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, where mobile phones and personal computers were prohibited. By the time I was 17, I had fallen in love and was writing letters. My then girlfriend would write back, her responses reaching me weeks later. Those torturous periods of waiting, of uncertainty, of fear, of love, were a journey into the self.  

There are fragments of the past that we try to preserve, and there are others we hide away. I realise now, that I have failed at doing both. I still have some of her 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. 

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, are as real as mine. As I keep reading, I lose myself in my own insignificance. Where I find myself again, is in a complicated web of a made-up character’s ambitions, worries, memories. In a poem about a streetside panwaadi, or a childhood recollection about The Odyssey and stray dogs, or a story on confused adolescent love. 

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. I nag them, and am often reminded of something 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.” 

Are stories removed 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. 

There are those who regard these stories as greater than reality. The theatrics of literature are not for the faint, ‘real-problem-solving’ heart. Our readers, I believe, are made of a sterner mettle: they grapple with problems 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.

I’m not the guy who’s worked in publishing for a decade but I now have a better sense of our goals, our strengths and the way forward. 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. And everyone enjoys watching how that goes. 

This magazine was launched at the peak of the pandemic with 26 pieces. Today we have several new columns, contributors, editors, an annual writing competition, a writing programme, as well as some film and art features. Yet, as a publication, we’re not always perfectly consistent or painless. We serve as an example of the ordinary person walking to work on a rainy day, struggling to keep their head above water. But their spirits are as high as the clouds. 

I’ve learnt and grown personally, too. But this Editor’s Note always gets me in a fuzz. Sometimes my thoughts ramble. Or break into verse. I write letters, occasionally. 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 into the mountains without letting my colleagues know. Yes. That’s unfair to them. I still work in advertising to make money. I think about the life we live. I breathe. 

Do you?

From pensive to cynical; and back to my yellowing letters. The flavour of our times has changed quicker than my disposition. We live in a strange war of worlds, where the boundaries of peace lie between the bright glare of our smartphone and the comforting darkness of our rooms. What happened to our attention spans? What happened to dancing, but not for Rik-Rok? What happened to greeting a stranger in a new city because you lost your way around? What happened to our priorities? Was it ever happiness at all, that we wanted?

“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

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? Order now, shop now, stream now. And the latest, 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. But I refuse 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 but like I said in my first note, I’m still conspiring to abolish it. There’s always both too much, and too little, to say. 

-Yuv

Yuvraj Nathani

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