The Same Experiment, Again by Tanuj Solanki


I’m twenty-eight years old and there is every reason to believe that I am merely an experimental writer. Others have, indeed, called me experimental; the merely is my own addition. I guess to be experimental is to always be merely experimental, because in the heart of culture there are no experiments, only a slow shifting burn. Also, and sadly, it is true that the panhandle that an experiment seems to open before a creative eye is actually a mirage, a non-existent depth from a tiny false window.


Well … what can I say? I am I, and so I write weird stories (rather the same story, again and again), aware all the time that I am fooling myself. With the fire of culture burning elsewhere, my tiny laboratory produces its lumpy results. There is nothing else to do.



She is a rock-climber today. Today I’m a pot-bellied writer.


She lives in Interlaken and I live in Bombay. A few days back she asked me to visit her. I said ‘Yes, I will do that in October.’ But it seems I’m not going to. Because I’m a pot-bellied writer and she is a rock climber. A lot happened between us in the past. There was love. But today is today, and today I don’t have her, only these Bombay girls who invite me to their apartments late at night (or who come to mine) so that we can watch a movie together, a movie that I am expected to have downloaded and stored in my hard-drive. These girls do not know anything about rock-climbing, or about movies, but they are reasonably good at installing hard drives.




‘INTERLAKEN?’ ‘My boss says it takes 0.54 seconds for a person to decide to open an email after reading the subject line.’ ‘I have a job in Interlaken now. I’m happy because I can go to ski every day and meet mountain guides.’ ‘There was a book on his crotch. The story he was reading was titled My One True Love. And there was a sex stain on his bed sheet.’ ‘You are a terrific writer. Give me a buzz when you come this side of the town.’ ‘Did you say sex storm?’ ‘There were white wires spread across his floor, white wires and black pubes, and I tell you it was all so fuckin post-traumatic.’ ‘If I come we will watch a strange and slow Chinese movie, and I promise you will cry if you don’t allow yourself to get bored.’ ‘Perhaps he is waiting for October, for sixteen days of vacation, when he will sit at a desk in Interlaken and write a masterpiece.’ ‘There is an element of destiny here.’ ‘Sometimes I read a large story and I immediately want to write an equally large sister story, but then I spend a lot of time thinking of a title for my story, a title that can stand proudly next to the title of that original story that I’ve read, and this search for a title is so tiring that I never quite end up writing my story.’ ‘I don’t deny that.’ ‘Let us imagine Interlaken, and let us imagine making love while watching a Chinese movie in your house in Interlaken.’ ‘On the doorknob hang unwashed boxers. The flower vases are filled with cigarette butts. He has lost the simpler abysses.’ ‘But I took decisions. And now I think I understand my narrative better.’ ‘He is heartbroken, that much is clear.’ ‘When I write spontaneously I write weird things, like lines about women who arrive in a spaceship and plunder a town, leaving nothing but a few dogs with singed skin who are too traumatised to bark. What comes out is unpublishable of course. All spontaneity needs to be checked by a certain level of artifice.’ ‘And yes, thank you for the novella. I’m excited to read it, to discover the treasures it has to offer. Also … will you visit me in Interlaken?’ ‘His clothes are strewn everywhere and his wardrobes are full of books.’



Once I wrote her a poem about how her eyelids struggled against sleep as she lay in my arms. Today I’m an emerging writer, a merely experimental one, and I have had to use that image in a novella where someone sleeps in someone else’s arms. They too, eventually go their separate ways, settling in faraway corners of the world and shit.


As of now I’m two coffees down, it is three in the morning, and I’m still dressed in yesterday’s office clothes. My windows are all shut. There is a pigeon somewhere struggling to say something. I will not visit her in Interlaken because the flights are expensive, because I cannot get leave from work, because the visa is a drag, whatever. Sometimes a heart is a chimney, a distant chimney that gives off cool smoke. It is likely that I will never see her again, but I will not crumble if I do see her again.


There are birds inside us that migrate and return as per their own whimsical seasons.

I’m reading Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño, again. The last time I read Antwerp I was with her in Nepal and I did not understand the book much. Today my belly is a pre-dawn flood of coffee and she is seven thousand four hundred kilometres away and every turn of phrase is a monsoon. Fourteen hours back a girl texted me to ask if we could watch a movie together. ‘Which movie and where?’ I replied. And then things happened.


One day I will be famous and married and I will say ‘My wife understands that my muse is a necessary fiction,’ and it will be something that my wife will never understand.


Anyway, pages are turned. Time passes. Photons pass through the glass of the sliding window next to me. I make a wish. To go to a dawn where gazes do not refract and distances do not matter and where the sky can really show the furnace in the heart of stars. But then, this is a silly wish. And insane too, for I have wished it from a room closed to the lambency of dawn from all ends. Or perhaps it is not a wish at all, but prose that is trying hard to be poetry, prose that wishes for the windows to burst open.


I open the windows. Far far away to the West it is dark night, but what my eyes see is a mellow ball between two tall buildings. Almost imperceptibly, the universe becomes a pale blue shadow. There is breeze but it is confused: anywhere she goes there is the past; anyplace she leaves there is the future.



She once crashed her scooter on an empty morning road and almost died. Now she is a rock climber in Interlaken and the scooter is in Muzaffarnagar, where it is pushed to its limit every day by my brother. Soon the scooter will go kaput and I will have to buy a new one for him. As for me, I am in Bombay. The pleasure of my small successes in finding company fades when it is a morning like now and I am still trying to sleep. Micro-dreams run in endless loops, like of tearing through metropolis roads on that rickety scooter, she behind me and clutching my love-handles, my belly, my heart. We are always tilting, always about to fall.



I realise it is a Sunday afternoon I have woken up into. I have time to think, and so I think up some aspects of a creative experiment.

  • An experiment has one thing common with culture in that it too assumes awareness of the totality of what came before. What precedes an experiment is, of course, way more bounded than culture at large. Which means that an experiment can possess a personality, borne out of the peculiarity of its history. This is a good thing.
  • An experiment can be a necessary delusion for the one conducting it for it does, at least, offer the residue of a vain ambition (for a conclusion) which the experimenter has the prerogative to later quash as well. Needless to say, this prerogative is not easy to exercise.
  • It is possible that the raison d’être for an experiment is the ambition (for conclusions) and not the conclusions themselves. If so, we have an experimenting machine on our hands. Here the first principles that led to the experiment are being forgotten. Here the experiment is a recurrence that feeds on itself. The thing is neurotic.




At times we were between clouds and sky, daytime moon overhead, the rhododendrons on the mountain growing shorter with the increasing altitude.


The clouds were fragmented, dissipated, like thoughts, space between them, and sometimes they tumbled in a valley and broke into mist in a silence that could neither lose or nor gain a syllable.


But they could also hold together, coalesce.


What if it rained and chilled us? Nothing could give us shelter. We were the tallest solid things on the mountain.


Not very solid, though. Not solid at all, actually. We were the only things that could be harmed.


During breaks the guide would serve us tea with excess sugar, and you would justify him. ‘It's supposed to be so, we need glucose.’ I would just sip. I would not remind you that I never complained. I would just try to find a comfortable posture on the rocks, like you. You mentioned you would like to be a rock climber. I didn’t say anything. I knew I couldn’t do it. But I could always wait for you at the base camp.


All the underwear in our backpacks was dirtier than the ones we were wearing, we were carrying no mirrors, some of our hair was crisp, and our armpits – of reluctant sponge washes and plugged pores – made us delirious. Our gazes had no questions, everything was vastness, and that we had been elsewhere and would be elsewhere was excluded.


Actually I loved you so much, as much as the Himalayas.


The tent, I had learnt to set up. And inside it from six pm, the night deposited itself on us. Our empty backpacks were our pillows. One of us had forgotten the inflatables. ‘This book...’ you said, and turned away from me. I waited long for you to say something more, but you didn't, and I understood that the book that you were reading was just like our days in Nepal. I went back to Antwerp. I closed my eyes to rerun a line exactly in my mind. It felt good because there is no point to such failure or success. Then I closed my eyes tighter and imagined a shooting star caressing the Everest.




‘He is tired of the repetitiveness of his days. Words combine in his head to produce a phrase – the whole world now.’ ‘The story’s meanings did not reveal themselves paragraph after paragraph. After some length, the mass of unrevealed meanings became so large that simple comprehension, even at the level of the sentence, became difficult.’ ‘I didn’t, of course, reveal my devastation to her.’ ‘Picture the rotten local trains in Bombay, stuffed with people: exposed noses, and sweaty armpits. Picture the open doors of those trains, commuters hanging their necks out to feel the wind blowing through their hair, to have a moment that is static, viscous, coagulated; a moment of utter belonging or utter desolation, reconciliation or rebellion.’ ‘The society-kids are playing badminton and not having sex, which is strange, given that this is vacation time and the parents are out the whole day.’ ‘My thoughts converge. My wasted self is astonished by the beauty of this unknown woman on whose left breast I open my right eye. Just then postures change in mild discomfort and blood rushes back to my dead feet. There is a tv and on it a Chinese actor says something to another actor. My eyes are blurry and I can’t read the subtitles.’ ‘Late at night, when the highways are otherwise empty, an auto-rickshaw rages like an arrowhead of mystery.’



Foreign movies with subtitles: those are the only kind of movies that I can watch anymore. I am sure that says something about me, about my preference for the written word. It cannot be denied, however, that subtitles are a distraction from the imagery. Which is the reason why even among foreign movies I prefer that subset in which the action is slow, the frames nearly still, the dialogues few and far between. It is best if basic drama plays before a background that is consistently picturesque, and if the larger themes – existential worries, political messages, irony, etc – are hidden, there to be contemplated at leisure during or after the movie. Some of the Chinese movies I’ve seen achieve that.



I saw Still Life, the Chinese film set in a town about to be submerged by the Three Gorges dam, with a Bombay girl, sitting on the couch in her living room. She touched me ten minutes after the movie began. We had sex. Then she went to sleep. I continued watching the movie. It was my fourth time watching it. Then I slept for a while. When I woke up an hour or so later, I was surprised to find us both naked, somehow tangled on the couch. On the tv, Han Sanming’s character was talking to his wife, whom he had abandoned many years before. Almost the end of the movie now. My eyes were blurry and I couldn’t read the subtitles, but I knew that the two were talking about the impossibility of getting back together. I thought of Nepal and its closeness to China. I thought of Interlaken and rock-climbing. I thought of how my fiction and non-fiction is blurred. The whole world now – I thought again, and at once I felt the enormity of a complex, impossible desire. To document the whole world as I. To mash distant realities with I. I wanted to find a notebook and write something down, to start a new instance of the experiment, but I couldn’t. I stepped out of her apartment, came down the three floors to street level, and tried to find an auto. I found one and came back home. I went to the kitchen and made myself a thermos of coffee. After that, I started writing.



‘What a complex foamy mixture a couple is. Even if the relationship shatters and ends, it continues to act in secret pathways, it doesn't die, it doesn't want to
die.’ Elena Ferrante, in the voice of the main character in the novel Days of Abandonment.




You want to write autobiographically but can’t do that honestly. Because stuff repeats itself and is boring, and a lot of it is so irrelevant that it could as well have not happened at all. You are forced to write in fragments, capturing whatever you think matters. Of course you want it to be interesting, so of course you make up a few things. You include fictional elements to the point that lends enjoyable credibility. Sometimes you fictionalise for another reason, to introduce cause and effect, to make the fragments take the semblance of a whole, for you notice that when the fragments merely represent hard reality (or soft fiction) they become these grainy lumps with no life in them. But whatever you do, the story’s broken feel does not go away. Like shattered glass that cannot be fixed back, the best treatment your fragments can expect is that of being brought together, in which condition the pile of them may  – when the story works – give the hint of a wholeness that once was. Till of course their job is done and they are swept away from the reader’s consciousness.


But let’s talk specifically. The major event in your autobiography is the dissolution of your love life, which has led to the concentration of your muse in this one woman who is, of her own decision, a continent away from you. There is nostalgia, but because you are not hopelessly sentimental there is also looking forward. Both these things run in recursive loops that entwine with each other. In writing about them you act snobbish, you pick and choose, you even lie. You patch things up with a tenuous narrative, which is more like a timeline of arbitrary actions. A common criticism could be that you do all of this to deflect us – the readers – from the thinness of what you have to say in the first place. You may also be called solipsistic. You will be called experimental. The important thing is to go on, to never give a shit about fiction and non-fiction, lonely and crowded. Never let go of the notion that you are the writer that this solipsistic, experimental, lonely, and crowded generation deserves.



I am late to work today and my boss gives me shit. He thinks that I party too much.


I reach my desk and realise there is nothing much to do.



Tanuj Solanki is a writer based in Bombay. He was a runner-up in the recent DNA-Out of Print Short Story contest. His story The Bachelor was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Another of his stories was included in wigleaf magazine's list of best online fiction 2012. His fiction has appeared in Burrow Press Review, Atticus Review, Identity Theory, Out of Print and others. He is always working on a novel.