When our daughter was about to be born, I chose for her a short name, Ila. Ila’s mother is Muslim, I am Hindu. We had got married when our two countries, India and Pakistan, were fighting a war. Ila is a Hindu name; it is also the opposite of her mother’s last name, Ali.
Ila Ali. A friend of mine said it would be a name that would sway in the breeze all day. I had noticed that it formed a palindrome. Ila’s name mirrored her mother’s, and yet kept its difference. I liked that.
Which is all to say that even before she was born, Ila had become, like many other kids, a site of complicated, and often silly, fantasies on the part of her parents.
Ila is now six. A few days before she was born, I chanced upon an essay by Raymond Carver called “Fires”. It is a memoir produced, I suppose, in response to a question about literary influences. In a characteristic move, Carver declares that more than books and writers, it was other things in his messy, real world, that had affected his work. In particular, his children. The memory of those years, when his kids were growing up, still bothered Carver. Sitting in the basement of my in-laws’ house in Toronto, while waiting to become a new father, I read the following lines: “I have to say that the greatest single influence on my life, and on my writing, directly and indirectly, has been my two children. They were born before I was twenty, and from beginning to end of our habitation under the same roof — some nineteen years in all — there wasn’t any area of my life where their heavy and baleful influence didn’t reach.”
It is a searing little essay. Carver describes the desperation of his younger years, working at one, sometimes two, menial jobs and trying to put food on the table for his family. He describes his struggle to write. He wrote short stories because there was never enough time to write anything longer. His despair soon begins to feel like a dark liquid pooling on the page. You feel the writer’s pain but, of course, you can also imagine the children drowning in that misery.
Around the time that I first read “Fires”, I was also starting to draw the outline of a first novel. I cannot remember now whether it was Carver’s essay which led to this decision in my mind, although I remember reading that piece more than once that summer, but as I played with the outline I began to think that I would write about the birth of my daughter. My wife underwent a long, painful labour. The novel began with a man in a prison near my hometown in India. I tried to imagine him witnessing a birth in a prison, not a human being giving birth, but an animal. Say, a dog. Now when I look back on it, I wonder whether some of Carver’s “dirty realism” (or what Tess Gallagher has called his “benign menace”) hadn’t crept into my presentation of Ila’s arrival as an animal birth witnessed in a prison. In any case, when the novel was published, the scene I have described above found its way into its pages. But there were many times during the writing of the book when I wished I had more time to write. Perhaps all writers complain about time, there is never enough time, and in the years following that first encounter with Carver’s essay, I have often gone back to it like an alcoholic returning to drink. As far as I am concerned, despite or perhaps because of my hunger for it, that piece is like poison.
For the truth is that I also love my daughter so much that anything sweet or tender reminds me of her. I don’t only mean a child on a street in strange city, wearing a dress of a style and colour I associate with my daughter, who can suddenly induce heartache, but even a bird calling in an overhead branch, ku-hu, ku-hu. I remember being in a small town in India a couple years after Ila had been born. In a dark front yard of a house where I had come to conduct a late-night interview, two young servants were busy with a black cow that was about to give birth. Lanterns swinging in their hands, the youths explained that the last time one of the cows had given birth, it had been in the middle of the night. No one was around to take care of the calf. In that crowded stall, the mother had accidentally trampled her newborn to death.
As I watched, fifteen minutes later, the calf arrived, its legs thin and crooked as in a child’s drawing. I could think only of Ila as I gazed at the lovely little animal in front of me: she was also the child whose drawings had given me a way to look at it that night. The creature’s arrival filled me with a sudden elation and it also made me miss my daughter terribly. It is the same when I’m in the train coming back from New York City, hoping to be home before she goes to bed. To participate in the ritual of preparing her for sleep, and then lying down next to her to read a story, offers me great joy. I will not exchange it for another hour of writing. At such moments, I have traded Raymond Carver for Wallace Stevens. When asked by Marianne Moore to turn in a piece on William Carlos Williams, Stevens said no, explaining in his letter: “There is a baby at home. All lights are out at nine. At present there are no poems, no reviews. I am sorry.”
Such grace. And, however impermanently, that sense of patience and grace is also mine. I say impermanently not only because, in my case, the feeling of sweet resignation that Stevens is describing gives way, sometimes, to the rage that Carver is articulating. That does happen, but what I have in mind is this: I put Ila to sleep and lie awake in the dark for a while; the lights are, indeed, out at nine, but not for long. I come out of the room and make my way slowly upstairs to sit down and write.
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