Friday, August 27, 2010

On reading and writing

I always wonder why writers write. Is it a calling? A compulsive need? An ego driven exercise to say, ``I want you to see what I see?'' I always wonder if writing is a conscious choice. A technique that you should master by reading a lot, becoming more and more aware of the manner in which other writers write, by learning to contextualise as if you were mixing elements in a lab, polishing, elbow greasing language till it shines to a sparkle?
Is there an intention behind it all or just something that drives you rather than being driven by you? I don't know because for me life is a stimulus and writing is the way I respond to everything contained in it. I do not read much but I connect with life and it is a window into a story, a phrase, a character. The other day, at a writing workshop where I was one of the guests, a young, successful playwright began to peel away layers from my writing process by asking deeply intellectual questions that at first intimidated me and then confused me. I know she looked disappointed when I told her that writing was not an intellectual process for me but an organic one. I do not plot. I follow the plot.
I read and write instinctively and I cannot read writers who want to show me what they know. I only want to know what they feel because if they do, the feeling translates into their narratives. There is something compelling about books that write themselves. They don't pause to manipulate. They sing, cry, dance on pages and inject themselves into your memory streams and become a part of your flesh, blood and tears. There is a reason why critics panned Love letters by AR Gurney as too simplistic, Love Story by Erich Segal as shallow, Ramesh Sippy's Sholay as a wanna be Biryani Western, Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love as self-indulgent. They did it because everything seen through the mesh of intellect is found wanting. This is not to say that any book or any piece of art can be created without intellect but intellect and acquired intelligence/knowledge can just be great tools. They cannot however, form the core of anything because everything begins and ends with emotion. There is a reason why heart is at the centre of the human body. It must be at the centre of every work of art too. Yes, emotion can be manipulated too in cinema and books to evoke response but when it is real, not synthetic, it is as unselfconscious as a river and you are swept away when it hits you.
It has been a rather interesting exercise to read reviewers who have read my book from the perspective of intellectuals who comment on the emotion in the book as if it is something writers should be fastidious with. Some have called it depressing. I assume that is because it looks at death and loss without flinching. But if they read the book the way it was written, they would see that it is not about a celebration of pain but of life. That it is about those who survive poverty, heart break, loss and pain, both self-imposed and inflicted by others to say, ``I don't remember'' and go on.
Most interesting is the way, they respond to ``too much detailing,'' in the book. A critic in Hindu (whose sister publication Business Line had carried a rave review of the book before I joined its rival publication:)) this morning says that there is little action and too much language or something to the effect in the book and that the heroine ``after getting what she wants'' acts aloof and is confused and confusing in the end. It made me wonder if critics actually read what is written or if they only read what they think should be written. I was never confused while writing the book because I was not figuring out a Mathematical puzzle. I was writing a book that wanted to be written. The heroine is not confused either. She just does not want to be with a man for whom she is a toy, a monkey on his back but not a real presence in his life. And does the book ``harp on'' only on Ira's love for Samir and communal disharmony? Well, there is the small town culture of Patiala, the marriage of Ma and Papu, his death, Anna aunty and the life at Annaville, the affair between Gautam and Sarita but maybe, there needed to be a warring space ship, a vampire or a great train robbery to bring in more action :). As for language, it serves the story, not me and is exactly the way it came to me though ofcourse as a writer you dust the grime off your first draft, you fine tune, edit and refine the bits you are not happy with.
The flesh comes after the skeleton is in place and the heart has started beating. Between 150 word reviews that are written in graffiti style to overtly intellectualised critiques is the reader who reads without a prism, blinkers or an agenda designed by intellectual snobbery and connects with the story and when readers sees themselves in the book or they find a character they will remember, it is heartening.
I remember a critic saying that Babri Masjid was added to the book in concession to perhaps those who were born after 1994! I really scratched my head over that one. Mentioning one of the most seminal episodes in the history of post independence India in a book that begins with Partition, is a manipulation?
In a market driven by PR exercises and foreign agents who bring books to India amid the din of bidding wars between publishing houses and glowing reviews in foreign newspapers, books by authors published modestly in India find little shelf space and virtually no media hype.
They are not instantly lapped up by most Indian critics. Nor do they get too much play time on book shelves. But in retrospect, it is the best thing to happen to a writer because it is only when her/his book is read because it is readable that the process of reaching out to a reader is as organic as the process of writing was. Yes, the negative reviews can take away a few readers. But they cannot take away all of them. And they cannot stop the process that begins when a story falls into your lap like a ripe fruit and comes full circle when it is picked and savoured by a reader.

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