A few months ago, I chanced upon a blog written by Swedish author Fredrik Backman whose books like A Man Called Ove and Bear Town set author goals for writers all over. The blog titled ‘Something about the Anxiety’ enumerated the author’s own battles with hopelessness and depression despite his being on the New York Times Bestseller List numerous times.

Around the same time, I also heard about the sudden and untimely demise of an Indian TV actor, discernibly in great nick both in terms of career and health, and then more recently, of yet another Indian film star, Puneeth Rajkumar. The two Indian celebrities had succumbed to heart diseases that were allegedly caused by the scourge of our times, ‘stress’.

As I followed the stories of the three men above, and of a few others who were cruising the firmament of fame, I traced a common thread in their glossy lives. They were successful, wealthy, celebrated, but they all were likely under duress, implicit and obscure, that comes unbidden with such luminous living. Backman described it explicitly in his blog as ‘the pressure and expectations of everything around this…career thing…’

Not all of us are destined to super success and stardom, but let us be honest, none of us would grudge some fame; none of us would pass up an opportunity to grab a slice of glory we believe we deserve. Even in our most meagre practices, our objective is to garner attention. Why else do we wander in the hinterlands of social media for hours on end, secretly waiting for the number of likes and loves to climb? Why else do we make concerted efforts to advertise our exploits, both big and small?

The craving for fame is inherent in a vast majority of people. We only need to closely watch our intentions to realize that the biggest motivation for all our endeavours is to be a celebrated entity one day in one or all continents. I don’t challenge our right to hog the limelight for the right reasons or scoff at tall ambitions, but I have become increasingly aware of the price people have had to pay to attain and maintain celebrityhood. I scratched the shimmering surface to decipher the perils of being renowned and made some profound conclusions.

Whether in the higher echelons or in our regular realms, public acclaim builds a unique self-image in us. It forces us to make small tectonic shifts in our manner and method, and we begin to project a version of us that fits and feeds the popular impression. In time, we become estranged to the real person that we once had been, and the pressure to be someone that we originally aren’t becomes a bondage.

We become names to reckon with, with attributes and ornaments thrust upon us. We have obligations to fulfil — to meet other people’s expectations of us and to constantly seek their appreciation because slowly we have deified ourselves with their worship; the chimerical love of strangers has become indispensable to our existence, and before we know it, we have submitted ourselves to their whims. We have lost our freedom to be ourselves and what ensues is mental pressure of the most excruciating kind. It is a frightening prospect that I shudder to even picture in my head casually.

Fame is a double-edged sword. It spurs us to excel ourselves and it makes us stooges to others. Is there then an equitable outcome to our ardent enterprises, one that allows us to accomplish but at the same does not rob us of our essential selves? How do we progress in our path without the fear of pledging ourselves to other people’s outlooks?

The answer might sound banal and formulaic, but it is legitimate. Let not the objective of our lives be to top the charts alone. Let not our passions be driven by the expectations of outsiders. What we want to accomplish must remain within the purview of our essential needs. We must reserve the power and courage to call the shots in our lives.

The simplest way I have found to do it is by asking myself every morning what activity or occupation I am going to indulge in that day in the larger context of my life, and more importantly why I want to do it. I make sure that the answer to it remains ‘to have enough means for a peaceful, hale and hearty subsistence’.

Any reward that comes without having to compromise on this prerequisite to life is welcome. Anything that will purloin it is utterly futile.

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Updated: Nov 15, 2021

How often does one get to be within whispering distance of a Nobel Laureate? How do a few fleeting moments of such fantastic proportions where you stand under the same spotlight as someone whom you hold in the highest esteem for his work impact your life? Listen to this story of my brief tryst with Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature this year at the Sharjah Book Fair.

The only times I have bought the book of a major prize winner on the day of their winning it were when Arundhati Roy won the Booker in 1997 and now, in 2021, when Gurnah won the Nobel Prize. In both instances, what drove my decision was a sample of their work that grabbed me and said urgently, ‘Listen to this voice.’ I have been a literary devotee of Roy since then, and now, after reading ‘Gravel Heart’ by Gurnah, I have pledged my allegiance to his writing for life.

I was already smitten with his storytelling when the announcement of his attendance at the Sharjah Book Fair was made. Ecstatic, I marked my calendar, but all I had planned for was to be in the audience, saucer-eyed, glued to stories from his life that shaped him and brought him this far. I was eager to know what qualities the person whose writing had something so soulfully familiar in it, possessed.

I took in every word he spoke about his writing life and the paths he had covered, the rejections, the slights, and in the end the sudden emergence from anonymity to acclaim. I saw in his past a trail of what I was going through as a writer and the throes of being in the shadows for long.

The fact that his fine writing had taken twelve years to find a publisher and make a debut underlined the difference between good writing and popular writing. It reinforced my belief that being a bestselling author and being a fantastic raconteur are two different things. Gurnah was critically acclaimed but never had enough readership, so much so that when his name was announced by the Academy, it sent the world scurrying for information about him.

What I heard that evening was not a story of overnight success or sudden discovery of talent. It was a narrative of several decades of erudite brilliance shrouded in near obscurity. When time had rubbed its satin cloth on the patinated sterling for long enough, it shone one day, to the delight of people like me who are now besotted with his magical prose.

The unhurried manner in which he wrote, revealing even heartbreaks ever so gently, the finesse with which he intertwined personal destinies with the fate of nations, the finely layered, detailed characterization, his simple but elegant language were attributes that made him a literary superhero to me. But at the same, I realized those were the same attributes that had kept him away from the limelight for so long. The new world lusted after plot-driven, fast-paced narratives and not those that worked as poetic palliatives. Yet he persisted with his passion, unworried about popularity, combining lexical beauty with his core beliefs.

The luminary on the stage had imparted so much to me as a writer in such a short time that when the session was opened to Q & A, I stood up, my heart drumming deafeningly and said, ‘My name is Asha. Congratulations, Sir, and thank you for your fine writing. I have just finished reading my first book of yours and it has left a deep impact on me. I write a bit too, and if sometime in future I make a mark somewhere, and I am asked about my literary influences, your name would be among the first ones I would take. Thank you for your magic.’

Later, when I got up close for the signing and I said my name again, he looked up and said, ‘Are you the one who writes?’ I said I was, and he said, ‘I normally only sign in the book. But for you, I will write your name too. Good luck to you.’

I felt anointed in that moment. I knew it wasn’t just another fangirl moment or a photo-op for the social media. It was an occasion that told me that there indeed was a God of small things who made even the most improbable and impossible things happen in life. To Gurnah, it was the Nobel. To the rest of us, it could be something else.

(Asha Iyer Kumar is a Dubai-based author, children’s life-writing coach, youth motivational speaker and founder of iBloom, FZE. She can be reached at ibloom@ashaiyerkumar.com. Her latest book of stories ‘That Pain in the Womb’ is now on Amazon.)

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There was a time when correspondence meant registering thoughts in long hand, fluidly, with the cadence of a symphony. The ink flowed in perfect tandem with the emotions and there was a settled, unhurried aspect to expressing oneself in it.

Later, thoughts began to be typed in computers. It diminished the old charm and naivety of articulating one’s ideas by hand, but nevertheless carried the virtue of patience required to draft elaborate missives. The experience of e-mail wasn’t too bad in essence. It was letter-writing in one way, and I still reckon it as the best mode of communication available today.

But somewhere along the way, writing and typing gave way to texting, and we began to see huge shifts in the matter, manner and spirit of corresponding with one another. Instant messaging became both our boon and bane. It gave us the luxury of reaching out in a snap, but it snatched from us the pleasure of holding deep, deliberate conversations.

We picked up new habits that gave us a sense of liberty with regard to our human engagements. We texted a quick ‘hello’ and decided that was sufficient to keep relationships alive. We established extensive networks on the surface, but our affinities became hollow from inside. The line between friends and acquaintances blurred and meaningful parleys became rare.

We learnt to propose, dispose and dismiss with a few quick taps on the phone. As we got sucked into the vortex of instant messages, we lost control over our reason and became reckless with our regular parlance. We became instant informers and impulsive responders, and in the process, we lost our basic courtesies.

Recently, I received an abrupt text from a parent informing me of her decision to stop her child’s classes with me. A single-sentence message over whatsapp that gave no reason nor explanation seemed to be the most irreverent way to convey something as formal as this. It was not an isolated incident where the randomness of texting had trivialized serious communication. I wondered whatever had happened to the conventional ways of notifying people of important things.

There is only one way of interpreting the slapdash behaviour – it is easier to convey uncomfortable messages over a text than a phone or an e-mail. When you can’t say it verbally, text it. When you are afraid of retaliation, text it. When you want to avoid a clumsy encounter, text it. It has become our aid and alibi to deal safely with touchy issues.

While I concede that there is no faster way to reach a person and evoke response than instant messaging these days, I often wonder if this convenience itself has not turned counterproductive. Our impulse and need for instant gratification erodes our judgment and we end up jeopardizing both our good will and reputation by our hasty writing and reaction in an instant message.

Much of what we text are done unthinkingly, and if our words are misconstrued, they can create problems of mammoth proportions. Even innocuous chats can lead to erroneous conclusions, unnecessary heartburns, and extended altercations. Many a good relationship has soured owing to the misalignment between what is said and what is understood. The only saving grace has been the emoji that acts as an appendage to the words and conveys the mood of the sender.

Instancy is a double-edged sword. It facilitates real-time communication, but there is often an underlying current of expectation in it that doesn’t allow the recipient the freedom to respond at his convenience. This compulsion to reply at once is a huge distraction and unless we train ourselves to know what requires urgent attention and what doesn’t, we will become slaves to our devices in the name of ‘staying in touch’.

Nothing can equal a face-to-face conversation, but people have dispersed too far and wide to make frequent visitations possible. And when the busyness of life takes over, and phone calls and e-mails become time-consuming, texting is what helps us stay connected. But in spite of all the perks it throws up to a time-strapped world, there is still something very shallow and superficial about it.

It is very unlikely that scattered, random chats will give us a glimpse of the real person at the other end or will allow us to tell our stories fully. So, let’s meet when we can. Call if time permits. Write leisurely e-mails. And text when it is essential. A chat to me is like fast food. Convenient but not complete. It always leaves something unsaid and unheard.

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