Read GB’s splendid exposition on God and a Godless state and all week thoughts have been in a scramble. There is nothing new or unknown that he reveals but I like his usual lucid style, the staid, rational way his mind tracks the logic of what the piece eventually leads up to – that there is no answer or causality to the things that happen to us; it is futile to seek such answers; all that matters is how we condition our responses to such events and what we can do to lessen its impact when it befalls others.
It is on reading his essay and later mentally masticating it that I became aware of two things – why we read books and what does it take to be a gifted author. This post is about these two questions.
First, we have all been schooled to believe in justice and fairness - in academics, on the playground, in politics, in matters of gender, wages, and opportunities. These are just verbal constructs we use and discard as per our convenience. But real life is something different altogether. Fact is, the moment you try to explain human life through these worthy constructs, you’ll fall flat on your face. That’s when you catch your first glimpse of ‘nothingness’ – the same nothingness that Josef K experiences in Kafka’s Trial, the same nothingness that drove Kurtz crazy in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the same nothingness that kills Joan of Arc in Shaw’s celebrated play. To accept this nothingness is impossible, unless you are an enlightened soul like the Buddha. Books are the only way to tackle this dark and threatening nothingness.
Because tragedy is universal, we dismiss each others’ misfortunes; we are impatient with those who grieve long and hard; we advise them to ‘move on.’ Stalin said, "The death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of millions is only statistics." This death can be physical, perhaps more painful is the gradual perishing of the soul. As you grow older and witness such decay, you wonder: is there anything I can do, is there any way, by which I will be counted as an individual and not a mere statistic?” Again, the answer lies in books. The only times we matter and are counted is when we see people similar to us struggling through the same or different odds and lending dignity to their lives. Mind you, I’m not talking of emerging victorious – neither King Lear, nor Josef K nor the Whisky Priest can be called victorious in the end of their individual narratives. But they all manage something that others cannot – they rise from being a statistic to being a name with a unique identity. In doing so, they show us small ways in which we can be the same – not necessarily by leading a revolution or being burned at the stake – but simply by a stubborn refusal to give in to the hideous machine whose only intention seems to be to crush that which is uniquely and intrinsically mine – my spirit, my dreams, hope.
I guess that’s why we read books.
Let’s come to the second question – who is a gifted author or what does it take to be one? I’d say anyone who does not forget easily, who respects the memory of things and events, who hasn’t known what it is to ‘move on’, who believes that human beings with their complexities and aspirations and ordinariness, are worth writing about, can be a gifted author. I still remember Pamukh’s haunting words about how the writer is writing about his life and memories and thus connecting disparate people who may or may not share those memories. In this, I’d also say, gifted authors prepare us for events that we are yet to encounter. You don’t need to be part of a merciless civil war to feel the anguish in Half of a Yellow Sun, you don’t need to be a pet owner to feel the loss of one in My Dog Tulip, you don’t have to be a jealous lover to understand Othello’s demons. We are and become all these characters because they are the creations of these gifted authors.
A reverence for the sacredness of memory, be it happy or sad; a willingness to sit quietly and engage in the deeply personal experience of putting down that memory in words; an ability to look beyond memory and imagine alternate endings; a stubborn refusal to imagine defeat - these must be what makes a gifted writer.