How not to impress a publisher

Note: None of the following is fictional or exaggerated. These are all things that I have personally encountered in little more than a year at a publishing house. Letters, emails, phone calls, strange parcels, some mild stalking. Queries full of bad grammar and spelling come in all the time, but these are some that truly stand out.

  1. Your father calling four people in the office every day and telling them about his ‘intimate relationships’.
  2. Sending unsolicited emails with baby pictures of yourself and details of how and why they were clicked.
  3. Sending, as proof of writing ability, 24″x18″ framed printouts of your excruciatingly bad digital art.
  4. Having your agent send them swear-word riddled emails saying that their Booker winner is a crap book.
  5. Addressing them by the name of a rival publishing house.
  6. Asking them personal questions. Again and again and again.
  7. Asking them to commit to publishing without sharing manuscript because you’re afraid they’ll steal your idea.
  8. Saying ‘XXX is a fictitious and psycho thriller story. It contains 71 pages, 26,190 words, with 105,496 characters.’
  9. Picking up email address from their submissions guidelines page and asking them to mail you submissions guidelines.
  10. Asking them to mail you academic qualifications so you can judge whether they’re fit to evaluate your work.
  11. As follow up to query letter, sending updates regarding property purchases.
  12. Abusing them because they don’t remember your first name and ask for surname and name of manuscript.
  13. Asking for mobile number in order to call post work hours so that they can concentrate on your book alone.
  14. Sending query letters about the same manuscript seven times in two days.
  15. Offering bribes to editors when you’re told that they are not a vanity publishing outfit.
  16. Beginning a query call with the words ‘I want to tell you about myself.’
  17. Saying ‘You are duty-bound to publish my book because I am also a Bengali like you.’
  18. Clogging their inboxes with photographs of your ‘scenic’ tour of Kerala’.
  19. Asking them to commission your idea without revealing what your idea is.
  20. Calling every day and ranting about how their rejection has ruined your life.
  21. Calling to say ‘I have a book idea which will be a bestseller. Can you tell me how to write the book?’
  22. Offering to stay awake for two weeks in a row and recording your thoughts in order to publish them as a novel.
  23. On being told that your book is not something they feel strongly about, yelling ‘But that’s YOUR problem!’
  24. Asking them to create accounts on social networking services just so that they can be on your friends’ list.
  25. Sending them details of a rival publisher and ask them to forward the hard copy of your manuscript to them.
  26. Telling them how you’ve been published online and linking them to your blog.
  27. Asking for money to send them your manuscript.
  28. Sharing anecdotes of your visit to a monastery once graced by the Dalai Lama and why this makes you special.
  29. Calling them and asking for phone numbers of other publishers and literary agents.
  30. Asking if your manuscript can win a competition.
  31. Responding to ‘I wasn’t able to take your call because I was ill and out of office’ with ‘You are lying’.
  32. Saying ‘This book has been greatly appreciated by the target readership. My wife and daughter really liked it.’
  33. Telling them how your manuscript could not be auctioned off at the London Book Fair because it was under consideration with them.
  34. Having your father’s minions harangue them day in and out saying ‘I’ll be fired if you don’t say yes’.

Ah, fame

When a friend called to ask if I wanted to audition for a lead role in a Bengali film her brother-in-law was working on, I said yes. The big task was convincing my parents: the last two roles I had played on stage had involved a full-fledged kiss and a tiny-skirt-and-cigarette-smoking scene—the parents had not been amused. After much haranguing, pleading and emotional blackmail, I had consent. Unfortunately, though, the role went to someone else—my rendition of the character had been a little too dramatic for the director’s taste. I sulked for a day or two, muttered many imprecations, then shrugged it off and went back to my classes.

Then, one night, at 11.30 pm, I got a call. There was an opening for a bit role: the best friend of one of the leads—was I still interested? I was.

I turned up the next afternoon, as instructed, at the infamous Rabindra Sarobar, the preferred make-out spot for South Calcutta’s privacy deprived masses. Apart from a minor interruption in the form of a phone call from an irate professor demanding to know why I was not in class, all went well. I was required to speak approximately seven sentences; I did so in a most subdued manner, trying hard to tamp down on pesky dramatic impulses. Only one other scene was being shot that day. Once both were done, I was fed some biryani, given the date and location for the next shoot and bid goodbye.

The second day was more in keeping with what I’d imagined of a film shoot. Many scenes being shot simultaneously, fraying tempers, technicians with glazed expressions, multiple costume changes, ten kilograms of pancake on my face, takes, retakes, re-retakes, madness. One of the lead actresses—the only co-actor for all my scenes—I discovered, was the least liked person on set. She insisted on walking off every five minutes to refresh her make-up and iron her hair, holding up each scene for at least twenty minutes. She also insisted on ‘improvising’ most of her lines, leading to an increasing sense of bewilderment among the rest of the cast and crew. Caught up in the general excitement, I gestured wildly and delivered my lines with great exuberance. No one seemed to mind. On the day of dubbing, I watched starry-eyed, horrified by the amount of make-up that had been put on my face, thrilled about seeing myself on screen.

Three months later, hoardings for the film appeared everywhere. A premiere and a big multiplex release took place; my mother got excited, I called everyone I knew and told them to watch the film. Then my parents watched it. And came back to glare accusingly at me. I had neglected to tell them that it was a sex comedy.

I have no idea if the film was commercially successful. It garnered mixed reviews, my relatives were scandalized and my friends thought it was a great lark to see me on screen. I went and watched it thrice at the theatre for the sheer thrill of seeing my name when the credits rolled. None of this, alas, catapulted me to instant stardom. However, I did have the dubious satisfaction of being accosted on campus by aspiring starlets and was asked for guidance regarding potential film careers.

Almost six years have passed since my glorious film debut. Between then and now, I have changed cities, changed my life. But that film remains a memory I cherish, a DVD I hold on to tightly, for it remains one of the most carefree, happy-making things I have ever done.

It is also something that catches up with me in the strangest of ways. In the winter of 2008, while I shivered under my blanket, longing for soup, I suddenly heard what sounded like my voice echoing outside. Scrambling out of bed and flat, I tiptoed towards the source of the sound—my landlady was watching the film on television. Perfect. Did I mention it was a sex comedy? Chittaranjan Park landladies are not renowned for their appreciation of their tenants’ unusual claims to fame. Thankfully, she never made any mention of the film. Then, a few months later, at C. R. Park Market No. 2, two boys walked up to me and asked if I was an actress. I shook my head nervously, grabbed my change and fled.


A version of this appeared in Tehelka in May 2010: