The Writers’ Bloc In India
Being a writer in India is not the same as being a writer anywhere else. Of course, writers everywhere do the same thing – they write – but in India, the stature that comes associated with it is ostensibly different.
At the least, with such a high illiteracy rate, being a writer comes with a dubious distinction: it’s like the mint you’re handed in a supermarket when the cashier doesn’t have the appropriate change. You don’t want it, but it’s not like you have an option either. Moreover, it may or may not hurt, but it is said you’ve to chew it right.
Secondly, the difference between being a fiction writer and a political essayist is conspicuous and not the fine line it tends to be anywhere else because of two reasons.
The first reason is that the political polarity in India is hinged on a history of violence that cannot be erased from the minds of the people. When a writer writes stories, there is only a point being made, as if something is being stated, leaving the rest up to the reader. When the same writer writes a political essay, he will have no option of a retreat in a grey area: he’s either this, that or neither, which is just as “charged”.
(The NAM was birthed to provide a suitable alternative to nations during the Cold War, and so it died with the Cold War, taking with it any and all respite it offered.)
The second reason is that the public perception towards fiction and non-fiction writing is quite uneven in the sense that the quintessential Indian reader will not often see beyond the work. He will not understand what he’s reading as something written; he will consider all the text from beginning to end as one, as if everything stated in the novel exists only in the novel, as if behind the cover of the book there is a sea of nothingness.
A perfect example would be that of Arundhati Roy. Her first and only novel was ‘The God Of Small Things’, which won the Booker Prize in 1997. However, in the aftermath of the 1998 Pokhran tests conducted by the Indian government, Roy wrote an essay, ‘The End Of Imagination’, and in an instant, she was an activist.
In India, you’re not just a writer if you’ve campaigned for something. You’re a ‘writer-activist’, like a ‘sofa-bed’. You can’t take sides, but once you do, you’re both of them at the same time, as if they’re two different things.
What any writer anywhere will tell you is that there is an inner need, some sort of an eternal impetus, that keeps the ink flowing. There is also that abstract sense of justice within everyone who seeks the truth, or sought it, and putting the two of them together, you lose the ability to unsee whatever you have seen.
In that sense, noiselessly imposing such titles on a writer reins him in, keeps him from exercising the license of his chosen profession to investigate and inform, and not because he is disallowed from doing it. The problem lies on the consumption end, where it is not sent through a sieve but something like a filter.
A writer in India is like a child being regularly given pocket-money but not being allowed to spend it.
Stories and opinions are not consumed by different people but by the same people differently. The perception of Roy the novelist will be in sharp contrast to the perception of Roy the essayist. If this were true as in international circles, then the release of a second novel by her will not be as abundantly mired in political miasma.
In India, however, the contrast is reverse-polarized: even if the second novel had nothing to do with politics, Roy’s days as a campaigner will be brought to the fore, to be displayed on everything from posters plastered on public buses to be hyperbolized on the ‘Breaking News’ marquee of reputed news channels.