Although writing came to me easily, finding a publisher was quite another matter. An American friend gave me the name of a creative writing professor, Herbert Schumann, at Washington University who directed me to an agent at Curtis Brown. An unsolicited manuscript only lands on a publisher’s slush pile, so I was lucky to get an agent right away. After this, the agent sent me a spate of rejection letters from publishers saying that “we love her writing but we don’t think that American readers would be interested in Pakistan,” and added that they would be interested in any further writing by this author.
Immediately after I finished writing The Pakistani Bride, I started my second novel, The Crow Eaters. This novel about my own Parsi community bubbled up from within me and I had to force myself to end it. I sent this off to my agent who sent both novels to another agent in England. Now I was receiving rejection notes from either side of the Atlantic. After two years both agents gave up.
I was brokenhearted and stopped writing for a year. Or, at least, until Dr. Justice Javid Iqbal, the son of the great mystic poet, Mohammad Iqbal, said he’d heard I’d written a book and he asked me to show him the manuscript. Javid Iqbal and his wife Nasira both loved it. Their validation and enthusiasm heartened me no end and our acquaintance was transformed into a lifelong friendship. Javid gave the book its title: The Crow Eaters (which in the local idiom means people who talk too much) and suggested that I self-publish.
I didn’t know how to go about self publishing and Javid Iqbal introduced me to the press who published his father’s bestselling books of mystic poetry. Mohmmad Iqbal wrote in Urdu and Persian, and the publishing house, whose name I have forgotten, had never published in English. They had scant knowledge of the language or its grammar. I could not face the daunting task of proofreading the book that was full of misspelled words so I enlisted the help of my friends. We would correct one set of proofs and the redone pages sent by the press would have sprouted new and bizarre misspellings.
Meanwhile the manuscript of The Crow Eaters had been sent by Basharat Qadir, a family friend, to the redoubtle Indian writer Khushwant Singh. He was ensconced in a small apartment in Bombay at the time. I happened to travel to Bombay, and he very kindly invited me to visit him. As I was paying off the taxi, I heard someone holler: ‘You are an hour late!’ I looked up, bewildered, and located a burly bearded figure leaning over the balustrade of a third floor balcony. I gathered this was Khushwant Singh. He tapped his wristwatch and repeated: ‘You are an hour late! I don’t see people if they are more than 10 minutes late for an appointment!’ I had no idea he was such a stickler for promptitude. Even had I known, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference because I was invariably late and still am; I chalk it down to my lack of schooling. I’m sure school inculcates discipline. Besides, I had made no allowances for finding a taxi, and then locating his address added even more time. I gazed up at the maze of similar-looking buildings and balconies wondering what was expected of me. ‘I’m going to see you, only because you’ve written a first rate book!’ He indicated an orifice in the building and said: ‘Come up to the third floor.’
It was a busy street, and not being used to Bombay streets, I ran helter-skelter across with horns blaring to the squeal of brakes and people shouting at me. By the time I climbed up, my heart was beating fit to burst. Khushwant Singh, his long hair tied in a Sikh turban, stood against the open door and ushered me in. Before I had time to look around, he indicated an attractive woman in her early fifties and, before I could even acknowledge her, he said: ‘She is much more beddable than her daughter.’ I was shocked. The woman glanced at me and looked away indifferently; obviously she was inured to such remarks by Kushwant Singh. Her beautiful daughter had married into a very prominent political family.
It was not until I stayed with him and his wife Kanwal at their home in Delhi many years later that I realized what a hard working and dedicated writer he was. Waking up at four in the morning and dictating his articles till breakfast-time, he led much too busy a life to live up to the philandering image he liked to project.