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How I became a columnist - the story of my success

Updated: Jul 23, 2023

‘What can money do?’

At 13 years, this was the title of my first piece of original writing, if one were to mark down the horribly drafted compositions that I wrote in school. It was a rhyming verse that paraphrased the futility of wealth, which in hindsight is too heavy a theme for someone who hadn’t yet been thrust into the rabbit hole of life. Yet, I was proud of what my peanut brain could produce at the time, especially after it was featured in the school magazine and a few biased relatives hailed it as a masterpiece.

The only other accomplishments worthy of mention in the early years were winning a prize at 15 in a school versification contest and later, getting my first ‘Letters to the Editor’ published in The Hindu at 19.

The former didn’t have any perceivable impact on me, probably because writing poems was only something one did occasionally for contests and school magazines. However, getting the letter published in The Hindu, which at that time was considered the embodiment of quality journalism and impeccable writing was something that I celebrated with some fanfare. I took the paper to college, had it read in the class by my teacher, and I took in the little gasps, jaw-drops and rolling eyes with great relish.

I didn’t have any inkling of my literary propensities then nor did I think it would become my life force in the years to come. But I started writing more seriously after that letter made me some sort of celebrity in the class.

At that time, I had nothing but a pen and some long sheets (sheaves of dull, grey paper called newsprint that dad got me on the cheap for my writing) for tools, and a dictionary and a thesaurus for resources. My writing retreat was the wind-swept shade in the backyard of my house that echoed a cacophony of crows and random droppings under a mango tree. Writing was a solitary act, awfully more private than it is now; much like soliloquys that aren’t very significant in the main script of life’s drama.

I must have been in my late teens when I wrote my first article for a newspaper. It was a middle piece for the op-ed page of Deccan Herald, which had a designated space for slice of life narratives. I vividly remember the crushing pain I felt when the regret slip arrived a few weeks later, and the deep despair I sank into after many more regrets duly trooped in as if on a cue. At that point, I should have ideally switched to a more utilitarian hobby like embroidery or tailoring. Instead, I persisted like a lunatic, continuing to write and making it a habit to wait for the postman to hand me an envelope with my address neatly written in a distinguishable hand. Mine.

‘Stamped, self-addressed envelope’ became the zeitgeist of that season of unpublished jottings that traipsed around opinion and personal essays. I wonder what I wrote so feverishly in those impressionable years when my world view was constricted, and my experiences were limited.

Back then, there were no reference points nor the faintest idea of what makes for an interesting read. Heck! I didn’t even know there was a method to the madness of writing. Despite all these, I wrote, without rhyme or reason. Tagging one sentence to another, sewing up thoughts and creating tapestries that often didn’t pass muster at the editor’s desk.

It was around that time that the seed of a dream was sown in a fledgeling writer's soul, like an idea of love in the heart of a sailor lost at sea. The dream to be a columnist. I had no clue what it took to be one, nor did I have a road map to the destination. All I knew was, no matter what I became or didn’t become, I had to keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing. While reading, reading, reading.

A journalism degree that I earned midway should have spurred my dreams, but I didn’t latch on to a newsroom opportunity for some inexplicable reason, while many of my classmates took to it like duck takes to water. I took up corporate communications, instead, for a few years before life elbowed me out of that track. A relocation to Muscat post-wedding put paid to any possibility of a late detour to journalism and, in fact, to all career prospects.

The world was a different place in 1998. There wasn’t even a pc at home until 2001, which again was a second-hand piece left behind for a pittance by a migrating expat. When people spoke about Y2K, I squinted at them suspiciously, trying to determine who was the alien between us. When friends in the know discussed new versions of Windows, I looked out of the window weaving stories on the vast desert loom. There were so many out there, I realised, as I peered through the raconteur’s kaleidoscope.

Physical writing graduated from scrawls on newsprint paper to neatly stacked lines on the pc, and along with it, my desire to craft human narratives also ballooned. I wrote a few random stuffs for Gulf News as a contributor to the community page and a feature on Indian migrants for KT wknd way back in the early 2000s. I also regularly wrote articles for another publication the name of which I now forget. Vaguely around that time, the word ‘author’ appeared on the distant shore, and it became my first port of inner calling. After a long gestation, and many relocations and disruptions later, Sandstorms, Summer Rains was born. In 2009.

I was a novice and a new mother, and I struggled to nurse my baby.

Facebook was in its infancy, and I wasn’t part of it until many years later owing to its strangeness and my lack of understanding. I had to let the world know about my book and I didn’t know how. A couple of old journalist friends back home helped with some news coverage there, but the book was largely unknown to people in the UAE.

One day, I made a cold call to the newsroom at KT following some advice by a friend in Muscat.

“I am an Indian author living in Fujairah,” I introduced myself (with the greatest confidence I could exude) to a young lady called Raziqueh Hussain. “I have just published my debut novel about Indian migrants in the Gulf.”

Indian authors in the Gulf were a rare breed then. Raziqueh was keen to pick up the lead and offered to do a story in the weekend edition of the newspaper. That tryst with Khaleej Times as an author changed my fate forever.

After a few months, buoyed by the exposure I got for my novel in KT and backed by a couple of old writings I had done for wknd. in 2001, I decided to give my old ambition to write for the Op-Ed a shot and pitched an article to the then Editor, Patrick Michael. My stars were aligned and for once, my shot cleared the park. The editor took a liking to my writing, and wrote to me, ‘you have a way with words’. Truth be told, I didn’t even know I would get paid for my article and was pleasantly surprised when I was asked to go and collect my cheque.

Following that, I sent him pieces week after week, punching my thoughts and opinion in the most chaste and authentic manner, and he kept publishing them. And just like that, before I realised it, I had become an Opinion page columnist.

Apart from setting me up as a writer, the new opportunity made me believe in the remotest dreams one could entertain; and in perseverance and consistency that has no substitute. It made me believe in people and above all, in the power of words.

Since I began my journey with KT, the Opinion page has passed through many editorial hands, but I have, by Grace, survived the changes and the challenges that came with it. I deem this as the greatest accomplishment and blessing in my writing career.

My deepest gratitude to all the erudite gentlemen who found value in my writing and gave me the column space through the years. Patrick Michael, Allan Jacob and Suresh Pattali. And to Anamika Chatterjee, for giving me the privilege of writing for wknd., especially, the cover story today. It is certainly a step up in my climb to wherever my writing takes me in the future.

13 years is a long period in the life of a freelance writer with no frills; time enough to either perform or peter out, and I am thrilled to have made it this far. No marketing stunt, hype or hoopla could have helped me grow and flourish as a writer as this journey has. No synthetic endorsement would have given me a sense of success that the effort to build this edifice has. Each article I write is a brick on my wall. And each reader is the mortar.

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1 Comment

Ranjit Nanoo
Ranjit Nanoo
Jul 23, 2023

A meaningful and worthwhile journey, indeed. Also, therein, a few tips for the aspiring writers of today to pick up.

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