The following is an excerpt from The Blind Writer: Stories and a Novella (February 2015, University of Hawai’i Press) by Sameer Pandya. We are delighted to announce that Sameer has been selected as our 2017 PEN/Civitella Fellow. Through a generous partnership with the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, an artist residency located in a 15th-century castle in rural Italy, PEN is able to send a Fellow to take part in a six-week residency on a bi-annual basis. Each residency brings together accomplished artists, writers, and composers to refresh and inspire their work, through uninterrupted studio time, and international dialogue that transcends boundaries.

I. The Fall

When I was a graduate student, preparing for a career I would eventually abandon, I did something that, now that I am older and finely attuned to the cruelty of consequence, surprises me.

I received an email announcing that a prominent writer spending a year at the Center—a think tank of sorts at my university where established writers and scholars came for a year to think— needed an assistant. Over the years, these stays had produced many scholarly books that I read then with the care and precision of a miniaturist but are now just books in stacked, weakened boxes in a garage we once thought was spacious. There was no name attached to the writer in the email, but the assigned duties—reading to him from the newspaper, transcribing notes he’d spoken into a recorder—confirmed a rumor I’d heard that Anil Trivedi, the great blind Indian writer, was at the Center for the year. The list of occupants of the Center was a guarded secret, to ensure that they would not have admirers dropping in.

At first, I sat on the email, assuming that someone more qualified (to read the paper to a blind man!) would contact him. Had it been someone whose books I loved—a mute Roth, a paraplegic García Márquez, even a late-cancer Carver—I would have jumped at the opportunity. And yet Trivedi’s books had been very important to me, though I wouldn’t readily admit this in front of my fellow students, who were all obsessed with falling off a cutting edge. His straightforward prose had made the stories of my extended family feel literary.

When another email went out, this time with the added detail that the pay rate was fifteen dollars an hour, I picked up the phone. I wanted to be physically close to a writer, as if proximity would make my ambitions real. And the idea of riding my Schwinn every couple of days into the hills above the campus to read to a blind man had the whiff of romance I’d expected from graduate school. In the year I had been there, it had just been numbing seminars on topics that sounded good on paper—“The Short, Happy Life of the Enlightenment,” “The Sexual Politics of the American Reconstruction”—but turned out to be failures. I’d wanted to fall in love with a graduate student in English, busty, studious, a lover of me and the modernists, and instead I’d ended up with a few bad dates with an econ postdoc working on a project on microlending.

A woman picked up the phone.

“I am calling about the assistant job.”

“Why else would you call?”

She didn’t let me answer.

“Are you a student?”


“He doesn’t want graduate students in English.”

“I’m in history.”

“I’m sure you are.”

Were these attempts at humor?

She gave me directions to their place and told me to come that afternoon at four. I had a car, my father’s old, beige Taurus that he had left for me when he moved to New York, but I rode my bike.

It was late afternoon, the middle of a warm California fall, and I was riding through the tree-lined streets, ushered along by a slight tailwind. This was the luxury of being twenty-four, living in a temperate place, with a scholarship that was just generous enough to let me finally buy bottles of Anchor Steam instead of cans of Keystone.

I rode through campus and into blocks and blocks of small Craftsman bungalows, rambling Victorians, and old Spanish adobes that populated the faculty ghetto. The size of a faculty member’s house was roughly equivalent to the department he or she occupied. The medical and law faculty, and the local moguls who chose to live close to campus, had multiple stories, while the humanists and social scientists had to make do with one, unless they’d had a textbook or a novel that had done particularly well, or they had family money they were tired of hiding.

The house was a small, one-story bungalow covered by the afternoon shadow of a much-larger main house.

I knocked on the door and took two steps back. The woman on the phone hadn’t mentioned it, but I had assumed she was the writer’s wife.

She opened the door, and there standing in front of me was a woman—and I know this is an absurd, beaten-down phrase—who took my breath away. She was in her mid-thirties, and in her well-pressed purple salwar-kameez, she tapped into that part of me that had always wanted, at some core level, an ideal of Hindu woman- hood: devoted, doting, pure, and beautiful. But beneath the long shirt was a woman with a body that reminded me of the full figures in the Playboys I’d teethed on during puberty. I imagined the wife as the mythical Sita in tasteful topless shots, a scarf casually covering the mound below. Of course she’d married a blind man. She blinded the seeing. It seemed that successful blind men always had younger, attractive wives who believed their men saw only their inner beauty.

“It’s not polite to stare,” said a voice coming from behind the wife.

“Anil,” Mira chided. “Let’s not chase him away before he’s even stepped in the door.”

I had been staring. Any man who didn’t was just too afraid to look.

“Come in,” Mira said.

Later I would learn that Anil had wanted a female assistant, but Mira had insisted on a man so that she could leave them alone and not have to worry.

“He knows I’m just playing with him,” Anil said. “We already have good taste in women in common.”

I walked into the living room, following Mira, and introduced myself.

Anil and Mira were housed in a cottage in the back of a large house owned by a very wealthy white couple who had a thing for India and the arts. They offered the cottage free of charge to the Center in exchange for getting the visiting writers and, in the best of circumstances, Indian writers.

The cottage was Indian themed—with Gujarati tapestries and Mughal miniatures on the walls, bronze sculptures of Ganesh and the Buddha on small pedestals, and Kashmiri rugs on the floor, scattered below modern furniture by well-known designers, many of whom also had some connection to India themselves.

Sitting comfortably in a black Eames chair, Anil was even slighter than I had pictured in my mind. He had a long, thin neck and a round head that made him look like a tortoise. His clothes were meticulous—light-gray gabardine slacks without pleats, a crisp white shirt, a dark-green button-down cashmere sweater, and soft Cole Haan loafers. He was not dressed for the California fall. I’d expected him to be wearing sunglasses, but he wasn’t. His eyelids were halfway closed, and I could see his eyes moving below them. I’d assumed he was completely blind, but right then I wasn’t sure. I didn’t feel free to stare at his wife.

“Sit down,” he said signaling with two fingers. “What can Mira get you?”

“I’m fine, thank you,” I said, not wanting to put them out.

“You have to have something,” Anil insisted, in that Old World way where offering something to a guest, and having a woman take care of it, was reflex.

“Tea?” I ventured.

“Tea it is,” Anil said.

Mira walked out of the room. As one source of my nerves left, I remembered the other. I was, after all, sitting in front of a writer, who in certain circles was much beloved. From what I had read of his work, there was a great distance between the man described in words and paragraphs and the shrunken, fine-boned man sitting in front of me. The real thing always disappoints.

“So why are you here, Rakesh?” Anil asked.

This was not that complicated a question.

I was born in India, and after brief stops in London and Toronto, I had grown up in San Francisco, the only child of a mother and father who’d stopped feeling much for each other even before I was born. Or to be more exacting, my mother felt nothing for my father, who then surrendered to the emotional absence in the marriage. Though they thought it would, my birth and our transcontinental move several years later changed nothing in how my mother felt. In San Francisco, I learned to ride a bike on a thin strip of sidewalk in front of our apartment building and walked to and from the local elementary school by myself.

I graduated from my high school third in a class of five hundred. I was at the top of my class through the middle of my senior year, and knowing I would stay there, I flinched and slacked off a bit. I was afraid, not only of winning this particular horse race but, as I learned later, of winning in general. I played on my high school tennis team and won quite a few matches over the years. But in the matches that really mattered, I would speed ahead and then lose focus and fall in three sets. I was always concerned about how my opponent would feel after losing.

I traveled across the bay to Berkeley for college, took the economics classes I was supposed to, and did my summer internships in brokerage offices in San Francisco’s financial district. But quietly, I fed my ambition to be a writer. I took fiction-writing classes and earned consistent, sometimes effusive praise, particularly for a story I wrote about a college student who tries committing suicide by hanging himself from a magnolia tree in his parents’ front yard but ends up alive and not so well, with a broken leg, when the branch gives out. I wrote for the college paper, starting off covering track and women’s soccer and working my way up to sports editor. I ended up double majoring in economics and history. I’d started off college wanting to be a journalist but then decided later to be a historian. Both professions, in my eye, were centered on investigating sources and connecting the dots. I chose history because it was the closest thing to English. The spring semester of my senior year, my economics degree earned me a great job in finance, but I decided instead to go into a graduate program in history, to which I had secretly applied the previous fall. What I really wanted to do was write, but I couldn’t say that to my parents, who’d worked very hard to pay for my college. My father wasn’t pleased about my graduate-school decision, but I made him feel better when I told him that Stanford had awarded me a full, generous scholarship.

“Wall Street will always be there,” I had foolishly said. I wish my father had slapped me and said, “No it won’t. Opportunity has a short shelf life.”

I had been taking my history seminars for the past year and writing fiction in the evenings. In college, the stories seemed to arrive in paragraphs and pages every time I sat down at my desk. Now, the words came, but the confidence and crispness of the language was gone. I was overwriting.

And then the email came. I was there, to answer Anil’s question, because being close to a real-life writer meant being close to a literary writing life I desperately wanted but was too scared to openly admit. In the few minutes I had been there, I realized that this was precisely the life I wanted: a beautiful wife, itinerant travel, and a solid reputation to rest my feet on when I reached my sixties.

“I need the money,” I said.

“Rakesh what?”


“A businessman. You must be Gujarati.”

I didn’t respond. Why had I made this out to be about money? I didn’t want to seem like a sycophant. But now I just sounded like a guy who was looking to make an extra buck. Though given the choice, I preferred the perception that this was about money over some strange desire for literary osmosis.

“C’mon. Stereotypes are a perfect way to break the ice.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “As a rule, I don’t get offended.”


“Life is offensive enough already. I’d be exhausted if I constantly got offended at things.”

“That’s awfully dark for someone so young.”

I was lost within the conversation, saying things I didn’t mean, coming off as someone I wasn’t.

“Well, of course, it’s not just the money,” I finally said. “It’s nice to spend time with you.”

“Trust me. Spending time with me is not that exciting.”

I smiled and nodded my head to convey that he was just being modest. I forgot he couldn’t see this gesture, and that I had stayed silent when it was my turn to talk.

“Mira says you are a young historian. What is your research on?”

I hated the question. I’d always hated the question. For a while, I said I didn’t know. But then I decided that I should and that if I really had no clue, I had no business being there.

Just then, Mira walked back into the room with a tea serving. I kept my eyes away from her until I got the next sentence out. “I’m just taking classes right now. I’m interested in the early British East India Company in Surat, but I don’t know anything beyond that.”

“It’s good not to know where you’re going sometimes. It keeps you open to possibility.” For a few minutes, we sugared and drank the tea. Strong, milky tea, close to the best I had tasted from Bombay tea stalls and from my mother’s kitchen.

Anil needed me three days a week, in the morning from eight to eleven. “Depending on your time and my needs, we can increase the days if things work out.”

“Do you need to check my references?” I asked.

“So they can tell me that you can read?”

“You’ll let a stranger into your house without checking up on him?”

“Do you have any violent tendencies?”

“Not that I know of.”

“What do you think, Mira? Can you handle a young, handsome man in our midst?”

Mira looked straight at me and then slowly scanned me over, barely moving her head. I broke out into a little sweat all along my back and felt the initial leanings of an erection.

“He seems safe enough,” Mira said.

I felt like a child being toyed with by knowing adults.

We finished the tea, and I got up to leave. My first day was the following morning.

“Plan to eat with us. I like the paper with my breakfast.”

“I’ll walk you out,” Mira said.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”

I ran out before she could get any closer.

Sameer Pandya is the author of The Blind Writer: Stories and a Novella, which was longlisted for the 2016 PEN Open Book Award. His fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Other Voices, Faultline, and Epiphany. He earned a BA from UC Davis and a PhD from Stanford University, and he currently teaches literature and creative writing in the Department of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the 2017 PEN/Civitella Fellow.