I knew Nanna – Delhi’s motorcycle repair guru – very well, and liked and respected him. So when I sat down to write chapter five – “Spanners and Screwdrivers” – his character and the scenes came out flat. I wanted that chapter to show insight and vulnerability, but as I wrote – in fits and starts throughout the day – I knew I was failing. Fear was holding me back. Fear of not doing justice to his character made me too careful and, consequently, my words were stilted and guarded. I couldn’t seem to separate the man I knew from the character I was writing about. The result was Nanna came out characterless. That’s the danger of being overly cautious with words.
Because I was having such difficulty – and not much fun – writing the chapter, I didn’t want to labor over it. I found myself hopping in and out of the chapter, going back to tweak yesterdays writing, as well as cleaning the house, washing clothes (by hand in a tub in the bathroom), and making a list of items I needed from Anil’s shop. All signs of a distracted mind that can be counted on to show up whenever I find writing too difficult. I told myself that I’d return to the chapter after the book was completed, when I had a fresh perspective of the work as a whole.
I managed to produce four pages that lacked scene, description or good dialog. Instead of creating a vibrant scene with characters and emotions, I created a diary-like entry that told rather than showed what it was like learning motorcycle maintenance from Nanna.
Thank goodness for revisions. Below is the original scene from that chapter followed by a revised version of it.
Then: original lifeless scene
At Nanna’s workshop, the repairs took place mainly outdoors. A blue tarpaulin swung precariously overhead, held in place at one end with bits of twine, tying it to a tree branch and weighted down with multiple stones across the top of his building. It hung there to shield the mechanics from sun and rain; it was not so effective against the wind. The tiny patch of concrete at the front of his shop was where mechanics and their helpers grunted, banged, and heaved away cantankerous, defunct parts. The space was barely large enough to accommodate the mechanics, let alone having to share it, which they did. Besides the bike in repair at the moment, an old Norton with a sidecar, a broken down heap covered with a cloth and laden with twigs, spider webs and a mound of dust, permanently occupied one corner, probably having done so since it was built in the 1940s.
‘There is nothing wrong with that motorcycle,’ Nanna would exert when I pointed it out.
‘Well, it doesn’t look as if it works.’
‘Yes, it can work. Why not?’
‘Won’t you have to make some repairs to it or something,’ I said, poking at a massive spider’s web, which commandeered the front wheel.
‘Just clean it up, maybe some minor adjustments. It is nothing.’
Now: revised scene
Nanna’s shop crouched under a flyover and was crammed with forgotten and forlorn motorcycles missing wheels, cylinder heads, and seats. Weeds worked their way up and through the spokes of the bikes littering his courtyard before burrowing into carburetors and snaking up to encircle the controls. I wondered where all the bikes came from and how long they’d lingered in their decaying conditions. They looked like lost causes to me but Nanna insisted otherwise.
‘What about that one,’ I asked, pointing to a relic leaning against the fence, that was itself leaning. ‘What’s its story?’
‘The Norton? It belongs to a friend of mine.’
His tone suggested the rider had just dropped it off for a tune-up but its tires were flat and mice had moved into the seat, shredding the stuffing to set up house in it as well as in a nook behind the cylinder. The seat’s filler spilled from the chassis onto the dry chain. Rust pitted its once gleaming chrome, and rodents had chewed the wires and cables to shreds. Spider webs clotted the frame, so old and fragile I believed the spiders no longer lived in them. Nanna read my mind as I stared at the once beautiful but now abandoned bike.
‘Only fifteen years,’ he said, as if reading my mind.
‘He left it here fifteen years ago? Where’s the owner?’
‘He had to leave India suddenly, but he will return for it one day.’
‘He’s not coming back.’
‘He will, and I will keep it for him unless I learn he has died.’
I shook my head, unable to imagine what might possess a person to desert his motorcycle. It seemed unforgivable, but months later I too would discover what it took to leave one behind. In the late afternoon glow, the henna in Nanna’s grey hair sparkled like a cap of copper wiring. His face was smooth, belying his sixty-something years of age. He watched me with solemn brown eyes, but his mouth twisted into a wry grin, implying I knew nothing about what people would do.
Wrote: 10 am-12 pm, 2-4 pm, 5:30-7 pm, 8-10 pm = 7.5 hours