Above Water

“Are stories removed from reality? Where do they come from?” | A note by our Founding Editor

My adolescent years were spent at a boarding school, in the Himalayan foothills. No mobile phones or personal computers. Not even regular email. By the time I was 17, I had fallen in love. So much so, that I was writing letters to that girl every other week, because there was no other way to communicate. She would write back, but her responses would reach me weeks later. Those torturous periods of waiting, of uncertainty, of fear, of teenage love, were a journey into the self.

Reading more than a thousand submissions over the last year has taught me that everyone’s lives are as vivid as my own. Their past demons, their fiery passion, their helpless failings and hopeless heartbreaks are as real as mine. As I keep reading on, I lose myself momentarily. Where I find traces of identity again, is often in a complicated web of a made-up character’s ambitions, worries and memories. In a poem about a streetside panwaadi, or a childhood recollection about The Odyssey and stray dogs. Or one on confused adolescent love.

Are stories distinct from reality? Non-existent? Where do they come from? Anna Scott walks into a book store and falls for a handsome store proprietor in Notting Hill. Raskolnikov murders and drives himself to the point of madness. Camus’ Meursault is unperturbed by murder. He never lies. Seth has Julia lying to her husband, lover and her child. Marquez’s 90 year old protagonist falls for a 14-year old prostitute in Colombia. Steven Knight’s Thomas Shelby says he’s gotten used to killing men, but not horses. Nakata speaks to cats. Lispector’s Agua Viva, is nothing but a stream of words.

Some of my dearest friends are consultants and lawyers and software wizards. They devour ‘7 habits of highly effective people’ and ‘Blink’ like the sun wouldn’t rise if they didn’t finish in time, but will rarely pick up a novel. A ‘best-seller’, at best. And that approach to literature makes our conversations less boring. One of our college-going readers said to me about Sally Rooney: “Her books operate within limited spaces, seemingly unidimensional dynamics, and often non-existent problems; but her writing stands true to the anxieties I grapple with on a daily basis.” 

There are those who regard these stories as greater than reality. The theatrics of literature are not for the ‘real-problem-solving’ heart. All our readers, I am certain, grapple with objective problems, but they do so also with those of the ‘non-existent’ kind. At ALMA, we are slowly creating a vibrant literary atmosphere by bringing together these people and the tales in their heads. As a publication, we’re not always perfectly consistent or painless. As an editor, i’m not the guy who’s worked in publishing for a decade.  I haven’t elegantly led a Vogue or HarperCollins department and only then, brimming with confidence and a network, launched a publication. I just took the plunge. We launched at the peak of the pandemic in 2020, with 26 pieces. Today we have several new columns, contributors in the hundreds, editors, an annual writing competition, a writing programme, as well as some film and art features. We serve as an example of the ordinary person struggling to keep their head above water, but their spirits are up in the clouds.

“I read this post about how we do things and wish to do things not because we inherently want them, but because they’ll feed into the identity we’ve created for ourselves on various media. How many of us are actually reading the books we post about or enjoying the vacations we tirelessly document? It’s like we have internalised those identities and can’t separate our real selves. It’s confusing though, because I no longer know how to operate without it.” ~ extract from a letter to the editor

I’ve learnt and grown personally, too. But sometimes my thoughts ramble when I try to write. Or break into verse. Especially when I write ‘official’ notes that must be published soon. I do write journals, effortlessly; sometimes. Or letters, even, but then I succumb to more modern mediums. I write about what I must write about, and then about what I wish to. Then, I spend a weekend sitting at the piano or go up to the mountains without letting my colleagues know. Is that unfair to them? I still do other jobs to make money. I think about the life we live. I breathe.

Do you?

From pensive to cynical. The flavour of our times has changed as quickly as my disposition. I’m suddenly more sceptical of technology. Or maybe i’m sceptical of our collective wisdom. Was it ever happiness at all, that we wanted? Or just the glorified “convenience”? Have we forgotten how to see our reflections clearly, in the glittering but specious facades of trends and fads? And expectations that come and go? What happened to our attention spans? Now the boundaries of peace lie between the tempting glare of our smartphone and the darkness of our rooms. What happened to the odd pleasure of chatting with a stranger in a new city because you lost your way? It’s all order now, shop now, stream now. Live in the Metaverse; buy an NFT. And that’s when I particularly enjoy the uncertain song of a Thrush, or the touch of old paper. The smell of it; blood and ink.

There are fragments of the past that we try to preserve, and there are others we hide away. We leap at the future. I realise now, that I fail terribly at doing both. I still have some of those teenage dispatches, yellowing in a drawer back home. They’re like autumn leaves. Do I ever open them and read them again? Should I? My hesitation renders those letters powerless. With the future, I am often unconcerned until the present itself feels like a stale spin-off of the future you only just imagined.

But the optimist in me refuses to believe the world isn’t big enough for the Thrush and our tablets to co-exist, without gnawing at each other’s freedom. This magazine is after all, a souvenir of our new age, where we give you shelter under this digital foliage of literature and art, where we hope to be peacekeepers of this delicate oasis.

I’m an entire year late with this missive and am still conspiring to abolish the column. I’m meant to sound clear and professional, but I always end up confused and tired by the end of it. There’s usually both too much, and too little, to say.

Yuvraj Nathani

Yuvraj Nathani is Founding Editor at ALMA Magazine. For more, follow him here.