Chai, Chai was easy to write. All I needed to do was travel to the small towns, roam the streets, visit the bars, meet people, take notes and return to Chennai.
Back in Chennai, when I sat down to write the book, which was several months after I had finished travelling, I realised I had very little notes to fall back on. I had hardly taken any, except for jotting down facts such as names and years. As a result, Chai, Chai was written almost entirely out of memory. Fortunately, my memory was intact to the last ray of the setting sun, or so I would like to believe. I guess you tend to remember more when you soak in an experience rather than merely record it: the spontaneity of a stray, but fruitful, conversation can be easily killed the moment you whip out your notebook.
Whatever the case, it is much easier to write about a place when you travel there and return home to do the writing. You know you've got what you had gone there to get, and in case you have missed out something, just too bad: you can't travel to that godforsaken place all over again to gather those details. You make do with whatever material you have at your disposal -- notes or in the form of memory -- and you get going with the writing.
But how do you write about the place you live in? When you travel to a place and come back back to write about it, it is the distance in terms of location and lapsed time that makes you 'look back' at that place. Only when you look back that you introspect, and only when you introspect that you write stuff that is meaningful.
But while working on a portrait of Chennai, which is my next project, I do not have the luxury of looking back. I do not have the luxury of collecting material in one go and then shutting myself from the world to finish the book. Each day I get to see Chennai, and the Chennai that I see is always different from the one I had seen the day before. I am growing with the city, and the city is growing with me.
So how do I distinguish between raw material for my book and daily dose for my life? When do I play the role of a writer who has been on a visit to the city since 2001, and when do I behave like a resident who has been living here for nine years? It's a tough job, trying to change hats every minute and trying to sniff material for a book out of your daily life.
But it's a job I am determined to accomplish, and my guiding spirit would be the expectation set by a surgeon friend, also a Chennaiite, who wrote to me after finishing Chai, Chai: "You have passed the exam! I loved your book. When you write about Chennai, consider that you are deflowering a virgin. Tell me things that as a Chennaiite I did not bother to get to know and make me feel ashamed of that fact."
Her email has made my job suddenly so easy. You can always trust a surgeon to teach you a thing or two about precision.