Runaway Writers

By Indu Balachandran

Click here to buy Runaway Writers

‘Choose a job you love, and you never have to work a day in your life.’


‘Living space available for 9-month lease. Centrally located, fully functional, healthy environment with all supporting amenities. Call 9846635322’

It was this simple classified advertisement I wrote that started it all.
Now if you think that’s a real estate ad, read that again, and you’ll realize I was talking about leasing out my uterus to breed a baby.

I was writing this ad for a lark actually, scribbling down a line on a paper napkin in a pub. With surrogate moms being suddenly in great demand (what’s with this sudden drop in fertility, Young India?), breeding other people’s babies seemed like a cool new-age occupation to have, rather than slog as a home loan officer in Citibank— the job that I currently had.

But let me tell you, great things begin on the humble paper napkin. Email ids are jotted down; romances are traced back to hurriedly written telephone numbers on pub napkins. J.K. Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter ideas on a piece of white tissue. Hey, even that lovable 7-Up guy, Fido Dido, was born as a scribble on a restaurant napkin.

So I held up the paper napkin and read out my spoofed classified ad for baby breeding to my pals Kavi, Vikki, Lulu, Tarun and Shanks—I really had to shout it out over the roar of ‘Summer of 69’, with half the pub singing along with the song. When I finished, my entire table broke into laughter and applause.

‘Amby, you insane nutcase!’ said Tarun. ‘You really should make a living out of this.’ ‘Renting out her uterus?!’ cried Kavi. ‘Now what will the conservative Tam Brahm community have to say about that, Ambujakshi Balan!’ I winced hearing my full name. But more on that later.

‘No, idiot,’ said Tarun. ‘I mean Amby should make a living writing pithy lines like this all day.’ He looked at me with palpable excitement. ‘Amby, imagine you putting this line up on your Facebook update. You’ll get 78 ‘Likes’ within an hour.’

So here we all were at Chennai’s 10 Downing Retro Nite, celebrating three events simultaneously: Kavi’s birthday, Tarun’s first no-smoking month, and my first month at Citibank. Oh, make that four events—it was also my last month at Citibank.

Now a mere month at a coveted job in a leading MNC bank is hardly the time when one says, ‘I quit! I’ve had it with this awful routine. I need a new job.’ But that’s exactly what I had declared to my gang as soon as we’d found a table in the crowded pub. The hours were long, my boss screamed into phones all day, and my love for numbers suddenly seemed to have ended. That’s why suggestions for alternative career paths for me were coming in fast and furious from my friends. I’d recently been reading this article on the huge demand for surrogate mothers in Open magazine, and a pub napkin was a good place to start jotting down new job ideas for myself. But my pals seemed to have more practical suggestions.

‘Start a dog’s beauty parlour in Bollywood,’ said Lulu, influenced by her own mania for all creatures canine. ‘Just imagine the money you’ll make doing manicures for all those celebrity dogs with names like Popo and Sweetoo and Pugsy…’

Shanks’ trademark gigantic sneeze (rumoured to sometimes start minor earth tremors in India) preceded his suggestion. ‘Forget dogs. How about a clinic for cat allergies? I even have a name for it: Cat-astrophe.’

Vikki thumped the table. ‘Hey Amby, I got it. You could make an entire living out of simply being a Professional Contest Enterer. We all know what a whiz you are with words. Start a website and charge hefty fees for finishing prize-winning slogans for people who are always wailing, “How come I never win in contests?” In fact, Amby, there’s a holiday to Goa to be won in a contest. I read it in yesterday’s papers—which may be just the opposite of your baby-breeding future career. Can you think of a snappy slogan for a revolutionary new contraceptive?’

I burst out laughing. ‘Hmmm…okay.’ I simply love this kind of word-puzzle challenge, and began scribbling again. ‘How about this, Vikki: Copulate More. Populate Less,’ I said, a few minutes later.

Vikki looked at me in complete awe. Before I knew it he would’ve told the whole world about it…living up to our nickname for him: ‘Vikki-leaks’. As he quickly reached for a napkin to write down this potential holiday winner and sneakily enter the contest himself, the rest had broken into spirited singing again with a burst of ‘Red red wine…stay close to meeeee!’

That was also a cue for a new round of drinks to arrive at the table; not red wine but its close, poorer cousin beer, even though my own refill was still only Pepsi. My Tamil Brahmin community would be proud of this: I still drank and savoured only Pepsi, even if it was in unsavoury places like a pub. My family, though, was thinking I was away at ‘Kavi’s birthday dinner party’ (correct) enjoying alu-parathas and home-made Punjabi pickle with her entire Sharma family around the dining table (incorrect), who were all probably hoping that my shining example of joining a leading MNC bank would influence their own wayward daughter, Kavi, to look for a similar ‘good- respectable-job’ in a bank (highly incorrect).

Kavi Sharma and I may have learnt our numbers at the same nursery school together, learnt our alphabets and how to spell b-a-n-k at the same junior school together, learnt the intricacies of money at the same Economics Honours college together, but to the utter dismay of Kavi’s parents, their only daughter hadn’t, like her best friend—myself—gone on to bring all these specific learnings in life into logical fruition with a ‘solid’ job at a bank. A multinational bank at that.

Kavi was, instead, stirring up eco-friendly soaps on her terrace in her fierce quest to save the world from further environmental waste. ‘What about wasting away all your good education so far?’ wailed her folks. ‘I’m going to call Ambujakshi to see if she can get you an opening in Citibank. I am sure her recommendation will help.’ This was invariably followed by a firm ‘Don’t you dare!’ from their stubborn daughter, stirring up yet another batch of tulsi-jasmine fully biodegradable soap cakes—a hobby she was trying to turn into a business.

And even as Kavi’s parents quite openly said—with one of the 10 Tamil words they had actually picked up in the 25 years of living in Madras, ‘Why can’t you be a bit more like the chamaththu Ambujakshi? (that single Tamil word for good, obedient, obliging). I suspect my grandparents, very secretly it must be added, were wishing, why couldn’t I have been born be a bit more chikni gori like the pretty Kavi. My being dusky coloured had been a ‘she is a bit dark, BUT…’ feature all my life, since I was supposedly compensated with a pretty sound brain.

But what happens when a girl reaches the marriageable age in the arranged marriage scenario? But hey, I’ll get to that later, as right now, it’s about the job market, not the marriage market.

Well. Kavi’s parents would be in for a great shock soon, when they heard that I, the good and obedient Ambujakshi Balan, math whiz and class topper, had quit a hallowed and respected career path, and was loitering in the by-lanes of uncertainty wondering what to do next in life.

Meanwhile, back at the pub, fate was at work, bringing a set of trivial happenings together, to suggest my new career destination:

1. The DJ had switched to the Beatles, and we were all singing along to ‘The movie’s gonna make me a big star…
2. Vikki had just received a WhatsApp text message, which made him guffaw and say, ‘Who are these anonymous people who come up with these spot-on one-liners in our cell phones? Guys, just listen to this one…’
3. Lulu was looking towards the pub entrance, one hand on her heart. ‘Oh my God, for a moment I thought that was Krish Kumaar walking in,’ she said. ‘He’s just he HOTTEST film star ever…’

And then Tarun put some key words from the above dialogue together: spot-on one-liners, hot movie star, text messages…and exclaimed, ‘AMBY! I’ve got it. I know the perfect new job for you! You should be the Tweet-writer for Krish Kumaar—I’m sure he could do with better PR.’

And that’s how a brand new career path revealed itself to me. You have to admit it seems quite a cool new-age job to have: Tweet-writer for a Celebrity Film Star.

But before I tell you more about that, I have to borrow a sentence from The Catcher in the Rye (okay, I won’t judge you if you never ever read this fabulous J.D. Salinger classic), but it’s got this memorable opening line: ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, what my childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied…and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.’

So here’s a quick background sort of thing coming up…

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