Growing Up...

My "real" name is Pashupati Chatterji. Poltu is what I used to be called as a kid, and I use that as my pen-name: Pashupati Chatterji looks decidedly awkward on a book cover, and most people can't pronounce it anyway. I'd rather not talk about my age: it depresses me. Fact is, I stopped growing when I was around nineteen or twenty. "Grow Up!" is something I hear often, accompanied by rolling eyeballs. Which is a bit odd, because I was a pretty serious, intellectual kid, and they used to call me 'old beyond my age' as a teenager. Now I am stuck in that teenage.

I was born in Rajasthan, India, but shortly thereafter my dad got a government assignment in Africa. My formative years were spent in Dodoma, Tanzania. My first childhood memories are of Dodoma – I don’t remember much of the years before that. I suppose the shock of Africa wiped clean earlier memories.

Masai Warrior posing for my Dad with non-Masai pipe
Masai Warrior posing for my Dad with non-Masai pipe

Dodoma was a very small town then. I understand it’s a bustling city now. There was just one baker, one butcher and one cobbler. I could walk from one end to the other in couple of hours on my tiny feet. I remember the manyara hedges that oozed white latex, giant centipedes that we needled with twigs (I’d be terrified if I saw one now), baobab trees and Masai warriors passing through the town on business. It was interesting to watch them expertly shouldering spears while hopping on to running buses, the red ochre robes blowing apart and exposing hard, ebony buttocks. Little kids notice things like that.

Dad bought an ancient Ford Cortina and learnt driving. New cars were a rarity; cars were handed down from expatriate to expatriate like precious heirlooms. Car repair mechanics were the society high-flyers. There were five of them.

Stockley Primary School, Dodoma
Stockley Primary School, Dodoma - I'm the dancing kid on the extreme right.
Annual Day excesses visited upon the hapless young.

Dad put me and my brother in a school run by Australian Missionaries. It was the only English school in town. Stockely Primary School, it was called. It was tiny, ramshackle stone building with a vast, endless playground – bigger than that of the poshest public school. I have many memories of that playground – good, bad and painful. I spent most of the lunch break perched atop an acacia tree in a remote corner of the playground, thinking about the meaning of life. No, seriously. I was a very serious kid, I told you.

We had three Australian teachers at a time. They kept changing every year. The one who left a lasting impression on me was Miss Warren. We never did get to know her first name. It was a state secret. She was short and doll-like with pageboy brunette hair and very freckled. I had numerous, unpleasant run-ins with her – with me coming off the worst usually. I was a serious kid but also a bit of a rebel. But she had a soft spot for me, somewhere. She invited me home and loaned me her personal books – I was the only kid to get that favor. And later we discussed the books. The book I remember most was Watership Down – a “children’s novel” about a warren of rabbits in search of a new home that works as an adult allegory too. I was mature enough to appreciate that it worked on two levels. It was one of the books that made me want to become a writer. Miss Warren read out the Narnia books of CS Lewis in class, which made us all dream. I also went to the Dodoma public library and read most of the works of Charles Dickens – the original versions, not children’s adaptations – Nicholas Nickleby and the Pickwick Papers stayed in my mind. I even had a go at Shakespeare from my mom’s library. I liked Julius Caesar. But possibly the biggest influence that Miss Warren had on me was Peanuts. She had a huge stack of the Peanuts anthologies at home, and loaned them to me. She was a huge admirer of Charles Schulz. We discussed them seriously, like any other book. It was from her I learned to take cartoons seriously, and treat the works of Charles Schulz as high art. 

I also remember going to Bible classes and learning up the List of Kings and writing Scripture Knowledge tests and singing carols at Christmas and the Lord’s Prayer every day. I knew more about Christianity than my own religion – I still do. 

On Safari in Africa
On Safari in Africa

Ah, the wild romance of an African Safari. Dad loved them. He dragged us off on many. I detested them. No, that is not me on the bonnet of the Landrover. If you look carefully at the full sized image (click on it), you will see me behind the windscreen. I am clearly sulking. I was not much of a lad for Safari, those days. I would much rather have been at home curled up with an African Safari in book form - possibly Hemingway's Snows of Kilimanjaro .  By the way, the chap on the bonnet of the Landrover is my Dad's Tanzanian colleague (No, the Landrover *does not* have a hood; it has a bonnet. It's a British car).

Me with my kid brother atop an acacia

Atop an acacia in Africa. No, not THE acacia, where I had my deep thoughts, some other one. I'd never, ever, have climbed that tree with my kid brother. Actually, I did my best to avoid him on the school playground. And the only deep thought I seem to be having is what a nuisance kid brothers are. Which seems rather odd, now, as he doesn't seem at all a bad sort of chap, in that photo. Quite a nice kid, actually. Why did I detest him so?

By the way, after a tykedom as Very Serious Kid, pondering on the meaning of life, a grand revelation was finally vouchsafed unto me at the ripe old age of old age of 41. I realized life was a joke (*). That's when I turned humor writer and cartoonist. I wish that old codger up there had vouchsafed that bit of revelation several years earlier, then possibly I wouldn't have wasted a childhood looking for the ultimate answer. Now I suppose I'm trying to make up for that lost childhood.

(*)By the way, all the results of the acaica cogitations and eventual revelation have been put into book form: The raving lunatics guide to life, love and happiness. You can get more information on it in My Books. No, it isn't all a joke. You'll get your $2.99 worth, in any case.

St. Anthony's School, Jodhpur.
Mr. Simon hoisting the flag

Coming back to India and Rajasthan was as big a shock as leaving it had been. I had to learn Hindi all over again, I had forgotten it. We spoke Bengali at home. But my first school back in Jodhpur was possibly the one happy year of my childhood. St. Anthony’s School, another ramshackle school – housed in an ancient broken down princeling’s haweli with some classrooms of thatched roof. It was run by a warm and generous former-padre, Mr. Simon.

Do Butler's Burgle Bank - the edition in my school library
Image: Mayflower Publications

It was in the dusty library of that school that I came across my first P.G. Wodehouse – ‘Do Butlers Burgle Banks?’ – and was transformed forever. And it was there that I wrote my first literary piece – it was published in Cadence, the school paper. Pretty good it was too, for a fourteen year old. It had the first traces of my style of humor. And it was there that I fell violently in love with my English teacher – Mrs. Nanda – as only a fourteen year old can, and by extension English Literature. And it was around that time I made the firm decision to be a writer.

But my dad had other ideas. He bullied me into science, and later engineering. You can always read those ‘story books’ at home, he yelled at me, you need to earn a living. I can’t support you forever. He even got Mrs. Nanda to brainwash me, knowing I was a self-willed kid and wouldn’t listen to him. I suppose he was right – there were not too many jobs for people with a Bachelor of Arts those days. 

I got a science and later engineering education of some sort. But I kept reading my ‘story books’. I discovered a neighbor down the road had a complete collection of P.G. Wodehouse. I got my dad to introduce me to him, and spent several months trudging down once a week and picking another from the long line of musty, orange jacketed Penguin editions of the old master. I read them all once – all ninety five. Then I read them again. And again.

There was a short low-brow phase when I discovered Alistair McLean and Agatha Christie and Perry Mason and Leon Uris and Arthur Hailey. I rushed through their works like a raging storm. Then I had my ‘Kafka’ period. I realized I was wasting precious time reading bestsellers. I devoted myself to Kafka and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Gogol and Somerset Maugham and Hemingway  Kafka left the deepest impression. I think it is from him I get my love of the bizarre. I always saw Kafka as a humorist. I don’t buy the claims of wild-eyed, long-haired intellectuals who see his work as political or existential or nihilistic or whatever. I see him as someone who enjoyed thinking up bizarre situations, and spinning funny yarns around them. The first time Kafka read out Metamorphosis to his buddies, they laughed uproariously. He presented it as humor, and they took it as such. Possibly the humor does not come through in the translation, which is why the wild-eyed, long-haired ones have a field day reading what they like into it. So would my books be seen as grim political, nihilistic-existentialist pieces, if translated into Bantu or Mongol by an inebriated Russian after several shots of Vodka. 

I got hooked to the radio, BBC and British Humor. The Goon Show and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy opened my eyes to the possibilities of humor. BBC was my window to the world. No internet, or even computers, those days. Not even TV. The movie theaters had Bollywood movies, the newspapers local news, the music shops Bollywood music. When they wanted to go upscale, they stocked Boney M and Abba. It was on the BBC that I first heard Jimi Hendrix. It transformed me – yet again. Now I wanted to be a guitarist. Musician or Novelist? Which way to go?

I got a job with a German engineering firm. I got my hands on my first PC.

I was infatuated of a false mistress: software. Life revolved around C and C++ and BIOS hacks and protocol drivers. I spent the day working on official projects, and 6 PM onwards until 1 AM, and all day weekends, on my personal research projects. I was even awarded for some innovative products that I’d designed in my private time. But it left little time for literature or music. Software is a demanding mistress. She grabs you by your lungs and sucks out your marrow. It took me a decade and a half and a crisis in my life to get out of her grasp.

Wodehouse came back into my life. It was all I could read, coming back home bone tired in the wee hours. You can’t read Tolstoy when the brain feels like a pound of lead. I read a few pages of Wodehouse every day, and have continued that practice over two decades now. I built my own Wodehouse collection.

Flash forward quickly through fourteen years:

I went to Germany, learnt German, fell in love and married my German teacher (yes, I have a thing about teachers), got stressed, got bullied at work, almost lost my job, got a better job, became a manager… and then my life turned upside down.

The worst year of my life. Lost my mom & dad. Wife left me. Fell in love with an ashtray-hearted woman, got coldly dumped. Tried to end it all. Wodehouse came to my rescue. Decided to throw it all up and go back to my first love: music and literature. Chucked my job, became a full-time writer, learnt cartooning, sold my car, got a bike, got a guitar, learnt French, got a French girlfriend (**)…

(**) Or more accurately - my French girlfriend got me. Blandine took one look at my careworn, helpless visage and decided I needed a woman to take care of me. I often affect women that way. Experts tell me it is principally the lost-puppy look in my eyes that does it. Not that I'm complaining. The problems start when they eventually discover that that soulful, yearning look signifies nothing deeper than a wistful, indefinable urge for a glass of beer.

Me with my guitars - please note the soulful 'I am composing music' expression.
Blandine and my Bike - on a road trip to Ooty

And as the French say: 

Et puis voilà…