In the 1970s, when I was around 13, my parents were transferred to Calcutta. The enormous, crowded city came as a shock after relatively small-town Madras, where I had grown up, and the sylvan rural India of Rishi Valley School—where I studied.
Walking down a Calcutta market street soon after with my father, I was completely overwhelmed: the sheer crush of vehicles, people, shops crammed beneath ancient colonnaded buildings; it was as if the whole of humanity was condensed into that thoroughfare.
It was then that my father pointed out a man walking slowly down the pavement opposite.
“Don’t stare at him or do anything sudden,” he warned. “That man is a private detective. I know him well and he is currently on an important case. I think he is following a murder suspect.”
A chill went through me. I clutched at my father’s hand and kept walking. Try as I might, I could not tear my eyes off the detective. He was bald, slightly hunched, and carried a shabby briefcase. He looked no different from the thousands of office-babus trudging back home after a routine day at the office. To think that he was a private eye, and on the trail of a dangerous murderer!
I cast my eye about to see if I could spot the probable murderer. There were many on the street that could qualify; indeed any one I looked at with a new-found suspicion seemed somehow sinister in the evening twilight. Could it be that sadhu in his ochre robes, walking with his pet monkey on a chain? Or, as seemed much more likely, was it that big-built giant of a man in a vest and lungi striding along the pavement, chewing pan and spitting carelessly about him.
My eyes went back to my hero, the detective, but he was gone…vanished as if he had never been! I felt my father grip my hand tight.
“I think he’s spotted his man,” he said. “I saw him dart into a side street. The chase is on. It could be a fight to the death.”
I pleaded with my father for us to stay on that night in the street: to await the outcome of the titanic struggle that was surely being fought close by. I don’t recall what he said to dissuade me, but on the way back home I kept trying to wring information about the case from my father. What was the murder all about? Could he introduce me to the detective…? To all my questions, he said nothing, only put his finger up to lips, as if to say, that’s all top secret.
As I have grown into adulthood, I have since come to suspect that that evening was yet make-believe by the master story-teller that was my father. But to this day, that evening remains fresh in my memory – as if it were yesterday – lighting up the drab street of Calcutta with a special magic of adventure. And when I wrote my first thriller The Shadow Throne five years ago, the Pakistani ISI agent in the book was modelled after that ‘detective’!
It is stories like these, real experiences, that can contribute greatly to the development of our creativity. Young students often feel that this quality is unimportant, but it is a capability that is increasingly sought after by companies and organizations.
So how can students, especially late teens, who are entering ‘the traffic jam’ of life, manage it with all its pressures and keep alive their ‘story within’? There is no one answer, but observing life around you is a great idea. Be sensitive, look around you: at people, at animals and at nature. Don’t just see: observe.
Then see if you can follow up with writing about what you have seen. Good, bad, ugly—write! You may find it hard at the beginning, but persist and you will find that a long-buried flame of imagination will start to burn and the story within will start to reveal itself.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes was once asked who he wrote his stories for. He is said to have replied, “For the man who is half a boy and for the boy who is half a man.” We would do very well to follow his advice and keep the story alive within us.