Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s most personal book yet

We expect a lot from Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, the public figure known for his candid opinions and the author of flamboyant works like The Last Song of Dusk. But even the reader who has followed Shanghvi’s writing closely will be surprised by his latest work. Loss is an entirely different being.

It is a spare, restrained, almost monk-like piece of writing that speaks to the most basic fear of all living individuals and addresses it with a lucid understanding that only comes from experience. It is a searing biography of loss, of death and endings, of dealing with the grief that ensues – a biography of all the inevitable bits of life we do not want to acknowledge.

Grief is not a record of what has been lost but of who has been loved. In the end, we weep not only for the death of someone but for the startling question that faces us: what shall we do with the love we have for the deceased? Where will we put it?

Lost and found

“My early writing suffered extravagance,” Shanghvi responds, when I point out that Loss is so different. “Seven years of curatorial practise in the art space in Goa taught me to organise works in response to each other, the vital cut, how things come alive when you leave them be – these lessons I brought to the page, and to Loss.”

Shanghvi, today, is not just a changed author, he is a changed man. Losing both his parents and his beloved pet in the space of a decade – between the ages 30 and 40, what are often called the best years of a life – had a profound effect on his thinking and craft. “With age, you come to see death, or any loss, almost like you might a frog on the dissection table, you see the sum of its parts, you understand what you lost – you are no longer bewildered, but grateful to not have been entirely felled.”

Living alone in Goa during the Covid-induced lockdown was a significant event in the author’s life. “That kind of complete isolation changed me,” he reflects. “When it comes to loss, the pandemic has truly been a great equaliser – even my 22-year-old nephew is coping with the loss of his friends and of their parents – never before has the world collectively grieved in this way.”

The lockdown also gave a chance to Shanghvi to revisit the text of Loss and approach it with a new understanding. “My final edit changed it the most.”

Whose standards matter?

As Shanghvi was coping with personal loss over the last few years, he also took a long break from writing books. “I’d lost my confidence to write – it seemed books were irrelevant, or no one was reading much, or that my own writing was pointless,” he says. “The worst damage a young writer endures is irresponsible criticism; I lived through this early on, but I was lucky, I summoned the courage to write through it and come to the other side, where I am right now. Not everyone mends. Good critics make good writers.”

This is especially true in the age of social media where instant reviews can make or break artists. Shanghvi has had his fair share of critics. Berated for his style, looks, affluence and even his friends, he is used to not being liked. “Hated, you mean!” he laughs. “There’s this Western construct of the ‘struggling writer’. When you unpack this, it suggests a writer’s real job is to struggle, to wear khadi, then die in the attic. I’m sorry – I reject this.”

Different people are held to different standards in our society. Gabriel García Márquez once famously said, “I don’t hold with the romantic myth that the writer has to be starving… before he can produce. You write better if you’ve had a good meal and you’ve got an electric typewriter.” No one would challenge Marquez’s right to affluence, or Arundhati Roy’s. The right to live the way we wish to should be universally accepted even if you don’t agree with an author’s cause or craft.

“This ‘struggling writer’ trope is about decentering the writer’s role in cultural life – hand them some prominence, but no power,” Shanghvi explains. “Writers are considered honourable when they give away their prize money, or if they win an endowment – as if their public life is measured by the money they are given, or the money they give away – as if money were the measure of their existence.”

I ask if the criticism directed at him because of outwardly wealth signifiers has affected him. “It did – to a point – but writers, like actors or musicians, ought to be at the centre of cultural life and not subjects of punishment for the present administration,” he says. “Try that with me and I’ll come around your house with a saucepan.”

Kalyani Prasher is a Delhi-based freelancer who writes on travel, wildlife, nutrition and health

From HT Brunch, November 22, 2020

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