Monday, 4 June 2007

Postcards from the edge

I received a small parcel in the post today. It contained 48 postcards of a pen and ink portrait of a girl with a lopsided smile and coin-like nostrils. She is wearing a stripy dress adorned with what look like rosettes and stars. The artist is my eight-year-old daughter Laila and the card has been printed by the charity, Cancer Research.

About six months ago, the charity approached a number of schools in London to participate in an art competition. The children were asked to submit pictures entitled, "I wish. . ." Of the 60,000 submissions just under 600 were selected for display at the Royal College of Art. Laila was one of the lucky entrants whose work was exhibited.

So on the day my husband, son and I marched proudly off to the RCA. The quality of work on view was astounding. Grouped in three sections according to age, the entries displayed not only imagination and wit but an amazing grasp of composition, colour, line and perspective. They also showed a high level of awareness. "I wish the world wasn't getting warmer," read one entry by a 5-7 year-old. Underneath was a picture of a very sweaty boy standing under a blazing sun. Another had wished for an end to the war in Iraq. His picture showed an exploding bomb and bodies flying through the air. But the ones that really caught my eye were the quirkier ones. There was a picture of a girl surrounded by golden trophies who had wished that she was "good at something". Anything! And then there was a forlorn looking girl sitting by herself on a grey wall. Behind her reared up another grey wall, dwarfing her completely. In tiny spidery handwriting she had written at the top of her picture, "I wish I had a friend."

And as for my own darling child who had drawn the smiling girl in a stripy dress -- she'd wished for a sister. Or so I thought, until my husband drew my attention to the caption again. When I re-read it I realised it said something entirely different: "I wish to have a sister."

On the way home, I informed her very gently that as far as my reproductive days were concerned, her younger brother was not a comma but a full stop. "Oh well," she replied unwrapping a chocolate bar, "it was worth a try!"

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

The pink dress

On 1 June 20006, my debut novel The End of Innocence was published. In two days' time, on 1 June 2007, the paperback version will be out. Sales are supposed to be much greater in paperback and yet I'm not half as excited about the paperback as I was about the hard back. I suppose that was the first time that I'd seen my book and that surge of pure joy, a bit like holding your first born, can't be replicated. Also, the publicity is not quite of the same order. No big interviews, no long articles. Just those sketchy paragraph reviews tacked on to the end of the book pages in newspapers.

But one piece of great news: they're keeping the cover of the hard back. Readers tell me they find it beguiling. They, too, want to peek behind the pillar and see what the little girl is watching. They want to enter into her world. But for me, it is special for a different reason: for that little girl in the pink dress is my daughter, Laila. It seems entirely apt that my first born should adorn the cover of my first novel.

Like all the best things in life, it wasn't planned. It came about entirely fortuitously. Or to use my favourite word, it was serendipity. Here's what happened:

When my editor read my manuscript, she decided that the cover ought to reflect the time (1971) and place (rural Punjab) in which the story is set. A good cover ought to resonate with the themes of the book. In July 2005, I went along to her office armed with a big coffee table book with some gorgeous images of the Punjab to serve as guidelines. And so the Penguin art department set to work. They sifted through hundreds of images, trawled through endless archives and in early December 2005, I got a call from my editor. Their search had been fruitless. They hadn't found anything they'd liked. Most of the pictures were either too National Geographicy or too bland. They didn't say anything that was relevant to my book. Did I have any ideas?

I was in the midst of packing. In three days time I was leaving with my husband and children for a month in Pakistan, as I always do in deep, dark, December. I could have some photos taken there and sent back by courier. Would that do? Not really, because that would delay my publication date. The cover had to be completed within the next week. My mind raced. Could I use a photograph of a painting, like those celebrated landscapes by Khalid Iqbal or perhaps Allah Buksh, or should we go for something abstract? Just then my daughter put her head around the door. Her hair swung forward against her cheek and there was a query on her face. I turned back to the phone and told my editor that the cover would be a picture of my daughter. Was I sure, she asked? Yes, absolutely. She was the right age. The protagonist of my novel (also called Laila) was eight. My Laila was six then but tall for her age. My editor pointed out that once a face appears on a cover, the reader can't help but identify the character in the novel with that face. Oh, but we wouldn't take her face, I said. We'd shoot a back view, or her profile, partly obscured by her hair. Or something like that.
To my dismay, it poured on the day of the shoot. The light was a dull, watery grey, totally unlike the piercing sunlight of the Punjab. But Laila's enthusiasm was undimmed. We'd taken the day off school for her and spent the morning choosing her dress. Actually, I'd chosen it while still on the phone to my editor: an old fashioned cotton dress with short puffed sleeves and a gathered waist, in a faded rose print. She'd never worn that dress before. She didn't particularly like it. It wasn't "cool". But that day it fitted the bill.

The photographer turned up, and to Laila's intense excitement, a stylist! Both blond young women, they oohed and aahed over the dress and approved of Laila's neat ankle socks and black Startrite shoes and the loose hair. And then under directions from the stylist, Laila started modelling. She turned out to be a natural. For three hours at a trot, she posed and pouted, raced down the drive and held still as a statue, gazed reflectively out of the window and grinned at the camera. It was freezing cold outside but like all thorough professionals, she seemed impervious to it.
Laila wore that dress just once more. That was on 5 June 2006, to my book launch. She's now eight and the dress is much too small for her but I've kept it. It hangs in her closet protected by a clear plastic cover. I'll give it to her daughter when she is 8. Or 6, if she happens to be tall.

So yes, I may be blase about the paperback, but I can never be so about the cover. The cover will always be special.

And now, here's a little taster from my book. This is the prologue, recounted by a grown-up Laila:

Lahore. New Year's Eve, 2001

The first bar of Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive' ripples through the marquee and everyone at my table abandons the cardamom ice cream and surges on to the dance floor. I, too, down my spoon and allow myself to be dragged to it by my elder sister, Sara. The floor is thronged with the well-heeled, well-soused members of the Oriental Club. But to me, there seems a frantic edge to their merriment, as if they were all doing their utmost to forget what lurks outside.

Sara has grabbed her jovial husband and plunged into the crowd. She is now lost to me. The air is thick with the fumes of cigar smoke, Gucci's Envy and sweat. Music pounds from four speakers placed at each corner of the floor. I catch a brief glimpse of Sara's flushed, laughing face. She is watching me over her husband's shoulder. I see the familiar concern hovering behind the smile. I grin back dutifully. When she disappears from view again, I slip away. Just as I reach my empty table, I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around and groan inwardly. It's an aunt, an inveterate matchmaker, to whom I -- unmarried at thirty eight -- am a personal affront. As usual, she has a single man in tow.

'Darling, I'd like you to meet Asif Khan.' She leans towards me with the pretext of smoothing my hair behind my ear, and hisses, 'His father is Climax Concrete. He's the only son!'
She flashes me a tight smile and bustles off, her velvet upholstered bottom gambolling behind her like a pair of playful puppies.
'Hiya!' bellows my suitor. I grimace as a spiral of smoke from his Marlboro drifts under my nose.

'Oh, you don't like smoke?' He exhales over his other shoulder, away from me. 'When I was at college at Illinois, I was rooming with a guy who was allergic to cigarette smoke. But you know what I told him? I said, "Man, you gotta. . ." '
While he drones on about his allergic room mate, I watch a group standing not far from me. The men are encased in Italian wool suits. They talk in strident voices of 'profit margins' and 'bottom lines'. Their women pat their lacquered hair and murmur about all the parties at which they will simply have to show their faces before the night ends. In the background, the dancers heave like the sea. A scantily clad model sways by the edge of the floor. A small appreciative crowd has gathered around her and is clapping and whistling her on. Two white-coated, turbanned bearers watch with expressionless faces.
I pull at my suitor's sleeve, interrupting his monologue.
'Listen, I'm sure you're a very nice man, but if you'll excuse me. . .' I grab my shawl and hurry towards the exit, leaving the heir to Climax Concrete staring after me. I steal a glance at my parents' table at the far end of the marquee. My mother, elegant in a midnight blue sari, is deep in conversation with a friend. My silver-haired father stares at the ceiling. I walk out.

My face tingles in the cold night air. Before me looms the Club building. I have spent many happy hours here as a child wolfing chicken cutlets and banana splits on the long terrace at the back. By the parking lot, I see the glow of an electric fire. A crescent of shivering drivers huddles around it. Many of them will wait here till dawn.

I turn towards the dim garden. My high heels sink into the grass. As I walk, the noise from the marquee recedes. Goose bumps prickle my arms. I pull my shawl closer and look up at a granite sky. It is as dark as my past.

A loud whoop from the marquee reaches me across the silent garden. There is the sound of cheering and clapping. But it does not lure me back. For the truth is that I am no longer at ease in these cheerful, boisterous gatherings. I am far happier in my quiet office with my biddable computer for company.

Sensing someone close behind me, I swivel around. It is my father. The grass has muffled his approach.

'Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. Mind if I join you?'
'Not at all.'
We stroll on in silence. Presently, we reach a wrought iron gate, now locked against possible gate crashers. The security guards carry Kalashnikovs.

Through the elaborate metal curls of the gate, we have a clear view of the street. One moment the road is empty and the next it is full of open army trucks. Filled with rows of great-coated soldiers seated facing each other, the trucks roll past one after another. They hold their guns propped upright between their legs, their faces blank beneath their helmets. Their bayonets glint in the street lights. At last the convoy ends and the street falls silent again.

'How long before India invades us?' I ask my father.
'There isn't going to be a war.'

'That's what you said the last time also.'

'Yes,' he sighs. 'I was wrong in '71. Do you remember that war Laila? You were only a child then. I expect you've forgotten.'

No I haven't forgotten that war. I remember everything. And everybody.

Now that I've told you a bit about the photo on the cover, let me also tell you about the author's photo at the back of the book. As a novelist friend remarked the other day, "the author photo is of course a genre in itself". Much as I would like to claim that this photo was a casual one snapped at home by my husband, it is patently not so. This a photo-shopped photo taken by a professional photographer. In my defence, I would like to add that I did try to find the said casual snap among my rag-tag collection of photographs but none passed muster. In all my photographs I either looked depressed or deranged. And no one, I reckoned would want to read a book by a depressed, deranged author. Hence the recourse to a professional. My brief to the photographer -- who has since then become a friend -- was this: "make me look normal, and if possible not too wrinkly." So he photoshopped me and volia! The genre photograph.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

The End of Innocence:

The book was published last year by Penguin


London, United Kingdom