I’m so tired of this story, I said to my friend S, who chuckled.
A few years ago, when I still lived in Bombay, it was her room I had written the majority of the story in. She was also one of its beta readers, and gave me excellent feedback.
Gul was commissioned by the story’s other beta reader, the fantasy novelist Sukanya Venkat, who was putting together an anthology. The seed of the story was the idea that the gramophone had supernatural powers, apparently the reason why several accomplished musicians did not record for it when it came to India in the early 20th century.
(However, scholars argue that another major reason – if not THE main reason – was that they were deeply suspicious of the instrument because it made their special compositions available to the public, including to plagiarist singers who would learn precious musical secrets without having earned them.)
However, women singers, specifically hereditary women performers, embraced the new technology immediately and became the country’s first gramophone superstars. You can think of them as some of India’s first celebrities, with their records selling out, and their popularity soaring, even as they faced social stigma and discrimination.
The earliest version of the story simply had the working title Gramophone, and was about two women performers who had a close friendship that bordered on sisterhood.
This was inspired by the fact that I am an only child with the penchant to idealise older women friends, and I used to let them take me under their wing as their ‘little sister.’
But I had a heartbreak around the time that I was writing the story, and in the next draft, the characters were not friends, but lovers.
After Gul was published, it got me new readers, new reviewers, and new detractors – and taught me what putting out my fiction on a regular basis might entail. It won a prize I had always wanted, it led to a residency I had always dreamed of, and when I went to Lucknow, Gul’s city, I showed it to a historian whom I had always admired. All these things I never thought would actually happen, but like another writer I love said to me once: Write, and a door opens, write more, and yet another opens.
In the story, Gul haunts Munni, the other protagonist. The first time I went to Lucknow, I ended up in a hotel I hated, and a friend who lives in the city recommended a homestay, which turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. The next morning, as I left the house to meet the historian, I looked up – a placard said ‘Munni’s Dream.’
During that first time in Lucknow, I told my friend that I would like to do a stage show, complete with music and dance.
The second time I was in Lucknow, I was there with the singer and dancer of the stage show Gul was adapted into, introduced by the same historian, and performed at a festival. The show’s director was back in Calcutta, Gul’s second city. We had already had shows in Bombay, Gul’s third city.
If you’re anything like me, you’re immediately critical of your own work. Gul was now written and performed several years ago, and I think I’ve grown as a writer since. I think my practice has grown and deepened, I think I’ve completely changed as a person, and I think I know far more about the context Gul is set in than I did before. I’ve published and sold a few more stories, and my favourite historian in the world is gone.
But Gul, with her strange power, has popped back up – she is now in this anthology.
She will continue to haunt you, said my friend S, on the phone, and her wolfish smile swam into view. That smile too, exists in the pages of Gul. Write another story, and give it the same power.
Gul has to take her own path forward now. And I must write many more stories.