In our First Sentence series we ask authors to revisit the opening sentences of their work. Here, Anjali Joseph writes about the beginning line of ‘Shoes’.
‘Is it time to go?’
Tails have always fascinated me. In small animals, even in small children, it’s in the rump, around the tail, or tail bone, that most of the life force seems to be located. I remember as a child in England watching my pet hamster slide under a closed door. First, the head. He managed to redeploy much of his body fat, internal organs etc., to his back end. The head once safely through, the mobile parts of him were relocated to somewhere around the shoulders; the last thing to disappear was his lively, quivering little rump. And yet action always seemed to originate from there. The head was but a notional leader. Later, our pet cat’s tail was frequently aware of his emotions and responses apparently before his head – disturb him with ill-timed affection during a nap and it was the tail that began to tap like an irritable finger, before the eyes opened or a tooth was bared.
It’s always made sense to me, then, that what seems to be the back end of things should actually be where they begin.
In the 1940s Samuel Beckett began to write in French. It was not his mother tongue but had become a first language since he had studied it, lived and worked in France, and even been a part of the Resistance during the Second World War. The first story he published in French was originally called ‘Suite’ (‘What Comes Next’). He later changed the title to ‘La fin’ or, in the English version, ‘The End’. It’s now published as the final of three stories in Nouvelles et textes pour rien (Stories and Texts for Nothing).
Four years ago, I started writing a novel about two shoemakers, one an older man, a Kolhapuri chappal maker, and the other a woman in her thirties, a single mother who worked in a Norwich shoe factory. I began as I usually do: all over the place. The novel manifested itself in small revelatory flashes, not as an interlinked chain of events. This is typically how it is for me. There were new things: I’d never before done or had to do much research, but I didn’t know anything about making shoes, or chappals, so I read about both, and spent time in the last functional shoe factory in Norwich, and in Kolhapur, meeting and watching makers of the chappals I’d been wearing since childhood.
I kept returning to the Beckett stories, a favourite since I came upon them in my late teens. ‘The End’ was a new departure for him not only because it was written in French, but also because for the first time he wrote in the first person – and, consequently, created characters and experiences that were clearly distinct from those in his earlier fiction. Writing ‘I’, I also found, meant moving definitively away from my own life.
But where was my story heading? The Norwich part, begun earlier, had a shape. Arun, my chappal maker, was going nowhere, or rather, he was going around in imperfect circles, from the present day to his childhood, or to middle age, when he had an affair with a woman who wasn’t his wife, then began a much longer affair with alcohol. The recursive movement of his thoughts had an emotional logic, but something was missing. When I edited an excerpt for Granta, I revised and revised and revised – as though walking endless miles with this narrator, trying to understand how the pieces of his past and present fitted together. I rearranged the patchwork of different moments. He couldn’t quite seem to begin, despite a sense of urgency; he couldn’t always come to a close. It made me think of something: a prostate complaint.
And so the first line: Is it time to go? A first-person narrator often carries something of the trappings of theatre with him or her. Fiction can be far removed from oral storytelling, but it seemed perfectly correct to have a first-person narrator who steps on stage, as it were, wondering immediately if it’s time for him to leave. And what would it mean to leave? To set off on a journey? To shuffle off this mortal coil? Or, more prosaically but, as we all know, perhaps even more pressingly, to ‘go’, as in my mother’s question to my brother and me when we were children and about to embark on a car journey: ‘Have you been?’ (Or whenever we had to get up in the middle of the night to catch a plane to Bombay: one or other of our parents would come to wake us, framed in a lit doorway that ruptured dream, and say our names, followed by, terrifyingly, ‘It’s time.’ A moment that, even now, causes my stomach to lurch in memory.)
Incarnate existence can be an anxiety-inducing business, and suddenly I understood why it was so difficult for Arun to come to a point, or go from one moment directly to another without residue.
In traditional Hindu astrology, there are two shadowy entities that don’t exist in the Western pantheon of planets. Rahu and Ketu, described as nodes of the moon, are represented respectively by the head and tail of a serpent whose body is time. These entities don’t have their own astrological signs as such, or days of the week named after them – they are permanently backstage in the show of the universe, and yet, astrological stage hands, they are also responsible for running the machinery of the theatre. In a further paradox, of the two it is the tail, Ketu, that’s said to initiate action or bring about sudden changes, flashes of revelation. I didn’t know about any of this when I was writing the book, but when my friend Adim told me about it recently, it made sense. I began to think: in a view of the universe in which everything has significance, how can a narrative be organized? What constitutes a story? Rather than linear progression, it might be something more cyclical: a serpent biting its own tail, an end that changes the beginning and a middle that never remains static but is, rather, serpentine.
Image courtesy of Leo Reynolds