The best writer of English in India, living here and working here (which automatically excludes expatriates such as Salman Rushdie and that boy from Lacolm Baug, Jogeshwari), is Dom Moraes. But his is a genius wasted. He has spent the last two decades of his life rewrite his past for newspapers and magazines.
It sometimes makes me angry to think of him, sitting at the dining-table of Sergeant House, pounding out sords of little or no consequence on an old typewriter. He fills the cheap typing paper from edge to edge, top and bottom, no margins. It is always a closely typed script and there are no mistakes in it. And he writes his newspaper pieces in great bursts of industry, churning our article after article without a break. Then he rings up the paper and says: "I have finished three articles for the next three Mondays. Would you, please, send somebody across to collect them."
I understand that he spends the money he mades equally fast.
It is not big money, even if you look at it by Indian standards. Writers of much less quality make the same amount. Some of them even have the temerity to demand, "I want to be paid the same amount that Dom Moraes gets." I do not have a say in these matters. If I had, I would tell these ‘writers' to pick up their manuscript and get lost.
All this does not mean that Dom Moraes, as judged by the body of his recent work, is a great writer. Apart from newspaper pieces, 1,500 words recalling old friends and events, he has been writing little. There is a translation of old Hebrew poem, much admired by Hebrew-English bilinguist academicians. And books on certain destinations in India, Karanataka, Madhya Pradesh, sponsored by the information and tourism departments of the states.
But Dom Moraes is a far greater writer than that. Neither the subjects nor the sponsors are up to his literary standards. I have read him since he was 13 and I do not know what age I was. At that age, he wrote a book on cricket, after watching one of the first India-West Indies Tests at the Brabourne Stadium and after travelling with his father to Australia, where he met several cricketers. The cricket world said there was another Cardus in the making.
And I read his ‘My Son's Father', which is as much a biography of his father as an autobiography of himself, though the title, somwhat confusingly, refers to his own som, "with cheeks like English apples." In between, he secured the Hawthornden Prize, which is the Booker for young poets, and, much later, wrote the Time-Life book on Bombay. That time, I accompanied him on a part of his writer's journey through Bombay.
I still read him, whatever he writers, and in every article I am rewarded by some flash of his genius: a turn of phrase, a piece of imagery, a limpid sentence left hanging in the air. For the present, we have to be satisfied with that.