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Way with words


No fuss, no hype ... Altaf Tyrewala's making his mark in his own way.

Packing a punch: Altaf Tyrewala refined his skills with training programmes in call centres.

LATE last year, a slim black novella quietly appeared in bookshops. All of 161 pages, it told of as many as 40 protagonists. Most lived in Bombay's Byculla area and each one told his story differently. Intriguingly titled No God in Sight. Making its author, 29-year-old Altaf Tyrewala, another literary name in the long list of authors writing on the contradictions of life in the island city. Yet an author who remains strangely invisible. No interviews and no book readings. And much that is different.

For one, Tyrewala dislikes air conditioning. Unusual given that the 29-year-old author's bread and butter job has often been writing e- learning programs for software companies. But Tyrewala likes to live in the real world. To feel, like his protagonist Mr. Joshi feels his son Abhay must feel "the mess, sweat, dirt, blood and mucous of real life".

To create art

Not the "sanitised, comfortable" world of the United States, where he studied business administration, advertising and writing. "I wanted to get away," explains Tyrewala, as we drink our dhaba chais in Bombay's Tea Centre. "Else I would have been writing stories without any blood or gore. Struggling to find something to create art out of." So Tyrewala left New York, returning to the Byculla of his boyhood.

Now he lives in " Bombay and Mumbai" as the three-line author bio on his book states. Two worlds and the preoccupation with them informs much of Tyrewala's work. One which he embraces for its stimuli, "I subconsciously wanted to suffer the stress of India." The other like air-conditioning (and rarefied readings) which he squarely rejects. A globalised world "not in sync with your surroundings". Tyrewala is earnest and intense. All globalisation means is "an import of hunger into a country where people have made peace with starvation... it's a sweet little drug like insinuation under your skin which lessens your ability to tolerate discomfort."

What about the great IT revolution, I ask him, the cerebral superiority of our software writers. "Frightening," he replies. "It's a colonisation of our brains. You can come and take over my environment. But when you take over my brain where do I go?"

We talk about No God in Sight and his stripped-down style. Tyrewala doesn't use many words. But the few he picks pack a punch. How does he do that? "My first instinct was to describe, revelling in my ability with words," he confesses. Now he sometimes spends days, whittling down a large chapter into a punchy paragraph. It's a skill he refined in writing training programmes for call centres. Where every paragraph had to have a point.

Epiphanic moments

"Sometimes all you need is a single sentence to capture that one indescribable essence," explains the author. And indeed his stories have more than their fair share of such epiphanic moments. Like Kasim, on his child's abortion, feeling "a shameless and hopeless gratitude towards Minaz for consenting to the desecration of her body in order to salvage our shining futures". The book is peopled with characters who are too weighed down with the misery of the quotidian to even look for a God.

Which brings me to the obvious question: Does he believe in God? He answers after a moment's pause, "I used to. I've always had a yearning for religion". But an experience of meditation at the age of 18 proved life changing. "It stripped away everything; made me intimate with my body and aware of my humanity without the crutch of any ideology."

It is this common denominator of the human body, which inspires much of his characterisation. "People ask me how I could visualise the figure of the beggar so strongly or of Kasim and Minaz, did I have a personal experience of an abortion? But the dilemmas of the body are universal."

What about the discrimination that so many of the book's characters face? Suleiman who is thrown out of his ancestral village. Avantika Joshi who went to the Police Station to look for her missing husband only to be told, "Arrey,madam, enough! If you do not like it here, take your miya-ji husband and go to Pakistan."

Reality of discrimination

Did Tyrewala ever face this sort of discrimination? "It's an everyday reality," he says matter-of-factly, "something you learn to live with. Yet it also ever ceases to be a source of shock."

Finally, does it bother him that his book is not getting the sort of hype and hoopla, so many other expatriate publications get? Or that other people are making "insane amounts" of money while he is in "perpetual penury"? Tyrewala is quietly confident. "If it is good it will happen... Besides, money wouldn't make writing any easier."

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