Her collection of poems was followed by a novel about a partition-era love story, which she wrote in the span of three months. And after that novel? Well, she wrote another – this time it was ‘Floating Logs’, a historical romance book set in the Calcutta of her youth. Lal, now 82 and working on her third manuscript, compares the flood of writing to a “vertical avalanche” of inspiration.
Lal may be unique in the sense that writing seems to be a meditative experience for her, but she isn’t the only Indian author who has penned their first book at an older age. Jharna Banerji, 82, began writing her novel, ‘Perched on the Periphery,’ while her husband was ailing with Parkinson’s disease. Her book is about an older widow who has been made to immigrate to live with her children, and how she grapples with finding her own identity. “It took me a long 10 years to write this book as I was a full-time caregiver and a spare time raconteur of this tale. The process of writing was cathartic, because when you write you are never alone or lonely,” says Banerji, who started writing the book at 65.
Older authors have a wealth of experience, at a basic level, simply because of the changes they seen. Inspired by her reflections about how much India has changed since she was a child, Lal enjoys writing historical romance novels. They combine her inherently romantic nature with her desire to bring people into the India she grew up in. “The post-Partition India where my kids grew up was peaceful. There was a strong awareness of and respect for other communities. I wanted to convey that harmony,” she says.
Banerji agrees with the idea that being older gives one valuable perspective. “I feel that having such a broad spectrum experience of life as the elderly do, if they can remain rational, and see the past and the present in a balanced manner, then they have the wherewithal to do wonders with it,” says the Pune resident.
For others, post-retirement life allows them the opportunity to look back not only at the way the world has evolved, but also at their own careers and accomplishments. For Kiran Doshi, 80, it took retiring from the IFS to start writing about his experiences. ‘Birds of Passage,’ his first book, was a satirical look at diplomatic circles set in the world of India-Pakistan-US relations. His most recent book ‘Jinnah Often Came to Our House’ is a fictionalised account asking the question, “Why is it so difficult to improve our relations with Pakistan?”
Reflecting on his decision to start writing fiction after retiring he says, “As a career diplomat I had to write a lot all my working life. Yet I have no doubt that if I had started writing fiction when I was much younger, I would have become more skillful at it by the time I turned 60.” While that may be the case, he adds, “What the older writer says has greater depth, I feel. The reason? He can see more.”
Parth Mehrotra, commissioning editor of publishing house Juggernaut, says, “Especially in non-fiction, an older author brings a lifetime of experience. A journalist or a civil servant or a politician or a doctor, looking back on their career can have invaluable insights.”
Kamal Meattle, 74, is perhaps the ultimate exemplification of this kind of non-fiction writing. His book, ‘How to Grow Fresh Air,’ is about his work as an environmentalist, specifically in air pollution management. He reflects on how he tackled pollution in Delhi and offers solutions to readers about how they can better the air they breathe.
Meattle was inspired by his younger son who compared him to an Ayurveda who has found a solution for himself but won’t share it with others. “In the 1990s, I became allergic to Delhi’s air and the doctors told me to leave. I would go away and be OK, but as soon as I came back, there would be problems,” he says. “My friends are here, my life is here, why would I want to disappear?” So, instead, he focused on finding his own solutions, including a cleaning system he installed in his Nehru Place office. He adds: “The idea behind the book was to use simple language to help people help themselves” Meattle is now working on a similar book geared towards children.
For many, getting older means finally having the time to pursue writing with the dedication their busy lives didn’t allow. Lal says, “I couldn’t write earlier because I had so much on my hands. At this age, my mind is free, so why not write?”