Annie Zaidi: Flunking Science, Acing Poetry
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because for a taste of a deeper India — beyond Mumbai or Delhi — Zaidi’s work is one option.
By Sonali Kokra
Some great writers got their big break after a shout-out from someone famous, others when a famous magazine picked up their work. Annie Zaidi’s big break came rather more literally — when she broke her leg.
As a pre-teen, the now 36-year-old poet, playwright, journalist and fiction writer sustained a severe leg fracture. It left her bedridden for months. And with nothing else to do while she was convalescing at home, she devoured 200 books. By age 13, young Annie had already read more than most of her teachers.
Fast forward to today and Zaidi’s work is gaining traction on the subcontinent, in part because it’s so unlike most modern Asian fiction. She’s obsessed not with rising metropoles like New Delhi or Mumbai, but with India’s enormous rural regions. This is a rarity on a continent whose most popular global fiction of late has touted its urbanity. Zaidi, a small-town girl, spent her childhood in the desert state of Rajasthan, far from more cosmopolitan India. It’s not that she doesn’t write about the city, but, as P. Sainath, one of India’s most famous journalists, writes over email, “As a writer and journalist, she rises above the basic feature of the media of our times.”
It’s primarily for this reason that Zaidi’s stories are seducing literati: She was on Elle India’s top writers to watch list and won the BBC’s International Playwriting Competition for her region with a radio play. She’s a featured speaker at the world’s largest book-fête this year, the Jaipur Literary Festival. Former Editor-in-Chief of Elle India, Nonita Kalra, tells me over email that Annie writes “through an intelligent and balanced lens” — and with respect for frustrations of the poor.
I needed a place to tell the story behind the story.
— Annie Zaidi
The woman now soaring among India’s literary elite got her start in, of all things, tabloid journalism and then blogging. Frustrated by journalistic objectivity, Zaidi began writing fiction stemming from the same subjects as her reportage. Creative work became the proverbial pillow to scream into. She thinks often about the women she met reporting in rural India: a grassroots malnutrition activist, a lower-caste teenager who was raped by an upper-caste man. You can see it in her work, where she writes about the daily dramas of quotidian characters. “Traveling through India made me realize there are so many realities that exist outside of our own limited understanding of our country,” she reflects. “And the deeper I go, the more stories I find to tell.”
But serious-minded prose does not always pay bills, at least not in the Indian market, which favors chick-lit and lighter fare. Though most publishers and critics have hardly anything bad to say about Zaidi’s work, her books have generally sold a mere 3,000 copies.
She calls herself unambitious, though, and with her history, it’s clear that writing is in her blood: Her mother, Yasmin Zaidi, wrote poetry, and her grandfather, Ali Jawad Zaidi, won a national award for his contribution to Urdu literature. She did try other stuff. Science didn’t really work out; she was “on the verge of failing” her exams. Her mother, a teacher turned school principal, was horrified. Mom was so relieved when her daughter didn’t flunk that she gave her permission to move to a larger city in Rajasthan, Ajmer, to study arts.
Reportage about malnutrition or crime was just body counts. Her blog was a place to emote.
After earning a B.A. from Sophia College, she was parceled off to Mumbai to work in mass communications because, said Zaidi’s mother, “She needed to have some career … so might as well.” Her first job was at a new website called e-India, but it was her second job as a reporter at Mid Day, one of the two major tabloids in Mumbai, that “blew all my notions about society, my place in it, politics and the powers at play in the country,” she says. One of her very first assignments was shadowing the police while they raided a brothel for underage prostitutes.
Two years after that job, she quit to write poetry full time. That plan lasted all of three months (money). In 2005, Annie joined popular news magazine Frontline. More epiphanies, this time not about class but about rural India. She covered the infamous dacoits of Chambal, where two rival gangs had faced off and killed 13 people. This is when she started blogging. “I needed a place to tell the story behind the story.”
She needed a place to feel — reportage about malnutrition or crime was just body counts. Her blog was a place to emote. In an Indian-publishing rarity, Tranquebar Press released a collection of essays pulled from her blog called Known Turf (named for their original Web home). She’s since sold European rights; an Italian translation was published a year ago.
Out of all her work — plays, poetry and books — poetry, she says, is the toughest to nail. “You can’t deliberate and go back. You can’t plan it. It has to happen in the moment.” Second-most difficult: plays. She’s picked up and dropped them over and over — started writing one, lost interest; started another, lost them both. “Then suddenly I started seeing words in the form of images and dialogues, and wrote three.”
Despite her hefty dossier — five books, four plays, four award nominations — she lives with her mother. Quite the provincial choice.
The original image we purchased for this story was not a portrait of the author. OZY regrets the error.
- Sonali Kokra, Sonali Kokra is a journalist and writer living in Mumbai.Contact Sonali Kokra