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?