On Essays

Once upon a time, a bundle of thoughts and feelings wandered in search of expression. They stopped in the halls of poetry but what they were able to muster there embarrassed them and they moved on. They tried fiction but the compulsion to be realistic was overwhelming. They strayed into the cloisters of academic writing and labored there for a long time. They toiled hard and apparently, no one noticed. As they paused, they caught a glimpse through the cracks of a fertile pasture where commentary and editorial flourished. Meandering in that direction, they were startled by their intense discomfort in those environs. Wanting to find a place for themselves in that sun with others like them, they tried again and again, but something was not quite right. Beating a retreat to the cloisters in which they were confined but comfortable, this now tightly tangled jumble of thoughts and feelings chanced upon something precious. And familiar. The essay. Joyfully, they exclaimed, "This is it! This is our way."

Schools and colleges reduce the essay to a joyless, artless space for regurgitation. We introduce, explicate and conclude. Sometimes we have a thesis that we flog tirelessly until the last sentence. Sometimes we answer a question. Sometimes we comment. Neither the writer nor the reader enjoys the exercise. Accustomed to discussing the essay in this context, I followed my ‘Eureka’ moment by a search for essay-writing guides on the internet. If I was going to write essays, I must know the rules and regulations by which I must abide. The joy ebbed out of me slowly.

I could not, however, rid myself of the feeling that in spite of all the boring essay guides, this was the literary genre I really wanted to try. As I tried to care about those rules and regulations, the magic of a Leacock essay in English or a Parsai essay in Hindi came back to me. I wanted to be free to write about many different things—not just my feelings, or current affairs, or the meaning of life. I wanted to write seriously, whimsically, satirically. Like they did.

With the memory of things I read in high school, came the voice of my Hindi teacher, Mrs. Premlata Thor. "Nibandh (the word for essay in Hindi)… jiski koi bandh, koi seema na ho (that which has no bounds, no limits)." I remember how empowering those words were. One phrase had liberated me from inhibition, from the limits of my vocabulary and from the imperfections of my grammar. My Hindi was barely adequate but from that moment onwards, I wrote Hindi essays with all the art and heart I could muster. The vocabulary and grammar followed from that relish.

I seek the same liberation today. All the words and passions that suffer silently in the margins of my academic work—I want to release them, to unleash them. I want to record without restraint all the places that I travel within myself. I want to write without footnotes, without the straitjacket of style-books. I want to write because the texture of the words is inviting. I want writing to feel like self-indulgence again. I want writing to set me free. "That which has no bounds, no limits." By writing that unbounded, limitless thing, I will be released. Who can resist the promise of such ecstasy?

And maybe I will not fly very far, but I can try. The promise of the essay is the promise of effort. Not unrelated to the French verb ‘essayer,’ the ‘essay’ also suggests endeavour. Having worked hard in graduate school to forget how to write freely and naturally, even the essay does guarantee me an easy liberation. I will have to practice writing without looking over my shoulder at the writing of others, without worrying about the ‘so what’ questions, without formatting and citing so that every loose flap of my intellectual tent is pegged down firmly. I will have to battle guilt at topics that are irrelevant, irreverent and unmarketable. I will have to explain that my essays will just be essays, with no overarching theme or purpose. That my essays will be written just because I feel like writing them. And like all freedoms, I will have to earn this one through great discipline.

But the essay, by definition, allows me to try. Perfect freedom and perfect essays are equally unattainable. Therein lies the emancipatory potential of this genre. If one can never write the perfect essay, then one is freed from obsessing over the result and may simply luxuriate in the process.

Infinite revisions improve the essay infinitely, and every new essay sets you a little more free!

Swarna Rajagopalan

East Lansing, April 8, 2000