Last night, I was reading Amitav Ghosh’s post-tsunami dispatches from the Andamans. I had printed the New York Times piece out along with the three reports (Overlapping faults (January 11, 2005), No aid needed (January 12, 2005), The town by the sea (January 13, 2005)) published in the Hindu, and read them together. The reading transported me to ravaged stretches of island, crowded camps and the bleakness of survivors’ lives. In spite of the use of the first person in the narrative and accompanying photographs of Ghosh, the writer himself was almost completely invisible in the dispatches. I got to reflecting on this feature of good writing—where the writer, describing her or his own thoughts, experiences and reactions, remains still effaced so that the reader responds not to the person but the thoughts, experiences and reactions described.

All of us have moments in which we ask: Have I made any difference to the world? Is my work at all socially useful? What is the purpose of my life? In our post-industrial age, those engaged in technological and production-related fields seem to me to be easily answered. The value placed in South Asia on engineering and medical training partly reflects the promise of job security these hold out and also to some extent the notion that these are useful things to do. The social utility of teachers—and acknowledgment of the same—far outstrip their market value. But people like me—non-teaching scholars and writers—of what use are we?

Polemics as politics

Schooled as we are in arcane English proverbs, South Asians learn that “the pen is mightier than the sword” early in life. Most of us wield this inky sword frequently and with flourish. Political and polemical writing are common enough, where as I have written elsewhere, “We are a sub-continent of op-ed writers and deconstructionists.” But this essay is not about academics who publish or perish, or about retired government officials who write expert opinions, or about journalists who generate as many inches of text as required per day. I am ruminating here about creative writers who engage with political or social issues.

South Asia abounds in eminent examples. The most famous today undoubtedly Arundhathi Roy. Roy has written one novel so far (and one screenplay?). In the afterglow of its stupendous success, she has written essays on every conceivable social and political, global and local issue, which have been published, circulated and compiled promptly. She has even written an essay addressing her detractors who find her politics and her writing less than compelling.

Roy’s prominence raises many questions. The first is whether celebrity endorsements help any product—whether a consumer good or a political cause? When the fanfare is over, and the literati have read, then what?

The second relates to the substantive quality of the interventions. There are two parts to this. There is the process whereby the celebrity author gets acquainted with the cause espoused. If you are going to write a polemical piece, how much do you need to know about its subject? As researchers, we are always cautioned to be transparent about who we are as we conduct research, to record the learning process, to observe ourselves as well as the subject, to document the process carefully, and to make all this available to the reader. With this training, questions about how a polemicist learns what s/he writes always haunt me.

The second part involves a value judgment of utility. Does an emotional call for change or a lament really make a difference at all? It cannot mobilize the masses in South Asia, since they don’t read English for the most part. Policy circles do not read polemical writing for input. Who, then, is someone like Roy writing for? Is there a middle ground between dry policy briefs that people like me like to churn out and the polemical prose that Roy writes?

The third issue that Roy’s writing raises for me is the place of the self in one’s work. As someone whose non-academic writing also centers on the first person, I am sensitive to the thin line between expressive writing and everything being about the writer. It is so easy to write in the latter mode. After all, each of us is verily the centre of our own private universe and writing is a window that lets the world in on this universe. Can writing of this sort be socially useful? Coming from a long South Asian tradition—across faiths—in which we seek to surrender this self with a small ‘s’ to something larger, I find it hard to believe so.

An accidental politics

There is another way in which writers become identified as political. When their lives reflect political choices whose consequences they have to face or when their writing reveals themes that are considered contentious or reflects concern about social issues, they become political icons almost accidentally. South Asia abounds in literary figures of this sort and any list I come up with will be an incomplete one (especially because I am not a scholar of literature, merely an interested consumer!).

As I write this, the first name to come to my mind is that of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Faiz’s politics was broadly that of the left—a rooting for the underdog that was from all accounts not dogmatic. His poetry reflected his reading of the times in which he lived—the nationalist and partition movements, the birthing of Pakistan to his death in 1984. For this he paid with several stints in jail, becoming in this process, more than one of the region’s great modern poets—an icon for rebels with literary leanings. Many of Faiz’s contemporaries shared his politics, even if they did not face the same consequences for them. And Urdu poetry is not alone in this quality.

Taslima Nasrin is another person whose creative path has brought her political attention. Her novel, Lajja, which tells the story of a Hindu family in Bangladesh, was banned for portraying their lives as less than ideal. Nasrin’s autobiographical work on her childhood was also banned. As Salman Rushdie can attest, nothing catapults a writer to the political infamy faster than a ban on their work. This happens in three ways. First, the issues highlighted by the work itself are debated in society. Second, other issues raised by positions and experiences in the writer’s life gain attention. Finally, the right to freedom of expression and its limits become objects of contention. As someone who writes, it is hard for me to imagine that any writer writes a page saying, “Aha, now this will be controversial and banned and then make a difference to this or that cause!” Writing is a far more internal and unsettling process than that.

Am I saying that these writers were not people with strong political views before their work became controversial and they came to represent one or another position? No. Of course, they were political people. Anyone who thinks, feels and is moved to express her or his response to life around them is political. However, I think that because these writers set out first to describe what they saw or to record their own response to it, rather than to make a polemical statement, their standing as political icons is accidental.

Accidental writers

If there are accidentally political writers, there are certainly politicians who must be accidental writers! And Jawaharlal Nehru must top this list, at least for writing in English—although my hunch is that many South Asian languages have equally gifted politician-writers (Karunanidhi in Tamil, for instance). I have never been able to resist reading aloud excerpts from Nehru’s writing in lectures and classes on India, and most of the time, that reading is the best part of the talk!

Where it has become fashionable to critique Nehru’s policy decisions, is there a person who can resist the grandeur of his “Tryst with Destiny” speech or the simple lyricism of his announcement of Gandhi’s death? If there is, still Nehru’s Discovery of India would alone qualifies him for attention here. Letters on history written to his daughter chronicled not just the story of India but the past, present and future of India as he saw them. Nehru’s vision, thus chronicled, was also the prevalent founding vision of the Indian state, making his letters an entrée into what the founders thought should be India’s national identity.

And back to Ghosh

So, Ghosh, Faiz, Nasrin and Nehru apart, can scholars and writers be socially useful creatures or are we fated to remain poseurs and parasites, permanently preoccupied with petty problems? (Alliteration intended.)

Amitav Ghosh’s Andamans dispatches, to my mind, are an excellent example of good writing that is socially useful. By doing what he does beautifully—telling stories—Ghosh allows us to enter for one second into the hearts and minds of complete strangers. The woman who faces the ruin of a life built over thirty years, the man who does not look twice at his missing daughter’s color pencils, the young man who cannot file any claims because all his family’s documentation has been swept away—I know them well. I cannot tell you after a while, where I met them, but of course, I know them. I feel their puzzlement as surely as a view through frosted glass. My hand reaches out to help, unperturbed that it cannot stretch all the way on its own.

I put the articles away, transported and also reassured: if I can learn to write like that, I will be of use to others. If I can tell stories like that, in any medium, I will be of use. I can make myself simply an instrument for other voices, and in the way they tell their stories, through me, they will make the change they need in the world. One reader or listener at a time.

Swarna Rajagopalan
Chennai, January 19, 2005