Why I Write

I started my career as an investment banker. I dived in headlong, loving the intellectual challenge and heady rush. Yet, in the margins of my life, if you were to pause and peer, you’d find written in a tiny, tentative scrawl that what I actually wanted to do, ever since I could remember, was to be a storyteller.

I’m not quite sure why I write, but I do know that I have always, knowingly or unknowingly, used stories to navigate my way, with varying degrees of success. In my school years – even while doing math or science- I would attempt to build a narrative so as “to keep my audience engaged” – the audience in question being myself or then, my hapless younger brother whom I’d foist all my fantastical ideas upon.

After school, my dream was to study drama and perform in musical theatre. Serendipitously, I came across Viveka, a director with Theatre Action Group, who was holding auditions for a play. As it turned out, not only did those selected get to act and sing, she even let us co-write the (adapted) script and lyrics. The music was composed by a soft-spoken guitar teacher called Loy Mendonsa (who went on to get rather famous as Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy). At our drama workshops, a charismatic actor called Shah Rukh Khan (who also went on to get rather famous) would cue us for improvs and trust exercises. Occasionally, we were asked to volunteer as ushers at fabulous performances, and I’d watch, wide-eyed. Life was on track, as far as I was concerned. Until I realised that Real Life was about to begin – and it would follow a slightly different script – as a banker. Yet, as always, I found ways to build a narrative to stay happily engaged.

Life comes full circle, as they say. And the scrawl in the margins of my life slowly nudged its way into the centre of the page. Hoping, hoping that someone would read it and let it stay a while.

And so it happened, in a series of fortunate events which involved some pretty fabulous Puffins and Penguins and Producers – who propelled my journey as an author and screenwriter.

honestly believe that stories choose us. An idea, sometime planted years ago, decides that its time has come – and then won’t let go until it has had its say. For my latest book, Across the Line, the seed was an unspoken conversation with my grandfather, when I was about ten years old; a conversation I wish I had had but didn’t find the words for, at the time. My grandparents, like millions of others, were rendered refugees in the aftermath of the Partition. Yet, they never spoke about this cataclysmic upheaval in their lives. Except for once – but, sadly, that conversation remained unfinished. I felt the silence of what was left unsaid consume me – until the silence was deafening. I had to revisit those unspoken words – and the only way I knew how, was to write.

Similarly, the seed for my screenplay for the film Shakuntala Devi was probably planted when I was about six years old, when Shakuntala Devi came to my school in Kolkata to demonstrate her exceptional mathematical skills. I clearly remember that performance – she seemed like a magician pulling numbers out of a hat, to produce answers to ridiculously complicated questions. I vividly recall how she had us in splits when she told off our headmistress for her maths not being up to the mark. Both she and her show have stayed with me over the years.

When I started writing, her story was one that I really wanted to tell – and somehow the stars aligned. My director friend Anu Menon was also keen to do a film on her, we found producers who believed in our story and then, to our utmost delight, Vidya Balan loved the script and came on board to play her role.

I don’t know why a particular story chooses us. Or why it gets told when it does. But I am beginning to increasingly believe that the stars earmark people who will be involved in its telling and then we cross paths, by exquisite design – and the story falls into place.

If you indulge my seemingly farfetched drift, it doesn’t take a village; it actually takes a galaxy (with a publisher or cast and crew in it) to raise a story. And a writer who shows up to work, day after day – and believes, against all odds, that the galaxy will also do its bit.

So, if you ask me why I write, it’s this: I write to try and make sense of things. I write to make peace with what I cannot control. I write to speak out. I write to make amends. I write to let go. I write to complete the circle. I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to hear children laugh and question. I write to face my demons. I write to begin a difficult conversation or finish what was left unsaid. But then again, perhaps I write because there were these stories hurtling through the portals looking for a teller – and I just happened to be in the way.

Nayanika Mahtani, who has worked as an investment banker, is now an author and screenwriter. Nayanika’s books include Across the Line, The Gory Story of Genghis Khan (aka Don’t Mess with the Mongols) and Ambushed. She has also recently co-written the screenplay for a Hindi film based on the mathematical genius, Shakuntala Devi. Nayanika lives in London with her family. The views expressed are the author’s own.