A problem that has teased me since long has probably teased a number of people before me, namely the problem of commencement. What comes first, language or thought? Character or Plot? Form or Content?
The human mind is a storehouse of weirdly mystifying activity. It is too deep to be fathomed and too abstract to be given shape. It churns out mysterious questions that defy clear-cut answers. Yet the writer must try to attend to some of these. I would love to get the views of readers on these, on my blog.
Writing the Other Gender in Fiction
Men and women are basically different, whether we talk about clothes, interests, pastimes or what have you. Even though there has been a tendency in recent times for both genders to do jobs traditionally associated with single genders, the division of labour between the two has been fairly consistent till now. Jobs traditionally done by men have been taken up, as though by challenge, by some women. Tasks generally associated with women have tended to be avoided by men, though here too the line cannot be always drawn too clearly. Mahesh Dattani, the Indian dramatist, has dwelt on this subject with some distinction. Self-respect and social convention have been behind the general tendency to segregate on the basis of gender.
Writers, however, are a different ball game. They manage to write of the other almost like the other. Writers would not like to limit themselves to their own genders. To know about your own gender alone is to know about just half the world. The one who can enter into the other’s experience is the successful author. Thus whereas the non-writer can afford to be indifferent to the nature of the experience frequently encountered by the other gender, a writer cannot. A woman may have little interest in the various kinds of revolvers and pistols available but she would have to develop the interest if she wants to write a scene in a novel where men are discussing revolvers and pistols. Similarly men may not be interested in the best kinds of lipsticks, or the quality of dress materials used in the making of blouses and gowns but they would be required to know them if they are to show women discussing the material used in the clothes they are wearing in a particular scene.
The writer should be curious to know about secrets of life and living principles. A character in Shakespeare says: “In Nature’s scheme of secrecy a little I can read.” That is exactly what the writer should be doing – trying to go beyond surface appearance into areas on which life is secretly perched. The writer cannot ignore what the other gender secretly desires, on what motivation he or she will have the next moment. The writer’s imagination must help him to travel into the unknown and un-experienced domain, where the Creator has been quietly travelling ahead of him. Writers of fiction, if they are to make a mark, must have that godlike quality of including everything in their field of awareness. They need to be all-knowing as far as possible and all-seeing. The man who would be a successful author must not be shy of peeping into a woman’s bag, imaginatively if not actually. The bag is a euphemism, of course. They should be able to “see into the life of things”, where even people are included in the list of “things”.
The Seeds of Time
If life takes a turn toward the happy past,
Will I try to reconstruct it brick by brick?
The time that was, is gone, and may return at last,
May return only to canker all like a nasty trick.
Who knows what roots will sprout into what trees?
An honest teller of the future there never was.
Winds, storms and hurricanes begin as just a breeze.
Teeth that peep out of smiles change to sharky jaws.
To hope for justice in this life is foolishness.
Great things just come when they decide to come.
The mind cannot see; it must only digress.
The soul sees, yet must always be quite dumb.
Women writers and readers are sometimes piqued by the fact that women’s commercial fiction, women’s romance and chick lit are not given the same seriousness that stories written for men are. Women’s experience that is marked by exclusivity can have great merit for women. Men’s fiction written exclusively for men naturally has more interest for men. But, some women say that women take interest in men’s fiction but men do not show interest in their work in the same manner.
The reason seems to be that women are generally more inquisitive than men and live in a world that has been dominated by men for thousands and thousands of years. They have been shown the way by men to do so many things, outside the home. Inside the home it is they who tend to show the way. The home is a smaller area of space (sometimes with far reaching consequence); the outside world is a larger space with consequences of a different kind. When novels deal with homes and the outside world (in its serious dimensions) they get the attention of people because of their mature, serious and significant subject matter. But if novels contain frivolous stuff like the envy of a woman whose friend has hooked more men in a year than she has in a decade (or the story of how attractive one can be) the story will not involve men to the same extent. The same would be equally true of a male-centric story that touches upon a trivial matter.
Women’s fiction must have the potential to elevate womanhood or to make a woman feel good being a woman instead of feeling slighted in a man’s world. Just thinking about the skin, clothes, hairstyles and perfumes could never be equated with the heart, serious relationships, agonies and ecstasies. A story that tells of a home-making or home-breaking experience will always be more significant than one which deals with an affair of much less significance. Affairs may appeal to some men and women for some time but they will never impact them as much as novels that foreground more deep human experience.
I cannot speak for others with the same authority but I know that the women in The Tailor’s Needle deal with very deep emotions and experiences. There are lighter moments in the novel but these are only moments in the novel, not its basic fabric. Take for instance the woman-character, Jamuna. She has the smallest role. She is a second wife of a wealthy man who has lost his first wife and needs another woman to look after his children. He has little feeling for her and yet she must feel for him if she is to survive in the household. She will always be in that position. She marries him only because she is neither from a rich family nor is she good looking. Without marriage she will just wither away. The sadness of her story is touching in a serious way. Chick Lit is alright with women but must not strive to rope in too many men.
I sat alone, disenchanted, sullen,
With nothing to pride in, no cheer.
No lust remaining, no trust;
No music soothing, no narrative hook.
Then came a lightening insight, tearing
The dismal, the opaque dark.
Like a lark tweeting a spark of wisdom:
“The mind needs facts, give it them.
Unadorned facts is its need:
No embroidery no hem;
The thing reduced to the seed.”
Is that what I want, I wondered; not satisfied.
My need is different, not hard, dried and roasted facts.
Ideas are better, one like me wants them more.
But no ship of mine could sail on these too,
Without the wind to push it through.
A mast was needed, sail was crucial.
I needed a pushing oar,
That took me on ahead of others
Dispelling quite gloom and despair.
Then popped up from in me something;
A voice different in tone and scope;
I was arrested by its candour;
It did carry some conviction:
“What you need is to flap your soul;
To flutter it like a bird’s wings.
Notice in it the burning coal.
And do allow it to sing.”
My soul seemed too glum to stir up
Darkness did my light dispel.
Those are things long dead now for me.
Who can now flap up the wings?
Who can see glowing fresh coal?
And who can roll out the music,
That can stir up a hornet’s nest?
Where can I find the kindled candle
That will change darkness to light?
The pulping of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, published by Viking/Penguin in 2009, after the Supreme Court of India’s recent judgment has made us think in several directions and has brought out some interesting and significant responses. The chief of these responses is that of Arundhati Roy, a novelist, who has often responded with fervour on issues that she has not dealt with as beautifully as she crafted her masterpiece, The God of Small Things. But what she says cannot be taken lightly; she speaks sense (at least of a certain kind). The judgment of the Supreme Court has possibly catered to the popular Hindu sentiment and a number of judgments in India have, it seems, tended to respect the masses rather than the minorities, unless the minorities have the clout to start a major problem, particularly of a political nature.
Some of the questions which have surfaced due to the decision of Penguin Books India to withdraw Doniger’s book, are as follows: (a) Is there any real freedom of expression in India? (b) Can a scholar dare to challenge something that millions of people want to believe in? (c) Is the Ramayana no more than fiction? (d) Has Penguin Books India succumbed to pressure of a fascist nature in its decision to withdraw the book? (e) Should an author in the position of Arundhati Roy voice her feelings in a personal capacity against a publisher’s decision to withdraw a book or should she demand an explanation from the publisher for the action, quite forgetting that the publisher, however big, has the right to follow a policy which best suits their business needs? (f) Should publishers be like other businessmen, Shylock-like, or should they invest their capital in books and let it go the risky way as Antonio did when he signed the bond to promote the interest of his gentleman love, Bassanio?
The list of questions raised is too large to be discussed in a single article. But the raising of these questions themselves is significant because they point to the chaos through which India seems to be currently passing. In the absence of a strong, responsible and honest government, partisan politics has come more centre-stage than positive political governance should allow. In such a confused state of affairs no part of the polity seems to function as it should. The legislature, the executive as well as the judiciary, each seems to gasp for breath. The intellectual too needs to remain in business for business’ sake rather than for the true voice of feeling and/or rationality. Confusion, indeed, has made its masterpiece now and nothing seems to be what is not.
Why blame the Indian political scene alone? The world economy and the growing instability in the publishing industry are there to share in the blame. Publishers like Penguin are being forced to make strange compromises, like joining hands with Random House. They find it difficult to cope with the conditions created by Amazon.com and other online business companies. They can hardly dare to take risks with the reader’s feelings that are tied to religious sentiments. Of course the question whether the Ramayana is fiction can never be answered with any sense of finality. And what if it is fiction? The New Historicists, following other post-structuralists, go to the extent of saying that History itself is close to fiction; there is more history in literature (fiction) and other documents of an age than in history books. Regarding Arundhati Roy, one must not fail to see that in demanding an explanation from Penguin India she is trying to play the role of the true intellectual. She will find support from a number of intellectuals because we love teaming up to raise dust in the fair to remain in the business of academia. It must not, however, be forgotten that Penguin India went to court in trying to defend their author, Wendy Doniger, and gave up only after a legal battle of four years was over. Wendy Doniger, who has been attacked even earlier for giving her versions of history that have not always been happily digested by the community of historians in the West, has been grateful to Penguin India for standing up for her. Of course we cannot be certain that Doniger’s gratitude springs from feelings of sincerity alone or from future goals in publishing. Besides, she knows that her book will still be read on Kindle in India and not remain entirely unseen by Indians. Often a book becomes better known after being banned, and this one was already a best seller and so the Supreme Court of India has only increased its longevity in the West.
Fiction and Sex
An author needs to provide some kind of hook for the reader and an easy one can be provided by sex. So a great number of writers take the easy route. I was asked by my UK publisher to sprinkle The Tailor’s Needle with some sex scenes, which I enjoyed doing. D. H. Lawrence gave a spiritual theory of sex in fiction. He believed that in the Modernist world man was cut off from nature in so many ways; he slept indoors, ate cooked food, a coal miner hardly came into contact with sunlight, and so on. Sex was his only real link with nature. Hence Lawrence’s novels made a religion of sex. They were often first banned and then included in literary cannons to be finally prescribed for literary study.
Sex is a very private affair. Hence when an author decides to show sex, he has decided to take you into the most personal moments of characters that inhabit the world of fiction. Since sex is a human need and since it is something everyone desires, it naturally involves the imagination of the reader. Fiction has the power to draw a reader’s imagination in such a way that the reader begins to identify with and participate in whatever the protagonist does or wants to do. Though sex may not always be the very best way of bringing the reader and character to the point of identification, it could easily be an apt way of doing so. There are drives in people, of a superior kind, more pressing than sex, that lead them on and sex can drive only some characters in a novel towards their unfolding in the plot. But sex can be an agent of transformation in a character, revealing the character’s weakness or strength. If used effectively, sex can add very substantially to the depth of a novel. Freud gave much importance to sex in his understanding of people. The novelist may similarly do so. Freud’s theories are so useful for novels that they can turn out to lie at the core of human psychology and behaviour.
Sex can be used fruitfully in fiction. But it should be used only when there is real need for it in a scene. The temptation to use it frequently can be great in an author but that can ruin a novel. It must therefore be there in the novel but in proportion to its need in life.
Fiction and Generic Consciousness
In contemporary times novels are divided neatly into genres for the reader’s convenience, or should I say the market’s. In book-stores books are generically divided so that buyers can reach their desired novels without having to prick their minds. This division helps because few have the time to go through so many novels to reach the ones of their choice. But the help that comes by this arrangement has far reaching effects when it comes to the quality of fiction being produced. Authors have to be conscious of the genres they need to be writing in to fit a certain slot of the book-shelf space that is readily reserved for their books. They have not only to think of whether they would write a thriller, adventure, fantasy, mystery, paranormal, horror or a novel that falls under the category of science fiction but they have to worry about whether the market of a particular time demands a paranormal mystery, a horror mystery, a literary mystery, or a science fiction thriller, paranormal science fiction, a science fiction fantasy or any other sub-generic combination of these. Generic requirements put constraints on novelists to write to order as it were.
Writing these novels is similar to providing dishes that have been cooked in accordance with very specific recipes that are standardized and given the approval of the general palate. The scope of experimenting with newer tastes is reduced to a minimum when the general gets precedence over the particular. Standardization is the bane of our times. It kills the soul of genius.
A novelist who has struggled to complete a novel, sometimes in more than four or five years (my novel, The Tailor’s Needle, was written in seven years) would not like it to lie in a slush pile just because it has not been written to order. He would therefore seriously consider changing the particularities and allowing the standardizing generalities to enter his work. It is only after his talent has been accepted by the market that he can start putting his particular vision, taste, indeed his soul into the making of his future novels. The process of standardization of the literary genre can be soul killing.
Sometimes a multi-generic novel can be richer because it has a completer picture of life in it. It is difficult to put some of the greatest novels into neat generic divisions. Who can think of putting Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or Dickens into genres? I do not claim that the multi-generic nature of a novel makes it great. But I do feel pained if a novel like The Tailor’s Needle does not find an appropriate slot of book-stores to fit into.
I am thinking of a new fictional genre. I want to write a novel that shows man despairing of civilization and society and returning happily to nature. It should seem in the end as though a lion that was brought out of a forest to live in the captivity of a metropolitan town is now returning back to the freedom of a forest. This kind of novel should be written by several authors who have understood the need to write in the generic discipline. There should be several authors writing, as in a movement, in this genre to protest against the fakeness and corruption of our world, our society and our relationships.
Political parties are like icebergs. You can see only their tips, their major parts remaining submerged. We are called upon to judge them by what they reveal of themselves. We are supposed to discover them by guessing about their true nature. We normally like or dislike political parties because we compare them to other parties that have exposed themselves more in comparative terms.
Human nature being what it is we like change. We find it difficult to accept people for long because most people will begin to show their ugly sides sooner or later and then we begin to judge them from their ugly sides alone. Clever politicians help their opponents to reveal their ugly sides as soon as possible. Some of them do little more than revealing the ugly sides of their opponents to come to power. The good sides of seasoned politicians are soon forgotten and the ugly ones preserved in memory.
As responsible voters we should try to be careful in falling into the trap of dramatic strategies of the newcomers. Sensationalist statements and acts are the best ways of misleading naïve voters. Wearing particular kinds of dress or giving undue importance to the symbols that adorn the identities of their parties are party gimmicks. When we judge parties by these we keep the wax and throw away the honey of a healthy democracy. If parties have remained in power for long and after so many years started making blunders, it does not mean that the newcomer will not make the very same or worse blunder in a shorter time while in power.
Of course this does not mean that the newcomer should not be given a fair chance to show the truth about himself. He definitely should get a chance to do that. But we must not be as enthusiastic as the newcomer in getting him in till we are reasonably certain that the newcomer is not all drama, all strategy, all gas. In a successful democracy the voter must be responsible to make the right decision or face the consequences.
Why is literature so relevant?
We tend to forget a very significant need that literature fulfills. From the time of Horace there has been a tendency to highlight the dual function of literature to teach and delight. These are of course two primary purposes for which literature gets created. Then, others point out other functions of literature. Arnold stresses the fact that poetry carries ideas as opposed to the facts of science. Fine. There can be so many other functions attributed to literature. But it is very important not to forget that literature is a storehouse of human emotions.
With time we are becoming more and more mechanical and less human. Our science and technology, our jobs and professional ethics, our laws, our social conventions, our shopping mauls, our restaurants and our increasingly public modes of existence make us shun what is most natural to us, being emotional. In less developed societies people can still be more emotional and therefore fit to take on bigger setbacks and disappointments. They have more avenues of venting out what will cause stress, depression and disease. They can speak out their grievances or exult in their little excitements without the consciousness of disturbing others or being thought less civilized.
For contemporary life literature can become like a surrogate for what must have been dabbling in emotions in earlier times. Though T. S. Eliot maintained, for some strategic reasons, that poetry is an escape from emotions and personality, anyone closely associated with literary reading or writing would know how much of an emotional affair the literary enterprise is. There is always the need for getting emotional. Crying, laughing loudly, sulking, feeling intensely, wallowing in nostalgia, and sinking into the inner recesses of our beings while experiencing some emotion, all these are the most natural things for human beings to do. But society, civilization and culture have labeled these as not the most ideal things expected from us. We have been forced to go against our basic natures for the sake of social convenience.
Literature is made up of the happy and sad moments of people, either the author or the characters created. It encapsulates the tragic and the comic, and frames these into beautiful pictures that store these for those that would like to return to the basic needs that our systems require. There will always be interest in the novel, the play and the poem that can fulfill this requirement. When I wrote my novel, The Tailor’s Needle, I was most conscious of this need of the contemporary reader.