JUST A FEW WELL-CHOSEN WORDS
(NO, NO, NOT MINE!)
night, I was reading Amitav Ghosh’s post-tsunami dispatches
from the Andamans. I had printed the New York Times piece out along
with the three reports (Overlapping faults (January 11, 2005), No
aid needed (January 12, 2005), The town by the sea (January 13, 2005))
published in the Hindu, and read them together. The reading transported
me to ravaged stretches of island, crowded camps and the bleakness
of survivors’ lives. In spite of the use of the first person
in the narrative and accompanying photographs of Ghosh, the writer
himself was almost completely invisible in the dispatches. I got to
reflecting on this feature of good writing—where the writer,
describing her or his own thoughts, experiences and reactions, remains
still effaced so that the reader responds not to the person but the
thoughts, experiences and reactions described.
of us have moments in which we ask: Have I made any difference to
the world? Is my work at all socially useful? What is the purpose
of my life? In our post-industrial age, those engaged in technological
and production-related fields seem to me to be easily answered. The
value placed in South Asia on engineering and medical training partly
reflects the promise of job security these hold out and also to some
extent the notion that these are useful things to do. The social utility
of teachers—and acknowledgment of the same—far outstrip
their market value. But people like me—non-teaching scholars
and writers—of what use are we?
as we are in arcane English proverbs, South Asians learn that “the
pen is mightier than the sword” early in life. Most of us wield
this inky sword frequently and with flourish. Political and polemical
writing are common enough, where as I have written elsewhere, “We
are a sub-continent of op-ed writers and deconstructionists.”
But this essay is not about academics who publish or perish, or about
retired government officials who write expert opinions, or about journalists
who generate as many inches of text as required per day. I am ruminating
here about creative writers who engage with political or social issues.
Asia abounds in eminent examples. The most famous today undoubtedly
Arundhathi Roy. Roy has written one novel so far (and one screenplay?).
In the afterglow of its stupendous success, she has written essays
on every conceivable social and political, global and local issue,
which have been published, circulated and compiled promptly. She has
even written an essay addressing her detractors who find her politics
and her writing less than compelling.
prominence raises many questions. The first is whether celebrity endorsements
help any product—whether a consumer good or a political cause?
When the fanfare is over, and the literati have read, then what?
second relates to the substantive quality of the interventions. There
are two parts to this. There is the process whereby the celebrity
author gets acquainted with the cause espoused. If you are going to
write a polemical piece, how much do you need to know about its subject?
As researchers, we are always cautioned to be transparent about who
we are as we conduct research, to record the learning process, to
observe ourselves as well as the subject, to document the process
carefully, and to make all this available to the reader. With this
training, questions about how a polemicist learns what s/he writes
always haunt me.
second part involves a value judgment of utility. Does an emotional
call for change or a lament really make a difference at all? It cannot
mobilize the masses in South Asia, since they don’t read English
for the most part. Policy circles do not read polemical writing for
input. Who, then, is someone like Roy writing for? Is there a middle
ground between dry policy briefs that people like me like to churn
out and the polemical prose that Roy writes?
third issue that Roy’s writing raises for me is the place of
the self in one’s work. As someone whose non-academic writing
also centers on the first person, I am sensitive to the thin line
between expressive writing and everything being about the writer.
It is so easy to write in the latter mode. After all, each of us is
verily the centre of our own private universe and writing is a window
that lets the world in on this universe. Can writing of this sort
be socially useful? Coming from a long South Asian tradition—across
faiths—in which we seek to surrender this self with a small
‘s’ to something larger, I find it hard to believe so.
is another way in which writers become identified as political. When
their lives reflect political choices whose consequences they have
to face or when their writing reveals themes that are considered contentious
or reflects concern about social issues, they become political icons
almost accidentally. South Asia abounds in literary figures of this
sort and any list I come up with will be an incomplete one (especially
because I am not a scholar of literature, merely an interested consumer!).
I write this, the first name to come to my mind is that of Faiz Ahmed
Faiz. Faiz’s politics was broadly that of the left—a rooting
for the underdog that was from all accounts not dogmatic. His poetry
reflected his reading of the times in which he lived—the nationalist
and partition movements, the birthing of Pakistan to his death in
1984. For this he paid with several stints in jail, becoming in this
process, more than one of the region’s great modern poets—an
icon for rebels with literary leanings. Many of Faiz’s contemporaries
shared his politics, even if they did not face the same consequences
for them. And Urdu poetry is not alone in this quality.
Nasrin is another person whose creative path has brought her political
attention. Her novel, Lajja, which tells the story of a Hindu family
in Bangladesh, was banned for portraying their lives as less than
ideal. Nasrin’s autobiographical work on her childhood was also
banned. As Salman Rushdie can attest, nothing catapults a writer to
the political infamy faster than a ban on their work. This happens
in three ways. First, the issues highlighted by the work itself are
debated in society. Second, other issues raised by positions and experiences
in the writer’s life gain attention. Finally, the right to freedom
of expression and its limits become objects of contention. As someone
who writes, it is hard for me to imagine that any writer writes a
page saying, “Aha, now this will be controversial and banned
and then make a difference to this or that cause!” Writing is
a far more internal and unsettling process than that.
I saying that these writers were not people with strong political
views before their work became controversial and they came to represent
one or another position? No. Of course, they were political people.
Anyone who thinks, feels and is moved to express her or his response
to life around them is political. However, I think that because these
writers set out first to describe what they saw or to record their
own response to it, rather than to make a polemical statement, their
standing as political icons is accidental.
there are accidentally political writers, there are certainly politicians
who must be accidental writers! And Jawaharlal Nehru must top this
list, at least for writing in English—although my hunch is that
many South Asian languages have equally gifted politician-writers
(Karunanidhi in Tamil, for instance). I have never been able to resist
reading aloud excerpts from Nehru’s writing in lectures and
classes on India, and most of the time, that reading is the best part
of the talk!
it has become fashionable to critique Nehru’s policy decisions,
is there a person who can resist the grandeur of his “Tryst
with Destiny” speech or the simple lyricism of his announcement
of Gandhi’s death? If there is, still Nehru’s Discovery
of India would alone qualifies him for attention here. Letters on
history written to his daughter chronicled not just the story of India
but the past, present and future of India as he saw them. Nehru’s
vision, thus chronicled, was also the prevalent founding vision of
the Indian state, making his letters an entrée into what the
founders thought should be India’s national identity.
back to Ghosh
Ghosh, Faiz, Nasrin and Nehru apart, can scholars and writers be socially
useful creatures or are we fated to remain poseurs and parasites,
permanently preoccupied with petty problems? (Alliteration intended.)
Ghosh’s Andamans dispatches, to my mind, are an excellent example
of good writing that is socially useful. By doing what he does beautifully—telling
stories—Ghosh allows us to enter for one second into the hearts
and minds of complete strangers. The woman who faces the ruin of a
life built over thirty years, the man who does not look twice at his
missing daughter’s color pencils, the young man who cannot file
any claims because all his family’s documentation has been swept
away—I know them well. I cannot tell you after a while, where
I met them, but of course, I know them. I feel their puzzlement as
surely as a view through frosted glass. My hand reaches out to help,
unperturbed that it cannot stretch all the way on its own.
put the articles away, transported and also reassured: if I can learn
to write like that, I will be of use to others. If I can tell stories
like that, in any medium, I will be of use. I can make myself simply
an instrument for other voices, and in the way they tell their stories,
through me, they will make the change they need in the world. One
reader or listener at a time.
Chennai, January 19, 2005