Martins to collect the MS. He did. I assumed that was the end of that.


Last December, Silviano Barbosa, who did pay a professional (not me) to edit his work, came to my home and requested me to release his novel, The Sixth Night. After reading the work, I agreed. Not because it is a literary masterpiece, but because it is articulate, informative, and presents a credible cultural and social portrait of Goa quite distinct from the Tourist Department version. At the release function, I mentioned that I am happy that more and more Goans are putting pen to paper to paint a picture of a Goa that differs from standard commercial portrayal, and that I was there because I want to encourage that.


The next day Martins popped out of the woodwork to publish this rather cryptic message on the internet forum, Goanet: “My first mail to Margaret Mascarenhas was whether she would be interested in editing my book…. for nothing more than a million thanks. She agreed. I made a trip to Tivim. Left the manuscript at her neighbour’s (she was attending a funeral). After that she tells me the cost for her editing services would be about Rs 5000/- (This despite the fact that I had duly informed her that I am a guy who is perennially broke.) And now when she talks of encouraging Goan writers, I can only wish her good luck.”


Apart from the odd notion that anyone would be “interested” in working for nothing, Martins implies that I agreed to edit his work for free (I never agree to edit before reading, free or otherwise), went ahead and edited, and then presented him with an invoice. As if this weren’t bizarre enough, he then proceeds to launch an attack on cartoonist Mario Miranda for choosing to go to Brazil instead of staying here and drawing him a cover--also for free.


Some members of Goanet objected to Martins’ theory that everyone who doesn’t drop whatever they’re doing to accommodate him and give him handouts, is a bad person. Martins enigmatically replied that it depended “which side of the fence” one was on. I can only imagine that he was talking about the divide between grownups and babies.


I recount the Martins ignominy here, not because he is in any way unique, but because he has come out in public with the extraordinary and entirely misplaced sense entitlement I’ve noticed among many Goans. And I want to address that. I am especially keen on nipping this attitude in the bud among young people. So I’ll be blunt:  acting like a giant baby is not how to make it the world.


Another aspect of the Goan entitlement complex has to do with delusions of genius. In fact much of the work we see from Goans writing in English is simply substandard.  Some of the manuscripts I’ve personally seen, are border- illiterate. As author Victor Rangel-Ribeiro has repeatedly pointed out in his workshops, writing takes practice and skill. Rather than accept the honest opinion of professionals, hone their craft, improve their writing abilities, many Goan writers choose to rush off and self publish. While self-publishing may be a necessity for those writing in Konkani, due to lack of adequate sponsorship and publishing support, there is no real excuse for those writing in English. Those who do self publish are generally ignored by reputed agents and publishers, as well as grant organizations. Only rarely does a self-published book make it into the mainstream market or achieve anything other than marginal readership and fleeting local recognition, as I felt compelled to inform the author of The Sixth Night.


Awhile ago, I was invited to do a reading and to address a group at Xavier College on writing/publishing. The principal asked me what I planned to do to help budding writers in Goa. “Nothing,” I said, “they have to learn how to help themselves, and if they love writing, they will find a way write no matter what, just as I did.”  Of course that isn’t entirely true; I do conduct sponsored workshops, which are free of cost to students of creative writing. And when I review work that is, in my opinion, significant or exceptional, I endorse it. But I wanted to make the point that the road to success is not littered with people offering you a free ride.  Better to learn that well in advance, rather than reach an advanced age and expect, for example, others to not only come up with ideas to promote your creative endeavor, but, also to execute them. At a workshop conducted by Rangel-Ribeiro, when an interactive website for Konkani writing was recommended, the venerable Manohar Rai Sardessai said: “Yes, we can have a website if you are prepared to set it up for us. We do not have the time.” Like we do have time to set up websites that have nothing to do with us. Then there was the day Nandkumar Kamat said, “I know someone who is interested in reading your novel and translating into Konkani, but he is waiting for a complimentary copy.” Well, guess what, I have to buy my own books from Penguin in order to give anyone a complimentary copy. I figure anyone interested in reading books can buy them, just like I do.


I was lucky enough to have a father who financed my entire education. But even in college, when I needed extra cash for an extracurricular workshop or activity, I worked as a nanny, a tutor, a teacher, even a bartender. The bar, frequented mostly by students and professors, turned out to be fertile ground for a number of short stories.


My friend Nikhil Chaganlal did all kinds of odd jobs before he became established as an artist. Even his father, the well-known collector and gallery owner, Harish Chaganlal, wouldn’t compromise his reputation and exhibit him until he was good enough. As for me, I couldn’t afford a computer when I wrote the draft of Skin, so I paid a typist. When I wrote the final draft, I was bedridden. Propped by pillows, I edited manuscripts during the day, and worked on my novel most of the night. All my adult life I have supported my fiction writing through editing and teaching. I have never approached strangers to ask for handouts. While Mario Miranda and I, and numerous Goans established in creative fields, do believe in encouraging others, here’s a news flash: we ain’t your mamas and sugar-daddies. There is no moral imperative for us to change your diapers. And we have the right to choose those to whom we extend our support based on merit, time constraints, or even our personal whims and fancies.


The choice to enter a creative field such as fiction writing (or art, or music), should be fuelled by a passion for it—a kind of “do or die” drive. Those of you who make that choice will have to work hard to become good, and harder to excel. You will probably have to support your craft by taking on extra employment.  If someone offers money, free services, sponsorship, or public endorsement to you, be grateful, and remember that they are not obliged to. If someone tells you frankly that they are not in a position to provide you with a handout, accept it, and remember they are not obliged to. If you are over the age of twenty-five and aren’t physically, mentally or educationally challenged, there’s no reason to think others owe you a living.  Get a job. Get two. Get your thumb out of your mouth.