At an age when most people contemplate retirement, Mayank Bhatt immigrated to Canada, and when most newcomers look to earn more, he spent his first five years in Canada writing fiction. His debut novel Belief, published in 2016, shocked him by how warmly it was received. Being foolhardy, he’s working on another book.
In an updated version of a piece published in Write (Vol 44, Number 4, Winter, 2017), Mayank tells us about his incredible journey into writing and having his first novel published. It is indeed, a tale about belief.
The Terrorist, the Security Guard and the Emergence of a New Voice
The ancient Greeks told us that those whom Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. That may have been true in the ancient times. These days, the Gods turn them into novelists.
Writing a novel for the first time is guaranteed to drive anyone crazy. It was plain stupidity that made me embark upon this misadventure. It all began during the graveyard shifts at a condo in Toronto where I began working as a security guard soon after I immigrated to Canada in 2008. As a security guard, you mostly sit around and do nothing. But doing nothing for prolonged periods of time is boring. I decided to write a short story.
The idea for the story came from my apartment building at Keele and Lawrence, known colloquially as Gujarat Bhawan (Gujarat is a province in India, and Bhawan means a building) amongst the South Asian immigrants of the area. They were like me – qualified, experienced and doing survival jobs. It was entirely conceivable that the absence of tangible success could easily lead them to getting embroiled in unsavoury misadventures.
I began to explore the theme of immigration and linked it to terrorism. My purpose was not to get into a polemical argument. I was keen to explore terrorism’s impact on an immigrant family. Young people make mistakes and sometimes these mistakes drastically alter their lives and the lives of their families. I wanted to understand how a family would cope (or not cope) with a son involved in a terror plot.
I began to write sometime in December 2008 – my first winter in Canada. I showed the story to a resident, who suggested I enter it in a short story competition. That’s when I came across Diaspora Dialogues’ short fiction mentoring program. Diaspora Dialogues promotes diversity in fiction, poetry and drama.
Surprisingly, I was selected and MG Vassanji, one of the finest contemporary novelists in the world, became my mentor. I had the privilege of working with him for three months and the short story was published in Diaspora Dialogues’ TOK 5: Writing the New Toronto in 2010.
I should have stopped here and gone back to living my life.
But no, I decided that my story was good enough to be turned into a novel. I enrolled into the writing program at Humber School for Writers. Days turned into months and then into years, and I struggled with my manuscript. Whoever claims that writing is fun is a congenital liar. A former good friend advised me to abandon the idea of completing the novel. I almost abandoned him, but continued to work on my manuscript.
Finally, when I could do nothing more to the manuscript, I began to look for agents because I was told that agents could get better deals. I wrote to an agent and she promptly asked me to send the manuscript. I did so and didn’t hear back from her, ever. Then I wrote to another agent. She responded within a day. No, she said, we’re not interested. I gamely struggled for a few more months, and then gave up. The manuscript languished for a couple of years.
Eventually, a friend suggested I send the manuscript to Mawenzi House. I was reluctant considering MG Vassanji had mentored me and Nurjehan Aziz, the publisher of Mawenzi House, is MG Vassanji’s wife. The friend assured me that the publishing house would take a professional decision. With some trepidation, I sent my manuscript.
It was accepted.
A process that had started soon after I landed in Canada came to fruition in September 2016 when the novel was finally published. It looked stunning. The cover image is a self-portrait by Charles Patcher, the renowned Canadian artist, and Ali Adil Khan helped me get the requisite permissions to use it as the cover for my book. Many of my friends, members of my family, total strangers have helped me in the writing this novel, some, such as Farzana Doctor, by evaluating the manuscript critically, others by providing me with the right passage from the Qur’an, some others by providing legal background.
As I was busy informing my friends and acquaintances of my novel, I heard from Antanas Sileika the former head of the Humber School for Writers. He said he had read a review in Quill and Quire. I rushed to the nearest bookshop to buy the magazine. It was a brief but good review. I wasn’t sure how well or badly the book would do. But its publication and a good review are more than I ever imagined for it.
Last November, I read from the published book at the condo where I worked as a security guard, and where I first began writing the novel. It was one the most exhilarating moments of my life. That Sunday afternoon, many residents who had helped a security guard and his family settle in Canada were eagerly listening to an author talk about his experiences. This was overwhelming, and every bit worth the effort.
Mayank Bhatt visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 10, 2018 in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Mariam Pirbhai, Rod Michalko, Canisia Lubrin, and special guest speaker Cassandra Rodgers.