A hard day’s arty night: The allure of the Sarkari job for writers

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There was a time when royal courts the world over patronized men (mostly, men!) of letters. To make the sovereign happy with a poem was a profitable affair — is often brought in the proverbial bag of gold. But with the advent of modernity, patronage shrunk and the writer had to work for a living like everyone else. To make a living merely on the strength of one’s pen is a tall order. At the same time, how does one write when one is doing dismally boring things by day? And yet, writers have produced seminal works doing just that. American poet Wallace Stevens worked in insurance, scrutinizing claims throughout the day. By night, he wrote the poetry that eventually won him a Pulitzer and a lasting place in the canon. Any job, even a demanding one, provided it is ‘secure’ and financially frees up writers to ply their craft, is the stuff of dreams. And that explains the allure of the sarkari job. A government job guarantees more than a modicum of stability, it sometimes opens the door to important connections and often provides comfortable environs to live in, work in and derive inspiration from. Blessing in disguise Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope was among those who found a government job most rewarding for his writing. After a childhood made difficult by his father’s financial naiveté and long separations from his mother, 19-year-old Trollope landed a clerkship at the General Post Office in 1834. His initial years were tough. He seemed to be destined to follow in his father’s footsteps by getting into debt and annoying his superiors with his insubordination and disregard for time. But Trollope pulled himself together and went to Ireland in 1841 to take up a job as postal surveyor, a post no one else wanted. It proved to be a blessing. He developed a liking for the Irish, met the woman he later married, and he began to write on his long official train trips. Sometimes, he even dipped into the ‘dead letters’ (undeliverable mail) for ideas. Arguably, the job influenced his writing habits. He says in his autobiography that he wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He set himself a ‘target’ of writing 250 words every 15 minutes. If he finished work before 8.30, he would start on his next. Quite a Sarkari approach, some might say! Another writer in government service was George Orwell, who joined the Imperial Police in late 1922, also as a 19-year-old, and chose to be posted to Burma. He served till March 1928. Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days, published in 1934, draws upon his Burma experience and comments darkly on Britain’s role as a colonizer. Clearly, the allure of the Sarkari paycheque had failed to silence his conscience. Space of healing The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) has a long tradition of birthing writers. Among these is Odia poet Sitakant Mahapatra, who won the Jnanpith in 1993; Hindi writer and poet Ashok Vajpeyi; Malayalam writer Malayattoor Ramakrishnan; and the English writer, Upamanyu Chatterjee. The Indian Police Service (IPS) to has not lagged behind. The Tamil writer, G. Thilagavathy, who courted controversy in 2015 when she described the actions of fellow writers returning their Sahitya Akademi awards as a ‘publicity stunt’, was in the IPS. Fellow IPS officer, sometime head of India’s intelligence service, and acclaimed English poet, Keki N. Daruwalla, may have disagreed, as he is among those who returned his award. Daruwalla isn’t the only writer who served in intelligence. The English writer, Somerset Maugham, is another, who did so during World War I. From that experience emerged the Ashenden series. More famously, Ian Fleming worked for naval intelligence during World War II, later creating the unforgettable James Bond. John le Carré too worked in intelligence in the Cold War years and has mined the experience for his books. How did these policemen (and women) and the spies balance their conscience and their writing? Perhaps, the very act of writing is a catharsis. Or perhaps, it is a safe space to get healed in. Professor-littérateur The Malayalam writer, M. Mukundan, who comes from the former French territory of Mahe, worked at the French Embassy in Delhi and has spoken of how his superiors valued his parallel life as a writer and promoted him among Delhi’s cognoscenti. In 1998, Mukundan was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres for his contribution to literature. Teaching, of course, has nurtured many, many writers. Several writers were once professors, some became university vice-chancellors. Kannada literature has been especially rich in this: Kuvempu, V.K. Gokak, U.R. Ananthamurthy and Chandrashekhara Kambara, all Jnanpith Award winners, were also vice-chancellors. In modern times, a few writers have been the lucky recipients of patronage of the modern kind. Gabriel García Márquez enjoyed a close friendship with Fidel Castro, who gifted him home in Havana, where the writer spent a lot of time. Graham Greene and the Panamanian dictator, Omar Torrijos Herrera, bonded over Scotch and rum punch. Salman Rushdie was a friend of the Nicaraguan leader, Daniel Ortega, and published The Jaguar Smile in 1987 after a visit the previous year made on the eve of the seventh anniversary of the Sandinistas’ coming to power. Clearly, the business of making a living does not quite kill the creative impulse. In fact, not living in a garret possibly helps enormously. The Bengaluru-based writer works in publishing.

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