I was fourteen when North Southie asked me for my cell phone number and told me never to change it.
This was a good nine years ago, before he retreated from the public eye following intense media following.
It was his first, and only televised interview. Quick online searches will reveal that there is only one photograph of him available for the public eye, and it was taken on this day: a tie-dyed shirt, shorts, flip-flops, and rather unruly hair, that obscured his face.
He was talkative on the day, but tight-lipped about his private life. For all the noise that was made about him at the time, North was what he said he was- a private man, fearful of the camera glare. The anchor had done his best to break his wall down early on, but the architect withstood the siege:
“How was your childhood?”
“Um, your father…?”
“Oh, very fatherly. Very fatherly.”
He was adamant that he wanted to maintain his mystique, the sense of awe that was directed toward him. The only thing he would choose to talk about freely was his pen-name:
“Started as a joke. I lived in a town called Belgaum, it bordered three different states. You’d expect some conflict, what with bunches of people of different languages, cultures and backgrounds, but it never happened when I was there. Sure, there’d be a bunch of idiots who’d throw stones at streetlights because they wanted a different state, but who cared about them… Then I moved over to Bangalore, and I began to see this divide: the guys from the north wouldn’t hang out with guys from the south, no one wanted to take the trouble of learning a new language because it would almost be like admitting defeat to the other side. I didn’t want to choose, so I became both: a northie, and a southie.”
The anchor then segued into a question about North’s love-life, because of course TRPs; the anchor thought he could pull a fast one on North. It didn’t turn out as expected:
“I’m sure the people want to know about your love-life…”
“Sure, but it’s been a while. How’s Mrs. Mathur?”
“Um, I’m a bachelo-”
“That’s not the Mrs. Mathur I was referring to.”
North could afford to say things like that on internationally broadcasted television, because clearly he was special: the media never had anything on him, and nothing they said about him would matter to him, and he could abuse this privilege as much as he pleased.
The crowd was in full support of the man. He was the voice of the voiceless many, an essence of renaissance. Sometimes he would rant, sometimes he would soliloquize (without ever using a word like that, hence making him far more like-able than other writers); every word that escaped his rapid fingers and into his keyboard seemed to escape not from the brain or straight out of the dictionary, but from the heart. He had a ready wit, and coupled with a keen sense of observation made every fanciful happening seem real, somehow. He had a way with words: he would twist them this way and that, he would throw them in the air and juggle; each time around he would seamlessly slip in a new concept or a character, and the juggling would never cease, but even get faster and faster until it was a blur of experiences, fact, naked truths, epiphanies…
He was no slouch with the spoken word either. In this exchange, he talked at length about why he chose to write the Lonely-Hearts series:
“Well, for the money. [He laughed, and the crowd joined him.] But it does go a little deeper than that. All I ever wanted to do when I was a child was to write, like Shakespeare, or Dickens, or even Salman Rushdie. When I finally wrote Everytown I felt that I had realized my dream, and everything was sunshine and daisies, until the day it just wasn’t. [He took a drink of water.] I realized at that point that the dream I had wasn’t of writing, but of being read.”
He continued to add, rather unapologetically:
“I say this with the full knowledge that I am about to lose a bunch of my fans. Lonely-Hearts was possibly the worst bit of writing I have ever done. I didn’t write to indulge my need for artistic expression, or for the thinkers of the world, but for daydreamers and teen-aged girls. It was my Twilight, my Fifty Shades, so to speak.”
Ouch. While most people in the world would disagree with that indictment of his own work, he provided an exclamation point:
“Need I add, I sold more copies of it than any other book I ever wrote.”
North mentioned “indulging his need for artistic expression” as one of his major motivations, as a writer. His first novel, Everytown, described life in a small town divided by language politics and social struggles of the middle-classes. North looked pleased when the anchor brought it up, but he chose not to dwell on it:
“That’s in the past, I don’t want to dwell on it.”
But he was very happy to answer the crowd when a query was made to him. When someone in the crowd, a budding writer, asked him to explain his writing process:
“My methods vary, actually. Most of the time I’m just shooting from the hip. I see a meme online and something that makes me laugh way more than it should have, and then I try to write something about it. I let mood dictate how the story should go, too. Most of the time I’m all prance-y and gay, so I’ll write with loads of happy things in my mind: all the amazing places I’ve seen in my life, all the great people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting… when I’m in a dark place, in my head, I write as I think about the eighteen years I spent in the Indian education system.”
He closed with some words of advice:
“I’ll save you the effort of going through about forty-three show-and-tell videos and how-to guides. You want to write, you should write. You need to persist. Sometimes, well, most of the time, you don’t have the faintest idea about what you want to write about. That’s okay. Ask the greats, ask me [he smirked, the crowd approved his playful self-aggrandizing], they’ll tell you the same thing: persist.”
A little tangent: with this sage advice, North had unwittingly created Dharma Raj, who was in the audience that day. His greatest rival, the Pawkins to North’s Hapley. The rivalry between this duo of wizards who in close to a decade of one-upmanship would create new boundaries in the field of fiction and literature could in fact trace their beginnings to this day, this interview.
During one of the many commercial breaks, North would turn his revolving chair so he wouldn’t have to face the cameras, would gaze off in the distance, and brush off the makeup man and the sound man. It was during these breaks that he happened to catch my eye.
He took off his mike, kept it on the coffee table, and walked over to my section in the audience. As he approached, his steely glare never shaking from my face, I could only sweat bullets about being approached by my hero.
He gestured to me to come down to the studio floor. I tripped over myself whilst getting there.
“You asked me that last question, didn’t you?”
It wasn’t me, it was the similarly bespectacled, pimply guy on my right. But I nodded anyway.
“I’m going to tell you something I didn’t tell the others.”
His voice was low and a little conspiratorial. I was standing close to him, and I could almost feel his breath in my ear.
“Two things. Are you ready?”
I could see the others straining to figure out what North Southie was whispering in my ear. A hundred eyes were on us at that point.
He said: “One – don’t try to be me. Two – time is running out.”
He said quickly, and then he withdrew even quicker. I stared at him for a while, confused.
He looked like he would say more, but then, he stopped, and pulled out his cellphone from his pocket.
“What’s your number?”
I was fourteen, I had just met my hero, and here he was, asking me for my number. It was a Kodak moment from the digital age, but my phone had a terrible camera. I would have to settle for merely “living” the happiest moment of my life at that point.
I told him my number, and then he told me not to change my number, or he wouldn’t be able to get in touch with me.
It’s been nine years and I held my end of the bargain. He did not.
Why though? He seemed to be a man of manners, of decency. He didn’t seem to be the stuck-up celebrity that he said he was. He even said that he wasn’t:
“Nope, you could say a bunch of stuff about me, and it would all be true, but I’m not a stuck-up celebrity.”
He said that.
That interview was the only one North ever gave. It’s been nine years since that happened, and it has been a long nine years for Mr. Southie.
Let’s leave aside the allegations of deviancy that have graced the ad-heavy pages of online newspapers and frantic ticker tapes on our television channels. Apparently looking like someone who would take advantage of you behind dark bushes wasn’t enough, so he took a few pictures of himself and a lady in mall dressing rooms and similar places, and developed the pictures in his own personal darkroom.
Let’s also forget about the comments he made when Dharma Raj passed away. They were bitter rivals, always having a go at each other, mocking away at each other’s opinions, deriding each other’s work. A nice, decent human being would probably say a few nice things about the man who did nothing other than compete for the same thing. But not North.
“Oh, Dharma’s dead? [a reporter told him he is] Oh. Well, I guess Chetan’s happy, now he’s got the market cornered on stories of his sexual prowess, or the lack of it.”
Let’s forget about Sexy Girls on Beaches. It was a terrible, terrible book. It almost ruined his legacy as one of the great writers of our time.
Let’s forget about all the drunk run-ins with the law, all those times he did stupid things with his hair, all the homophobic slurs, all the controversial opinions… all the things regular people do.
That’s right: I’m saying we did this, like we ALWAYS do. I am not saying this as a fan; I’m saying this as someone who isn’t one anymore. A few less fans, and maybe he’d just be on a blooper video on YouTube, not on national television sandwiched between “New US President” and “Situation worsens in Syria”.
I venture that in that interview, he forgot to mention he was also the man he didn’t say he was. But he didn’t have to, because he never was the hero we were all making him out to be.
During one of the commercial breaks, North was talking about the impact he wanted to make on the world with his writing:
“If I could make a difference to just one person’s life, I’d call myself a success.”
Oh, and I’m also prepared to forget that he promised to get in touch with a fourteen-year-old fan and never did, because I wouldn’t be writing this today if it wasn’t for the things he had said in my ear.
The anchor then called him “an inspiration, an example for the youth of the nation to look up to” and we could all see him visibly stiffening, as if the praise had offended him. He muttered:
“And now, on to the hero worship. “
He seemed at a loss for further words that that point; but when the anchor egged him on a little he had this to offer:
“Well, I’m not special. I’m an ordinary guy who did one little thing better than most people did. Everything else I probably do the same as a billion people. I say racist things from time to time, I think of weird sex stuff when I’m behind closed doors and I feel the inclination, I watch television programs that I’m too ashamed to mention. I hate it when people see gods in celebrities: they put them on a pedestal because they did this one thing, one small aspect of their lives a little better than most people would… most of these people, actors, singers, [pointing at the anchor] television anchors… we’re probably, what, above-average at something, at ONE thing. At best. That’s it.”
There is no record of him ever having said this. No record of him telling us that he’s human, and asking to be treated like one.
I got a new cellphone number today, nine years after I had given North Southie my word that I would not change it. You’re off that pedestal now, Mr. Southie. You’ve lost a fan, but you did change a person’s life, and he’s here to give you some “above-average” competition.
In closing, I’d like to call for everyone to look at the role-models they’ve chosen in their lives and ask themselves if they want all of it, or there’s just that one thing.
WRITTEN IN DEFENSE OF NORTH SOUTHIE
“Sparkle-Eyed for the Tie-Dyed”, by P. Shenvi