The Lone Fighter
"That's all trash, brother. Why are you wasting your time?” a voice accosted me, catching me midway between a sentence and the next on a page in The Rachel Papers.
On that evening I was at Kinokuniya. After browsing through a number of classics, I was standing in front of a shelf full of contemporary works. Amid scores of novels dealing with adult themes by writers I didn't recognize, two titles, one by Martin Amis and another by Ian MacEwan, grabbed my attention. I was especially interested in Amis's work. It was his first novel, The Rachel Papers that I was looking at. It was at that point of time that Asato's voice reached my ears: “That's all trash, brother. Why are you wasting your time?”
The intrusive voice offended me. I turned back and saw this little bald man in dishevelled clothes standing right behind me. He had a bespectacled oriental face resting on a slender neck. I couldn't remember seeing him before.
In a hectoring tone, he started a volley of unsolicited commentary, “and the shelf next to this, and even the one next to it…it is all trash, brother” the stranger said, pointing his small fingers to the neighbouring shelves in the bookstore.
What rubbish, I thought. I had just seen a Dr. Zhivago on one of those shelves.
“This is not literature brother. This is all sex and trash,” he remarked.
I felt my raised heckles calming down. In a moment, the man's sincerity had me enthralled.
But I was still thinking who this man was: a deranged college professor or an over-enthusiastic local writer? Or was he a government representative, the Singaporean version of a real 'thought police,' the in-charge of guiding and informing public taste in literature and arts? Whoever he was, he had managed to win my attention.
“Let me show you some literature,” the little man said, as if daring me, especially emphasising on the word literature, and started walking towards a corner shelf. He was so sure I would follow him that he did not even look back. He was right. I did trail behind him until we reached the corner of the hall and stood in front of a shelf. It was full of poetry titles.
He pulled out a hard-bound book and quickly leafed through the bastard and the title pages, his fingers finally resting on the contents page.
“See how many poems are there? Only four! You see here. No good book. And look at the price of the book. Thirty-five dollars! These four poems which are useless cost you thirty-five dollars when put them between the covers. Are they worth that much, brother? Tell me, are they?”
While I nodded in agreement, analysing in the back of mind whether he was justified in his assessment, he continued with his dirge.
“I am a poet too,” he blurted, pulling put a chapbook from the bunch of papers and books that he was carrying. So the secret was out finally, I thought. He flashed the book in front of my eyes and then held it vertically to let me have a good look. The chapbook consisted of photocopied papers, neatly stapled together, with a yellow sheet of paper as a cover. On the cover was printed: “An Orange Door.” Below the title was his name. Asato. Near the bottom of the page, where one would expect a publisher's name and logo, was this inscription in capital letters: A Traveller's collection of Poems. “Traveller's” and “Poems” were in bold letters.
“I am selling it for twenty dollars,” he said with a smile. His teeth were uneven and dirty.
His gumption astounded me. Standing in one of the biggest bookstores of the city, there was this little man declaring shelf after shelf of books to be trash and pitching his chapbook of poems as the only worth-your-money-and-attention literary gem. The guy had some guts!
Before I could gather my nerves after being exposed to this sudden sales pitch, he pulled out yet another book. “You see this book--this is my novel. A Brush with Luck. Doing very well at the Amazon.com.” To corroborate his claim, he even showed me a printout of the website. True. His novel was there at the top of the page.
I looked closely at the novel's cover. Unmistakably, his name was there. The copy looked ill produced and soiled. The reason, I guessed, was that this trophy of a novel kept company with the itinerant author all the time.
Without letting my attention swerve, he pulled out a piece of paper from his pocket and thrust it into my hands.
“Read it,” he said, slightly bending his head over the piece of paper that my fingers were unfolding to its full-size. His tone was collegial and it seemed that what we were doing there was the most natural thing to do in a bookstore. Through the corner of my eyes I saw people moving and flitting from shelf to shelf, browsing books. So far no body had objected to our discussion. How noble and decent people become in a bookstore!
The piece of paper was actually a letter of recommendation by one Professor Harpal Singh of National University of Singapore. The content of the letter praised Asato's works in great detail. The sentences could have easily been used for the blurb of Asato's novel.
While I was reading the letter, Asato looked intently at me. I could see that from the corner of my eyes. An idea struck me. “Why don't we discuss whatever you have to say over a cup of coffee?”
“Sure, brother” he said, with an eagerness that's hard to find in strangers in big cities.
We started walking towards the café in the bookstore, past the life sciences, IT and travel books sections. On the way, Asato kept whining: “Today's publishers, they are not interested in genuine books, in works of literature. They are only interested in pushing trash to the readers.”
That sounded so true. I kept nodding to whatever he was saying. I was interested in him. I wanted to unravel the mystery that he was. His voice came as if from a vacuum, mixed with the tenuous hum of the shuffling of pages and human bodies in the bookstore.
“That's why I have decided to reach my readers on my own,” he said, and with a flourish shoved another piece of photocopied paper into face.
The warrior was showing me his weapons, one by one.
This was a piece of declaration. Declaration of war against the publishers of the world. A writer had decided to shun them all and directly reach his readership. “I am the lone fighter,” he declared, his zest akin to that of a diehard communist.
As I was going through his declaration, he started complaining about a Chinese lady whom he had met in a photocopier shop that very morning. “I just wanted her to photocopy my poems and bind them together in a book but she could not understand a thing,” he said. “So irritating!”
His yakking stopped when we reached the café. It was a small corner of the bookshop that had been turned into a cafeteria. A few couples occupied the seats here and there. Shiny colorful volumes rested on the table in front of them. I chose a corner table for us.
After ordering coffee, we sat face to face across a wide wooden table.
“Where are you from Asato?” I asked him. I wanted to know this man who seemed to be so passionate about books and writing.
“I am a Japanese,” he said, tearing the sachet of sugar.
“Interesting. So, you are coming from Japan?”
“No. I am coming from a trip in the UK.”
“So, where do you live? In Japan or in UK?”
“Neither, brother. I live in the USA.”
“Really?” My fingers stayed put over the milk pot for a moment.
“I was fourteen when I fled Japan. That was thirty years ago. I went to the USA to become a writer.”
“Why did you flee from Japan? You could have become a writer there itself. Aren't writers like Haruki Murakami flourishing in Japan?”
“Yes, but I realized Japan was not the place for me. The Japanese society is an empty shell. People don't respect each other there,” he said with an unpatriotic nonchalance.
“So, where are you staying here in Singapore?”
“At the airport.”
“At the airport?”
“Yes, I have been sleeping in the airport, and you know brother, since I have no money, I went to the Japanese embassy to seek their help but they didn't help me.”
“Oh, that's terrible.”
As the conversation flowed, I thought, Asato was like one of those writers of yore. Roaming saints. Recounting their poetry from village to village, feeding on people's generosity, driving pleasure and satisfaction from the praise that came their way. The way of the travelling poet, as one of his chapbooks alluded to.
“Tell me about your first novel, Asato?” I asked him, changing the topic. “How did you get it published?”
“I got it published here in Singapore. My girlfriend financed it. I gave five grands to a publisher here and he printed 200 copies for me.”
Oh, so it was a self published novel, I realized.
“Asato, you are a lucky man,” I teased him. “You have a girlfriend who finances your work.”
A shadow passed over his face. He was about to take a sip from his cup of coffee but he stopped midway. “She has left me now.”
“Oh, I see. I'm sorry”
Both of us fell silent for a while.
“Never mind,” I tried to break the silence. “Self-publishing is not that bad Asato. So many great writers started their writing careers with self-published volumes.” I hoped my words would comfort him. “Do you know that James Joyce self-published his magnum opus Ulysses?”
“Did he?” his eyes brimmed over with excitement.
“That's right. And so did Virginia Woolf and many others.”
“Really? Virginia Woolf too? I didn't know, brother.”
“And in contemporary times, even Vikram Seth. He self-published his first collection of poems when he was in college.”
“Vikram Seth, the Indian novelist and poet.”
“Never heard of him, brother.”
“That's strange. His novel, A Suitable Boy, is world famous. It is one of the heftiest novels of the world. Heftier, if not more admired, than Tolstoy's War and Peace.”
“Really, brother?” he interjected, his voice tinged with a childish excitement.
I nodded, taking a deep sip from my cup of coffee.
“I know Tolstoy,” he said. “I love him.”
“Who else do you love Asato?”
“I love Hemingway. And Faulkner. And I like the Russian writers. Gogol. Pushkin. Dostoevsky.”
“What about Chekhov? Do you like him too?”
“Who did you say, brother?”
“Chekhov. Anton Chekhov.”
“No. Never heard of him.”
I began to get the creeps. This man who claims to love the Russian writers has not even heard of Chekhov, the greatest short story writer of the world.
“You must have heard of Raymond Carver then. He was known as the Chekhov of America.”
“Raymond Carver. Nope. Brother, I have not heard of him too.”
My doubts were now taking root. Was Asato really a writer or a charlatan masquerading as a writer? Or was he like Arjuna in the Hindu epic Mahabharta who could see nothing but the eye of the bird?
But then I reminded myself not to judge a person too soon. It would not only be difficult but even unjust to dismiss a person just like that.
I tried to change the topic of our conversation. I asked him about the places now. America. London. Singapore. Dublin. St. Petersburg. Asato liked America the most. “At least people there let you be, and writers are generally respected.”
"I love London, brother. Londoners love poetry."
"And St. Petersburg?"
He was overjoyed when I mentioned St. Petersburg.
“Brother, people just love books there…their drawing rooms are full of books…I'd love to live in a place like that."
Then I told him that Chekhov first began to publish his stories while he lived in St. Petersburg. He nodded absent-mindedly.
Asato said he desired to go to Dublin, the city of James Joyce. About Singapore, he had a different take. He again launched into a tirade against the Chinese photocopy lady.
“That lady, she had the dare to call me a comrade…am I her friend? She was treating me as if I was her equal? She, a photocopy lady, and I, a writer, where's the equation? Brother, it is like communism, where everybody treats everyone the same way…I don't like this.”
It was getting late and we were the only ones left in café. The waitress, fiddling with the cutlery, was tossing reminders at us, silently beseeching us to leave the place. It was time to close the cafe. I went silent for a moment, thinking how to extricate myself from this Asato.
Asato was perhaps waiting for a moment like this. “So, brother, which one would you like to buy?” he pointed towards his chapbooks.
I had not made up my mind yet. In fact, I was not even sure if I wanted to buy any of his books. I was not ready to commit anything.
“Brother, I am flat broke. Please help me. Buy at least one of my books.”
My heart melted at his plea. I thought: imagine if I were in his shoes? What would I expect from the other person?
I bought his book of haikus for twenty dollars. He gave me another of his books free. In return, I gave him some free advice.
“Asato, why don't you write to writers' foundations for grants? Write to PEN. They will help you.”
“I don't know brother. Can you help me with this?”
I promised him that I would send him some addresses soon. The moment we exchanged our emails, I knew we would never write to each other.
“Brother,” he asked me, “how do you know so much about these things?”
The moment had come for one ghost to surprise the other ghost.
“I am also a writer.”
“Oh…” he said, his mouth agape.
“What do you write? Novels?”
“No, no, not novels. I write travel books. I have written a few novellas though, but they haven't been published.” I did not want to wax eloquent about my travel books and how they were selling well in the local market and in Thailand and Malaysia.
“That's interesting, brother,” he said with a dull smile. I could see the effort but it was natural. Writers only like readers, not other writers.
I thanked him and came out of the café. The bookshop was anyway closing now for the day. People were filing out of the store.
On the courtyard outside Ngee Ann City Mall, as I lit up a cigarette, I saw Asato pass me by. He was taking hurried steps as if he had a destination to go to. Where was he going? To the airport? Or to catch another customer for his poems somewhere else? I had no idea. I didn't even know for sure if whatever he shared with me in the cafe was true.
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