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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"If winter comes..."

When I was going up to class 12 (in St. Xavier’s Collegiate School, Calcutta), they sent me to participate in a ‘creative writing’ competition at Loreto House, which was almost next door on Park Street. I went without any clear idea about what I was supposed to do: after all, what was special about ‘creative’ writing? Wasn’t all writing meant to be creative? Anyway, several of us from different schools were assembled in a hall, and a girl came over to write three topics on the blackboard, out of which each had to select one. I have no memory of what the other two were, but as soon as she wrote ‘If winter comes…’ (first half of a famous line from Shelley's immortal poem), a flashbulb seemed to go off inside my head – the classic Eureka moment – and I literally saw the whole story full-blown in my mind’s eye. For the next half hour I was scribbling furiously, dead to the world, just copying out the story from my mental screen as it were, and then I submitted the story and walked out, leaving the girl gaping after me. No wonder: the time allotted was, I think, three hours, and many of my fellow-writers had just stopped chewing their pens and started writing slowly and laboriously, visibly bereft of ideas. Thus “Natalie darling” was born: the story of a young geologist cum KGB agent in late 1970s USSR who is sent off on an urgent mission to Siberia, leaving his sweetheart behind in Leningrad, and who survives an accidental and global nuclear holocaust out there in the freezing wilderness, the only human left alive on the planet, who spends his last months and days and hours scribbling letters to his lost beloved, even as his radioactivity-contaminated body falls slowly apart.

Our team coordinator was waiting breathlessly outside, and asked the obvious question. I remember I answered, with the overweening arrogance that only teenagers are capable of mustering at will, that if the judges were literate, I was sure to win first prize. Which is what I did, in fact, but Natalie brought me much, much more. When a year later I went to Jadavpur University and tried to introduce myself to some of the girls I had just met, several of them simpered ‘Oh, we know you, you are Natalie darling (sic)!’ Let us pull a delicate veil over all that has passed in the intervening decades, but even today I can bring tears to the eyes of many a girl by reading out the same story.

I don’t know why I suddenly wrote about this. But the story has a bizarre sequel. Many years after I wrote it, while I was a schoolteacher, I had to deal with a story by the renowned science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke called History Lesson. It gave me goosebumps to see how uncannily similar his basic storyline was to mine (though there wasn’t any love interest or any poetry in his version). I had never read that story before, and surely Clarke couldn’t have read mine. So maybe in the world of creativity the selfsame ideas occur to entirely unconnected people at different times and places?


Debarshi Saha said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards.I absolutely agree with you on the point you have made in the last paragraph.To me,it lends more credence to the fact that all of us are connected by an ubiquitous consciousness,carrying all of us along in the flow of an infinite intelligence.The story premise is very thrilling indeed-Please do send me the story,Sir,in entirety!I am eager to read it.

A very personal post indeed,Sir,with a marked difference-you have continued in a nostalgic vein and at the same time presented yet another different facet of yourself.Writing down the entire piece in a half-hour;well,that may be some achievement only you are capable of,Sir.I wish I could have the same skill someday-or even a part of it.It is so difficult to even imitate you in this regard,Sir.

With best wishes,

Shilpi said...

Gosh, by God so that's the context of the story. The story should lead the list of all fine short stories, and as I say, and very often and very objectively - no other story can beat it in my personal list of stories read and experienced etc.etc. even though it is haunting and and all else. I can lay a wager on that one - hoping even to lose, but then you're too much of a grizzled horse to be affected by that. One of the poem pieces penned by you, and that flutter through my head is from that story of yours - comes right after the lines from Schiller...the only thing that I'd have changed is Natalie staying snug under the blankets in Leningrad...anyway, so much about that. The story still haunts me and grips me in strange ways especially on days when I feel there's a lemon grey sky overhead...I feel like the scribbler.

I did hear "Natalie" before I read your story, and I'd woolily wondered for a split mo' why you would so strangely remind me of a semi-acquaintance called Natalina from when I was about 5 or 6, I think. This post of yours is amusing rather. I can quite see a 17 year old you shooting out those lines about the "literate judges and the first prize" (rather, ahem quintessentially a young-you, and with verrray good reason), and the simpering girls saying, "Natalie darling" (!!!). 'Let us pull a delicate veil' is a nice un even though it makes my 11 year old self say, "...out with your secret/s, so we can finish the poem". I think people have become obtuse and dim for not a few of my erstwhile friends (who see themselves as being intelligent I'm sure) didn't quite understand the story. One said, "oooh, sci-fi...oooh, I love sci-fi." And another had said, "what's this about? A man dying in the cold...?" I won't go through a list of the responses I got.

I don't remember shedding tears although I remember, among other things, being caught in a space-time-reality warp when I first read that story you'd sent close to a decade ago, and was muttering with great annoyance, bemusement and quiet delight among other things with the printed pages of your surreal story on my lap while sitting sprawled out on a chair at a coffee-shop just after dawn with coffee and cigarettes. I still think it would make a brilliant movie if directed. I can see the movie trailer, the images, the execution, and the music score I could hear in my head long before I heard one piece by Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar titled, "Offerings". The music score would have to be composed by Philip Glass. No two ways about it (even though some people find him repetitive and jangling on the nerves sometimes). You'd have to write the screenplay. In another world maybe, but this thought still gets me smiling when out on my walks.

As for that last bit: is that the 'most' bizarre sequel then? - and well, if it doesn't have poetry and love then it cannot be "uncannily similar" is my first grunt of a response but I'll go read the story. But that does happen as you very well know (!) - similar ideas occurring....they say the same happens even in apparently non-mystical creative stuff like in Physics and I remember a couple or more of physicists had the same ideas and one was from Japan I think and the other from the US (given my memory I don't even remember whether it was about relativity). On a somewhat connected note: it's one of the reasons out of the 'reason-bag' that that movie Inception I thought was positively brilliant and intriguing even though it probably made the box-office sing for the wrong reasons (people are too dumb to see beyond the special effects these days).

Now I've written a ten mile long comment, and I haven't even begun. I could write a book on that story of yours. Oh, and that 17 year-old you deserves a cup and more for writing that story. So do you. Yeah. Keep writing, please.

Debarshi Saha said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards.I couldn't stop from chipping in with another comment on your extremely beautiful theme,the basis of the story.Love blooming amidst a desolate landscape,offering the real reason to live for the geologist;the fact that every moment has a beauty all of its own-and also is capable of bearing witness to the meaning we ascribe to it;the immensely poignant theme of writing letters to a long-lost beloved,to keep her memory alive in all circumstances,where the bitter frost threatens to crystallize the liquid love serenades and winter seeks to extinguish the embers of passion;the haunting theme running through the story,like in 'Love in the time of cholera' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez,the wonderful thought that one's barren wilderness of the lonely heart would transform into the most-cherished garden of Eden at the advent of one's beloved...as sung so aptly by Ustad Rashid Ali,in the song 'Aaoge Jub tum Saajna..';the beautiful quote that this invoked in me from the deepest reaches of memory..."I remember,I remember..I remember,so as not to forget."..the geologist too might have wished the same,Sir..

Thank you once again,Sir.

With best wishes,

Shilpi said...

I have to write another comment too. What makes the story beyond frightening and haunting, Debarshi, is that love has no chances of blooming nor blossoming after the nuclear holocaust. And that young man isn't just writing letters to preserve Natalie's memory or so as not to forget. Both of them were communicating through the medium of letters! That's the point, and the communication breaks down after a point because he cannot hear Natalie's voice any longer. She dies. Their contact and communication snap. He is left alone dying on a planet, and that is what is so terribly frightening and lonely because it feels like it could be otherwise since they'd been able to keep each other alive, and he keeps calling out to her. And he knows he's going down and dying, and he calls out to her through those last moments. That's my short bit.

Natalie is a perfect story, and one cannot describe it any further. One can only see, sense, feel, and hear it and it always stays - and sometimes like a puzzle or a living remembrance or something else, and so one waits. One simply cannot compare it to this or that. It's what it is, and that's that. That's why it would also make a superb movie. It's a little similar to what Tagore once said about his poems: that if words were used to describe his poems, they would simply ridiculously be more words.

Suvro da, I re-read it earlier on today after months, and listened to the music soundtrack after months while on a walk. That poem of yours actually runs before that line you quoted from Schiller, and well actually...afterwards too. I hunted down and read the Arthur C. Clarke story a couple of days ago. Thank you for telling us about it, but I honestly couldn't find any uncanny similarity between his story and yours. Thank you for writing this post (I forgot earlier) and for providing the context of how you created Natalie. Sad though that almost no comments have come in.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Personally, I neither much mind nor care about this paucity of comments any more, Debarshi and Shilpi. Firstly, most people, unlike us, are busy with important things (like, you know, there was a crowd in front of my house this morning from seven onwards, waiting to enroll their wards into my tuition for next year). Secondly, most of then don't care a whit about the literary art: a visit to KFC is far more interesting any time. Thirdly, a lot of them have excuses like difficult internet connection and so on. And fourthly, there is an incredible number of people out there who never have anything to say on any subject under the sun, unless they want to abuse you...if I had been living in a civilized country, it would have been a different matter altogether.

Anonymous said...

Dear Suvro'da,

Having read this post, we now want to read that story you created and know more about 'Natalie darling' ! I guess, you wouldn't have a copy after all these years, lest in your memory, so why not re-create it for all once again ?



Soham Mukhopadhyay said...

I would like to share something with you in this regard. Please forgive me for commenting on this post after a year. I vividly remember this post of yours even today.Last year I just too lazy to write a comment and its completely a fault of mine. Although I would have written the same comment that I am writing today.

Sir, your experience is remarkably similar to mine which I had about six years ago while I was in class eight. It was our annual exam and we were to write an essay in Bengali with the theme being "unnatural experience". I thought for a while and I thought up a story line comprising a group of friends and a trip to a very old bungalow. I admit that I am not that much of a literary person nor do I write very well. But I was quite satisfied with my essay when I completed it. And similar to Sir's experience -I too got goosebumps when I opened the next month's edition of 'anandamela' to find a story with a similar plot written by a different author, much older than me. I was completely awestruck. I shared this experience with my mother before, thinking others wouldn't believe me. Right now I must apologize to Sir for not posting my comment before- as I have said earlier - I was too lazy to do it for I knew that it'd be a long one.

With regards,
Soham Mukhopadhyay