My money has many shades, from the crisp notes to jangling coins to cheques. These live in banks and fit into a wallet. They buy me things, and I need them. But the day I first wrote a published piece – and I shall skip the poems, stories (many of which I merely spoke out extempore without knowing where they would end, fattening them along the way with bites from curious smiles and sips from the rims of wide eyes of classmates or friends) – and went to the site, an art gallery, and a gentleman said I looked like an artist and he was one and I spoke about how I felt about the painting and he said it was nothing of the kind for he had painted it, I knew that I had a voice and I would use it although it went against what the intended purpose was. I got no money for the piece for it was a summer training assignment, but I was paid with words that were to give me a glimpse into how I would express myself later.
I spent a good many years writing columns and I always felt embarrassed discussing money. “How much do you expect?” asked an editor. And I said, quite honestly, “I don’t know, but you would know my worth since you've asked me to write.” He did. I, quite a newbie, was paid the same amount as the senior-most writer. I knew only because he told me. However, I have also been short-changed often.
A few examples come to mind. I was asked to contribute “anything” for an anthology. I liked the subject, so I said yes. In the course of the conversation I was told, “We’ll pay you if you want.” I said nothing and the conversation was over. However, I found this strange. What does “if you want” mean? Much later, when we spoke I asked this question. To my amazement, I was made to feel like a heel. “Oh, so you want to be paid.” It went on and on, when all I said was, “What exactly did you mean by if you want? Do you say this to the others? If they are being paid, then one would assume the same standards for me.”
There was a reason for this response. The problem with people who know you can take on a weird turn. A colleague who had visited home had the audacity to tell another colleague that I did not need to work. The reason, “She has a chandelier in her house.” I’d dare them to say the same about male writers or even Page 3 female columnists who flash their and their partner’s wealth. I did not even buy that chandelier.
Then there are friends who tell you that you seem “well set”. How? “You know one gets that feeling.” Okay, even if I am, does it take away from the work I put in? No chandelier writes my stuff and in all these years it has not been about sitting beneath its light, anyway. I have done more field work than many of the glorified ‘slumbags’.
The problem lies in how we view our writing lives. I still have romantic visions of it, even as I write in the most unromantic of places. Most of my professional decisions have been emotional or based on whimsical experiments. In the early days, I gave up a hugely popular offer once and went on assignment to Delhi, a place I disliked. Not only was I not paid well, I had to live in seedy guesthouses. What did I get out of it when I was away from the mainstream where memories last till your last byline? I faced resentment from the older people who could not tolerate a younger person telling them what to do; I was to tell them what to do. When another job offer came to pep up a publication, the money was great, there would be a car and accommodation. I did not take it up. I was told that the person who was stuck like adhesive to his chair wanted to remain a consultant. Fine. I had no issues if his name appeared above mine, but I was not going to be answerable to him about how I managed my work. Especially not someone who behind my back dismissed me as a ‘Bombay glamour girl’.
The unfortunate truth about writing or anything to do with editorial work is that you are judged within the field not by how good and honest you are but by how much you earn. There is also a tendency to see your ‘soft’ stance as a means to make you into a scapegoat for other people’s follies. The internet has made it worse because everyone thinks they can judge you and do so in real time. Websites that want to use your name and abilities, more so if they know you grab eyeballs with your shoot-from-the-hip style, become the stomping ground of the vengeance cabal. I think I once made a horrible decision to accept an ‘honorary’ position because I ended up spending way more than eight hours of my time and that too not in my time zone for a large part and being abused for things I did and did not do. And people insinuated that I was paid for it. On hindsight, yes I was. With so much hate as honorarium.
Again I romanticise and say it made me stronger. The truth is I was already quite strong to take that plunge into the deep end of nothing. It made me realise, though, that those who do not deserve your time should be shown out of your zone. I have less patience now and leave my romantic ideas to what I write rather than the outcome of the effort.
I continue to write for free when I believe in things and need the space where regular spaces are constricted with congealed thoughts. I write for free when my spontaneity cannot wait for acceptance. I write for free when I feel free.
That does not mean I come for free. You pay a price by watching me unfold. I don’t encash your vision, though, and save it in the vault.