Book: Happy Birthday!
Author: Meghna Pant
Publisher: Random House India
Pages: 296 pages
Price: Rs 150
It was turning out to be one of those days. My hands were frozen from New York’s biting cold. I was late to catch my train from Penn Station. The plastic bag carrying my lunch had ripped, right in the middle of a mall. As I mulled over how best to salvage the situation, someone put a hand on my shoulder. I turned and saw an old Indian lady with hair like moonshine smiling at me. She held out a plastic bag. When I hugged her in gratitude, she insisted on introducing me to a group of her “mall rat friends” other elderly Indians who were sitting on a bench outside the JC Penney store. They gathered around me, curious about this girl living alone in Manhattan, trying to be a writer. “Why aren’t you at home with your grandchildren?” I asked them in return. The quiet in their smiles, their long excuses, revealed that they were not welcome at home.
That day I missed my train, but found a story: ‘Lemon & Chili’. It became my first short story to be published by an American literary magazine.
This was 2008 and I spend the next three years furiously writing more short stories. From the vantage point of those old eyes and the unsaid things etched wearily on those wrinkles, I shone the light on the dark corners of our lives that we keep hidden. I went on a journey, living vicariously through other people’s experiences, gathering scraps from overheard conversations and giving free flight to my mind’s imagination. It was like taking pages out of a book that people didn’t want to open.
Writing short stories was not easy. Every single writer, editor, publisher and even my writing workshop teacher told me that I was wasting my time. Although short stories were difficult to craft, no one published them and apparently no one read them. They were the Voldemort of the publishing world, because they were there, they were powerful, but publishers pretended that they didn’t exist.
But I continued writing them. Why? Because short stories to me were like an explosion of a single truth, snippets that took me into another world in a brief mad moment of revelation and clarity. I loved this art form more than any other not just for this experience, but also for its production, as each short story required an investment of a few months versus that mammothesque novel which took a few years.
During that time, I created many characters: a father who didn’t know how to love, a slum girl who played basketball to get out of poverty, a prostitute trying unsuccessfully to seduce a Gujarati businessman, a blind man driven mad by love and a woman afraid to confront her husband’s lover. Walking in different people’s shoes however vicariously made me realise how each person is trying to do the best with what they’ve been given. I decided then that the proceeds of my next book whenever it was published would be donated to a friend’s charity, Safar Trust, that educates and feeds sex worker’s children.
My grandmother had always told me that if you show two things in life: courage and kindness, the universe decides to join in the fun. And that is exactly what happened with my short story collection.
One of India’s best and most sought-after editor, Meru Gokhale, had liked my first novel One & A Half Wife and decided to publish my short story collection.
The book, Happy Birthday, then took off on a journey of its own.
Since publication, around two months ago, the reviews for Happy Birthday have been phenomenal. Author and poet Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni gave the book a lovely review and tweeted about it. I remember crying tears of joy because I couldn’t believe that someone I grew up reading would one day be reading (and loving) my stories!
The best thing about Happy Birthday is that, if I’d followed conventional wisdom, this book should not have been written, should not have been published and should not have been read. And since it was not supposed to exist in the first place, every single thing about this book has been nothing short of magical.
Meghna Pant is the award-winning author of Happy Birthday! (2013) and One & A Half Wife (2012)