My life is a little bit of a fairy tale. I am not the one who loved words from age five and started writing stories as a child. If a person grew up in India, especially in the late 50s and early 60s – post partition India with its Hindu-Muslim riots – pursuing the arts was not encouraged. You couldn’t afford to nourish your right brain. Adults would tell us, “Do you want to starve when you grow up?” Starving stories of painters and writers are romantic but not appreciated in India if a family has any brains. You would like to read about those famous people’s lives only when the artists are dead.
And, especially, if you find yourself liking math and you can solve geometry problems, you quickly suppress your right brain. You go to science. If you are one of the best, you go to physics. Then whatever artistic inclination you had, you obliterate those impulses and study only science – nothing else. That’s what I did.
But life is stranger than fiction. When I came to Philadelphia for graduate studies in physics, 50 years ago, those suppressed desires showed up. The fight between the right brain and left brain became prominent and my right brain started to get the upper hand. I started writing short stories. The first story I wrote was about an old, lonely woman in a retirement home. A foreign student gave her some company and she died in peace. I guess this was a reflection of my discovery of sadness in affluent America.
I stopped writing again because of the nagging concern of finding my professional place. I had more important things to do: I must get degrees, and strive for the most respectable job possible! Where was the time for nurturing expressions of sensibility? Art? That could wait.
I went on to become a physicist. Then came the realities of getting a job and settling down. And I got married. There went the artistic feelings again. Twenty more years passed by! I didn’t touch a dictionary during these years. I didn’t have to – scientific writing didn’t require one.
But somehow, somewhere within me, the idea was alive – that non-rational thought and a contradiction to science. There must have been a constant fight within me between the emotional part and the logical part. Unconsciously, the struggle between my left-brain and my right brain had continued for several decades. I put my outside energy to studying science, and writing scientific papers, but my inside desire to write stories kept brewing in the background – until I came to Idaho. Then I decided to be a writer. I thought I had studied for two decades to become a physicist; I must devote at least a decade to be a writer. I started to take literature courses and read classic novels.
Beginning writing is usually autobiographical. Mine is no exception. I love reading travelogues and wanted to write about a journey we made to India. Then I discovered an amazing truth about writing. I thought I’d write about the tribulations of the journey and what the group found. I wrote a couple of hundred pages. Then I realized I was writing about other people – their thoughts and emotions, but I was not willing to reveal anything about myself. I suppressed what was going thru my mind. Why should I tell the world my inner thoughts? I wanted to be an observer with a telescope in my hand piercing into the hearts and minds of others. I was hiding myself from the journey. And the result? The writing was no good. I recognized that myself. The reader could certainly feel it. The lesson I learned was that a writer, actually all artists, must make him or herself free. If you think, ‘I shouldn’t write this because of what my neighbor, or my mother, or my daughter would think of me,’ then you can never be a good writer. One must have the boldness to write what is within oneself – without reservation, without inhibition, and to see things as one finds them, not as they should be.
Then I started to write about my experience in Idaho. That became the book “From the Ganges to the Snake River,” from a river in India to a river in Idaho, from one culture to another culture. This allowed me to discover Idaho and interweave Indian culture with Idaho reality, and shuttle between the past and the present. That book was published in 2000; Sacred River is my first foray into novel writing.
After many years as a scientist, I became a writer.