As was his daily routine, he took his laptop out and lay down on his bed. Cycling was tiring. Only while coming back from his office though. The way to his office was mostly downhill and that too the early morning rides are peaceful and serene. He hated coming back. One reason being the uphill ride and the second being the other insensitive vehicles all around. He knew he was not Wolverine and neither was he going to get those powers. However, there were times where he really wished he could pull out a certain driver from his seat, hold him down on the bonnet, claws popped out pointing at his face, and telling him, “Don’t you dare ruin my momentum bub”. Unlike olden days, he had learned to come out of these fantasies much quicker.
He made himself comfortable on the bed. Resting his head and neck on his pillow, slightly tilted up in an angle that would easily let him look at his laptop screen. He plugged in the Internet cable and waited for it to connect. Work was enjoyable. That lying down had a certain inexplicable pleasure to it. The pleasure of a man back home from a good day’s work. The programming job along with the cycling exercise was tiring, but he loved it.
He logged in to his Internet service. A 2Mbps connection was more than enough for his needs at home. He opened up youtube and looked at the search bar wondering what to type in. Just then his phone beeped. It was a text message from his friend Ranjith. It said,
“Macha, can’t you try writing for newspapers! A thought”.
That was unexpected. For a moment, he got thrown back to the days where he used to keep writing. That was when he did not have too much attention. A time when it did not matter who read whatever was written. Things had changed now however. Everytime he thought of writing something, the people who might read it came to his mind. That scared him. He was not prepared for what they would say. What all comments he would have to face. Hence, he slowly gave up even thinking of writing.
However, at that moment, he felt a joy. His friends still did remember him as someone who wrote.
A conversation happened between Ranjith and him where he explained that writing for newspapers not only would require tremendous skill but a lot of research as well. Upon being asked how this sudden thought popped up, Ranjith said that he saw a similar writing style in of the articles within The Hindu newspaper.
“That is a great compliment Ranjith. Thanks!”
He put his phone away and turned his attention back to the search results in Youtube. It was almost 5:30PM. He stretched his legs and arms, letting off a deep sigh of relief.
“Knock, knock”. He heard someone knocking at the door.
That was unusual. His roommate only comes back around 8PM in the night. Also, since he was living as a bachelor, people paying him a visit randomly was scarce. There would have to be a phone call or at least a text message discussing about where and when to meet.
“Knock, knock”. Again.
Feeling irritated at being disturbed from his comfortable lying posture and a mind ready to be entertained, he grumbled and got up.
The door lock consisted of a knob from the inside and a keyhole from the outside. He went ahead and turned knob, unlocking the door.
A sudden gush of wind swept in.
Having recovered from the suddent burst of air, he lowered his hands from his face. He could not make out who was standing outside his home. His adrenaline kicked in.
It was a man standing outside. He was wearing a long black trench coat, something very unusual in India. At least, he had never seen anyone in trench coat before. At the maximum, a jacket or a sweater. This guy standing outside was probably boiling inside in this summer heat. However, that person did not seem to show any sign of uncomfortableness. He had a hat on as well. A round hat and he was holding his head down so that his face was not visible. His pale hands sticking out of the trench coat sleeves were visible. They looked pale. Quite pale.
“What’s up Haris? Killing yet another beautiful evening?”, the person asked in a husky, yet composed voice.
Haris’ heart skipped a few beats. He did not have a clue who it was standing there acting all spooky. The pale skin, the gush of wind, the tranch coat and the spiked long hair reminded him of someone. He did not want to believe it. Too many comic books tend to mess with one’s thoughts. He mustered up all the courage he could.
“Who are you?”
The man slowly raised his head. Haris looked at him in a state of shock as his face revealed inch by inch starting from his jaw. The skin was pale, really pale. The lips did not strike any resemblance. The nose did not help that much either. Nothing could have probably prepared him for whom he saw there then. The eyes revealed it all.
It was Neil Gaiman!
“Wha…!”, Haris exclaimed.
“Of all the people, I did not expect you to be surprised to see me. Were you not expecting me?”, asked Neil.
“No sir. I mean Neil.. Well, how would I? Come in, come in”, Haris stuttered.
“It is a beautiful evening. I would much rather be outside enjoying the breeze and catching the setting sun. Shall we go and sit on the terrace?”
“By all means, of course. Here, let me a grab a couple of chairs”
“No, no… Just get that mat in your other room. That’ll do nicely”
“How did you know that I had a mat there?”, Haris asked even more surprised than he already was.
“Surely that is not your greatest curiosity at the moment?”, Neil replied with a smile.
“Yeah no, not really. Okay, let me fetch it”.
Haris fetched the mat and both of them went upstairs onto the terrace. He laid the mat down. There was a pleasant breeze and sky was just starting to turn golden. There were eagles flying around. Since the entire meat market was just a couple of yards away from the building, the sight of eagles were quite frequent around. Neil put his briefcase on the mat, took his coat off and both of them sat down.
“It is an honor to meet you sir. But what’s going on? Why are you here?”, Haris asked, not being able to contain the suspense and excitement any longer.
“Aren’t you supposed to be telling me that? After all, you called me here.”
“What!? What are you talking about? How on Earth would I call you?”
“Perhaps you dreamt?”, there was a slightly sarcastic tone in Neil’s voice.
“Yeah right. If that was the case, then probably a lot more people should be around.”, stated Haris with a laugh.
“Well, Galahad must be here by now. Why don’t you go and meet him? I believe he is downstairs.”
With a look of amazement, Haris slowly got up and went down. Just as he turned the corner where the flight of stairs ended, his heart again skipped a few beats. This was becoming a habit now and he did not feel troubled about it.
“Milord”, Galahad took his helmet off, tucked it in his arm pits and kneeled. His shining white knight’s armor looked brilliant.
“Galahad at your service milord. May I know why your highness has summoned me?”
Haris understood the reality of the situation. He always dreaded this would happen at some point. He had gone crazy! All those years of reading comics and watching cartoons were catching up to him now. It was out of control. What could he do to prevent this going any further! He tried pinching himself in the hope that he would snap out of the dream. No such luck. It only hurt his forearm.
“Hey hey, stand up. What’re you doing? What’s all this about?”, asked Haris, still in his undershirt and black pants.
There was a puzzled look on Galahad’s face.
“But sire, you asked me to come…”
There was sudden crash and boom. The quake sent Haris flying over the building. He screamed and closed his eyes shut, imagining to be rescued. At that exact instant, something hit him and swept him upwards. He was in a shock to notice what had gotten hold of him. After swinging up for a while, both he and his savior landed on top of another building.
“Are you alright?”, a deep voice asked.
Haris recognized the voice in an instant. He rubbed his eyes and turned back.
“No way!”, he exclaimed.
“I mean, I am alright… Batman!”
“Good, then let’s go now. The League is trying their best to defend, but we need you.”
“Whoa wait, defend against whom? What is happening?”
“You will have your answers soon, but we need to leave now!”, and with that, Batman caught hold of him and pulled both of them up into the Batwing which was hovering above.
The jet speeded. Haris was in a daze.
There was a gentle tap on his shoulders. He turned back. Neil was sitting there in the seat behind him.
“You’re fantasizing”, Neil said.
Even before Haris could say anything in reply, suddenly the jet shook vehemently as if it had crashed into something. He saw Batman leaning for his seat and pressing a button underneath it. The next instant, he got thrown way up into the air while he could see the jet going forward in flames. There was small red button strapped onto his chest which was blinking. Without thinking twice, he pressed it. A parachute bag popped up from behind, making him drift down slowly.
Way down underneath him, he could see smoke rising. Dark, thick smoke. He could vaguely make out the outline of some structure from the front of which the smoke was originating. The wind carried him slightly forward, leaving the structure beneath him.
As he drfited closer to the ground, he could make out a set of horses gallopping at high speed away from the structure, towards west, which was the direction he was drifting in. A look in that direction revealed a majestic white fort built really high at the foot of a hill. He started to get a strange feeling. A Deja Vu perhaps. Suddenly, he heard the sound of cloth ripping apart above him. Something had torn his parachute. He was almost at ground level when this happend. He fell, but did not hit the ground.
One of the riderless gallopping horses had come directly underneath and gotten him on its back. The horse rode on as if it expected this to happen. On both sides and up front, he could see other riders speeding away towards the white fort. Before he got to ask the question of what was happening, a spine freezing screech cut short his thoughts.
He looked up and to his terror, saw a huge black, chaotic dragon. He could see the large fangs, the glowing eyes and a stench so bad that he was filled digust and hatred in an instant. However, his terror seemed not to take control of his senses. Although he was absolutely sure he did not have a sword when he fell from the plane, he took one out from its sheath that was hanging on his waist belt. Holding it high up, he screamed and sped on the horse.
The dragon overtook the riders, pivoted back and swept down directly at them. Haris drew his sword back and thrusted it at the dragon. However, its wings knocked it out of his hands along with three other mounted riders off their horses. Only then a fear started creeping up his spine and he wanted to survive.
As if his unspoken words were heard, he saw a figure, clad in white robe, holding up high a staff glowing with a light that was blindingly bright, speeding towards them riding a horse. He was coming from the castle’s direction.
“Begone foul creatures!”, he shouted and raised his staff at the dragons circling about.
The dragons were taken aback seeing the light coming from the staff. The valiant rider clad in white rode around the set of gallopping riders, cutting them off from the dragons and rest of the dark army who were chasing them. Being rid of the danger, they ran into the awaiting doors of the white castle, feeling safe and comfortable beneath the strong and majestic walls.
The people within bowed in respect as the riders galloped towards the top. Upon reaching the 8th tier of walls, they alighted. Everyone walked away with their horses in different directions. Haris stood there dumbfounded, not knowing what was going on.
“Come my dear friend. The enemy approaches fast. We should hold the counsel as soon as possible. May I ask your name?”
“Uh, Haris… Gandalf. I mean, sir”.
“A strange name indeed. Maybe the Gods have sent you for aid during these troubled times. Come, let us go in.”
Gandalf slowly walked into one of the huge doors that remained slightly opened.
He turned around startled to hear his name being mentioned. Neil was standing there.
“You are living in another person’s world now. The things that you see around you, the people, and even you, are at the mercy of someone else”
Neil was assertive in his tone. There was a slight sign of fear as well.
“Take the words into your control. Create your own world. Let those who do not understand the joy of creating a universe say what they wish. Let the words of power, that of passion and love come forth. Stitch together the torn pieces of fabric that makes up our world.”
It did not feel real. He had heard Neil speak before and this did not sound anything like it.
“Why do you speak like that?”, asked Haris.
“Because you want me to speak like that. The depth of what you create and the message it conveys only goes as far as your knowledge and experience. You used to dream and you used to make those dreams come true. Somewhere along the way, the dreams remained but the creation died. You sought to find the same feeling over and over again, never to have succeeded.”
“This is what I have in my mind! But how did you know that?”
A smile appeared on Neil’s face.
“AUUGH!”, cried Haris out loud feeling a stabbing pain through him. A sword’s tip stuck out through his stomach. The pain was excruciating. Blood gushed out and his strength failed him. He fell to the ground. Still, Neil just stood there with that smile on his face.
“You can heal.”, he said.
Then it struck Haris. He got up slowly, the sword still sticking out. He clenched his fists, wrinkled his forehead, and started uttering a soft roar. It built up slowly, growing fiercer and fiercer by the moment, until it became a loud, terrifying scream! His muscles ripped his shirt off. He threw his head back with the scream, and from within his tightly clenched fists, popped three claws! Holding the sword with his left hand, he swung around with his right hand stretched wide.
There was a shriek. Amidst the smoke, a severed head fell down on the ground. It was pitch black, and was covered with a dark mask, wearing a gray, broken crown. There was a not a drop of blood to be seen. The body which still held the sword’s hilt turned into ashes. Haris pulled the sword out of him. He was panting, his chest heaving up and down. He felt the pain drifting away. A look at his stomach revealed no wound.
Meanwhile all this was happening, Neil watched in amusement, not showing the slightest of intimidation.
“I am disappointed a bit”, he said, and walked away.
Haris stood there. He wondered what Neil meant. He slowly walked towards the walls and looked over them. The Dog was running around on the rooftop of the neighboring building. Its mistress had gone for work. Round and round it would go all day long, barking and standing up to see over the fence.
“The world must be those four walls for it. Except for the occasional peek it takes over them. I wonder what goes through its mind when it hears a language it can understand. The fierce debate of the street dogs 5 floors down”, Haris thought.
He shifted his gaze slowly towards the right. Over the horizon, he could see the sun slowly going down. Bathing the world in gold, making it look and feel so precious. He savored the moment. Following along the golden rays, he gaze fell upon the solemn tree standing tall and majestic, proud to wear the golden pardha awhile before going to sleep. As much as the sight was glorious to behold, he felt a sense of sadness at the sight. Around it was a wide stretch on uninhabited land. For miles, there were no trees around. An old man, with a book in his hand, stood in front of it. Haris could sense the conversation. He grieved.
There was a slight tap on his shoulders. He turned around.
“Dad!”, he exclaimed.
“You have a gift. Make the world a better place with it.”
“But, but… how?”
“That answer is for you to find on your own. However, there is one thing that I can tell you.”, his Father looked at him reassuringly. “That you are not alone”.
The door which Gandalf had gone in opened. Haris could not see what was within. He waited. Even though he had enough surprises and adventure for one day, he was not prepared for what happened next.
The people who came out started with his family, followed by his friends. They started pouring out, each carrying a glowing pot. It did not just stop with them. The leaders of the world, the beggars, the scums of the society, the activists, all of them were there. The superheroes started flying and swinging in from around. The monsters and creatures he ever knew came around and stood obediently. The actors, their characters, the bugs, birds, animals, trees, plants, anything and everything came and stood there!
He stood there gaping. Neil came forward.
“Our experiences are at your command. Those that have been shared, to be used as you will. Those that have not been shared, waiting for you in those pots. All you need to do, is ask”. He paused for a moment and then continued, “We are there right behind you. Now it is time to start your quest. Let’s get you back home. Any preferences?”, he added with a wink.
“I think I’ve got that covered”. With that, he ran and jumped over the wall. Falling freely. He did not sprout wings, he did not wear a cape. No one came from anywhere to save him from the fall. He cut the air sharp and went straight down. The trees, the stones and the pebbles started getting bigger. It grew bigger and bigger until WHAM!
He heard Neil’s voice in his head. The screen was titled “Neil Gaiman – Advice”. The flash video box showed suggestions for other videos to watch. It was 5.37PM. He let go off a deep sigh. He got up, took his laptop and put it on his table. He adjusted the seat, sat on it, fired up his favorite text editor and started typing in,
“As was his daily routine, he took his laptop out and lay down on his bed. Cycling was tiring…”
Following was what the voice said. (This is the transcript of the video titled ‘Neil Gaiman – Advice’, on youtube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voFDz4o6H9g)
“If you only write when you’re inspired, you maybe a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist. Because, you’re going to have to make your word count and those words aren’t going to wait for whether you are inspired or not. So you have to write when you are not inspired and you have to write the things that don’t inspire you. The weird thing is, six months later you will look back at them and you can’t remember which things you wrote when you were inspired and which things you wrote because they had to be written next.
The process of writing can be magical. There are times when you step out of an upper floor window and you just walk across thin air, and it is absolute and utter happiness. Mostly it is a process of putting one word after another. It is like, out in Peak District, in England, and up in Scotland, there are people who make dry stone walls. And they have been making dry stone walls for generations. The way they make these walls is, they have lots and lots of rocks. They put one down and they put another one down that fits, and they put another one down that fits. They know how to do it. And somehow, they create these walls that are absolutely stable. And just by putting one rock down after another, eventually, you have a wall.
That’s how you make a novel.
Put one word, after another, and then you repeat. So when people come to me and they say, ‘I wanna be a writer. What should I do?’. I say, ‘You have to write’.
Sometimes they say, ‘I am already doing that. What else should I do?’. I say, ‘You have to finish things’. Because that’s where you learn from. You learn by finishing things.
There is so much advice that you can give young writers. Particularly writes who want to work within a certain genre. Read within that genre to understand what people are doing, but then, go and read outside your comfort zone. If you love a certain kind of movie and you want to make hollywood action thrillers, go watch other kinds of movies. Watch documentaries and go see the other stuff. Find everything you can. If you like books, and you like fantasy and you want to become the next Tolkien, don’t read big, Tolkienesque fantasies. Tolkien did not read big Tolkienesque fantasies. He read books on finished philology.
You go and read outside your comfort zone. Go and learn stuff. Hit primary sources, and then, the most important thing that anyone once they get any kind of level of quality – the point where you are ready to write and you can, is, tell your story. Don’t try and tell stories that other people can tell. Because any starting writer, will always start out with other people’s voices. You have been reading other people for years, you are going to tell the kinds of thing you’ve been doing. However, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell. Because there always be better writers than you and there will always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that, but you are the only you.
You know, Tarantino, you can criticize everything that Quentin does, but nobody writes Tarantino stuff, like Tarantino. He is the best Tarantino writer there is and that was actually the thing that people responded to. This is an individual writing with his own point of view.
There will always be people out there who are better than you. There are better writers then me out there. There are smarter writers, there are people who can plot better, all those kind of things. But there is nobody who’ll write Neil Gaiman stories like I can.
As for getting over the writer’s block, for me it has always been a process of trying to convince myself that what I am doing in the first draft isn’t important. I remember the incredible liberation of the point that I moved from type writers to computers, because I was no longer making paper dirty. It was just sort of notional, it was imaginary. I was writing these words, but they did not matter. And then a decade after that, I remember the liberation again of thinking, I can write in notebooks. It isn’t real until I keyboard it. One of the things that I actually still do is to over and over is to just write in notebooks. Just hand write, because, it is not real. One way you get through the block is by convincing yourself that it does not matter. Nobody is ever going to see your first draft. Nobody cares about your first draft. And that is the thing that you maybe agonizing over, but honestly, whatever you are doing can be fixed. You can fix it tomorrow, you can fix it next week. For now, just get the words out. Get the story down however you can get it down, and then fix it.”