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Ten years, one novel, two prize shortlists

Roshan Ali on the agony of writing his first book after dropping out of college 10 years ago

Roshan Ali is on the shortlists of the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and JCB Prize for Literature this year.raj sam/mint
Roshan Ali is on the shortlists of the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and JCB Prize for Literature this year.raj sam/mint

Roshan Ali became a writer the hard way. About 10 years ago, he dropped out of college, where he was pursuing a course in graphic design. “I felt defeated by college," he says. Before he quit, Ali happened to take an elective in poetry, where he discovered, to his surprise, that he not only enjoyed writing but was also quite good at it. And so, for the next decade, he worked on a novel, broke and lonely, floundering between self-doubt and confidence. It was finally published earlier this year as Ib’s Endless Search For Satisfaction.

Critical reception was tepid. But the 30-year-old Bengaluru-based Ali surprised himself once again—and many others—by appearing on the shortlist of the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and JCB Prize for Literature this year. Ali’s (seemingly) endless search for satisfaction as a struggling author seems to have ended at last—or, at least, found some closure.

“I had never expected to be nominated for any prize," Ali says, when we meet for coffee in Bengaluru. “I am a generally pessimistic person, though I did occasionally feel that I would become a writer one day while I was working on the book for all these years." Temperamentally, he used to be similar to his protagonist. “I was once like Ib, but not any longer."

Autobiography is an obvious, often irresistible, trap for first-time authors. It was no different for Ali. Ib, the narrator of his novel, is inspired by his experiences, though some of the trappings of Ib’s life are fictionalized. “I am an empty man in an empty city," Ib tells the reader in the opening lines by way of introduction, “and every time I begin to fill up, the city sucks it all out again." A tone of passive, at times anodyne, commentary marks Ib’s character. “I wanted to make him a witness," Ali says, “someone who simply goes with the flow of life".

Ib’s Endless Search For Satisfaction is cast in the mould of a bildungsroman: the German term for a genre of writing that charts the life of its protagonist from youth to adulthood. Along this circuitous journey, the hero (or anti-hero, as in the case of Ib) is subjected to a series of moral and psychological trials, which he (usually) valiantly withstands. In English, the classic example of this mode of fiction is A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man (1916) by James Joyce. Even though Ali was influenced by Joyce, it was Ulysses (1922) that left a deep impact on him. “I tried writing in the stream of consciousness style for a while before I found my voice," he says.

It was in an unlikely place that Ali found his lodestar—the American writer Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel, The Adventures Of Augie March, a picaresque novel which describes the life of the eponymous, roguish hero growing up in a humble home in post-war Chicago. “I hardly read much back then," says Ali. “I was so insecure about my work that I felt I would be almost betraying myself if I read too many other writers." He did read Vladimir Nabokov, though (“I probably read Lolita thrice"), among a handful of other non-Indian writers. But it was in Bellow that he found the “synchronicity" of pitch and timbre he was looking for all along.

Ib’s recounting of his life’s story is shorn of self-irony, which can be quite disarming at times. As a “quiet child" with no siblings, he prefers the company of imaginary friends over real ones. He is an unremarkable adolescent, scraping through school, inveterately ordinary. He hangs out with the boys, is bad at sports, becomes aware of his attraction to girls through pornography, watched in cyber cafés on the sly, and, before long, begins to loiter around the unnamed city he lives in. His mission in life is to “avoid the mad dissatisfaction of being hollow".

Ib’s father Kamran (Ib calls him Appoos) is “harmlessly schizophrenic", and his primary caregiver is Ib’s long-suffering mother, Rukmini. She is also at the receiving end of her own father’s barbs. Ib’s Ajju, his grandfather, supports the family financially but also extracts his pound of flesh by being authoritarian and gratuitously cruel. He forces his grandson into college, in spite of Ib’s vehement opposition to the idea. In old age, he becomes mired in spirituality, runs after fraud sadhus and tries to coerce his reluctant daughter into following his path. Although it is never explicitly stated, part of his animosity seems to stem from the fact that his daughter married a Muslim, who, as it turns out, is incapable of looking after his family.

For Ajju, mental illness isn’t a condition requiring medical intervention. All his father needs, he tells Ib when the boy seeks his help to get his father to a doctor, is “some discipline and calm". “Tell your mother to leave him alone for a few days at the Ashram," he rants. “I have been told many times how the Swamy has cured people of the so-called mental illness." Faced with his grandfather’s imperious temper and high-handed tosh, Ib feels a giant scream billowing inside him, like Edvard Munch’s painting.

“I felt like telling him that inside me there was something that needed to move about, to explore, to find things for myself, to look at things from high up and down below, to feel the misery of insecurity, the misery of poverty, the agony of unemployment, to feel at once, everything and nothing...." This is a rare moment in the story, as in Ib’s life, when he loses his Zen-like composure. It shows him up as vulnerable and fragile, as does his encounter with a woman called Meera towards the end.

Other than these two instances, no amount of (mis)adventure in the city, involving characters as eclectic as a fake sadhu and the owner of a real-estate firm, can make a dent in Ib’s armour. His thoughts tumble out on the page in a steady cadence that helps the reader keep pace with his musings. Ib’s aversion to organized religion—for its propensity to give a free pass to some people to exploit others—and his close brush with mental illness are the two abiding themes of his life. He remains resilient, almost acquiescent, to whatever else befalls him, including a brief but intense affair with a woman.

“While I was writing Ib’s Endless Search For Satisfaction, I used to feel as though things were just happening to me, that I had little control over my life," Ali says. Capturing these ripples on the page became his endeavour. “In the beginning, I’d try to stick to a routine, but it fell apart after about a month," he adds. “Soon I was writing at all times, whenever I managed to get over my inhibitions." It helped that he had no reader in mind, but the flip side of this attitude could be a paralysing uncertainty. Even after a publisher showed interest, he sat on the manuscript for a while, before his wife finally coaxed him into sending it out.

Currently working on his second novel, Ali says he is still trying to get over Ib. “I want to tell first-time writers not to follow my path—to not make writing the only thing in their lives," he says. In hindsight, he feels he brought “unnecessary misery" upon himself by devoting so many years of his life to this one activity. “I shouldn’t have taken on so much pressure on myself."

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