The Writer in a Wasteland

We have in the past had whore to writer, seller of toothpastes to writer, upright police officer to writer, retired army person to writer, drug-addict to writer, criminal to writer.

Maverick: The Writer in a Wasteland
by Farzana Versey
Covert, June 16-30

I must admit that the first thing I wanted to know when Kamala Das died was about her last rites. Critical as I was of the reasons for her conversion to Islam, it seemed par for the course. However, do we accord writers a similar courtesy of political and religious views? More importantly, are those views to be considered personal or potent weapons of change?

We have in the past had whore to writer, seller of toothpastes to writer, upright police officer to writer, retired army person to writer, drug-addict to writer, criminal to writer. It would appear that you need to be something other than a writer to be a writer.

T. S. Eliot dismissed the “mystical belief in herd-feeling” that he felt was apparent in extreme nationalism and communism, but he made a spirited defence of Christianity, when faith is also about a herd feeling. If he was truly a proponent of individualism why did he reject George Orwell’s Animal Farm, dismissing it with, “I take it to be generally Trotskyite. We have no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticize the political situation at the current time”?

This was during World War II, and silence would not have been an option for the sensitive thinker. Isn’t literature supposed to voice those very thoughts that rebel against prevalent beliefs? The Orwellian dystopia is even more apt today; he used his characters in a minimalist fashion to show us how debates can be dumbed down.

It is indeed surprising that writers have to pen elegies and get co-opted by ideologies. This applies to dissent as well. Nadine Gordimer is known for her activist role in the anti-apartheid movement in her country, South Africa. Some of her books had been banned during the time. She remains an outspoken critic of various leaders. I was, therefore, a bit distressed to hear her say, “Looking back, it would have been an insult if they hadn’t been banned. It was an honour.”

What was she trying to convey? That the protest would have been in vain had her works been accessible through legitimate channels in her country? Or was she aiming to reach only the outside world? Isn’t the role of the writer as activist to well and truly portray such angst and make it known to those who are suffering from it?

What about the millions who go through privations without either the benefit of a voice, literary or otherwise, and swallow the indignities heaped upon them? They are not banned or sent off – they become slaves of society and give writers and artistes the raw material required to portray the trauma.

This is not to suggest that writers are exploiters – although, in some ways it is true because all of us who choose the medium of expression are using people and places imbued with our understanding and biases. Can we make a blanket call for freedom of speech without fathoming its deeper undercurrents and repercussions?

Salman Rushdie got tetchy when his bodyguards decided to reveal a bit of tittle-tattle about him while he has been happily holding on to his expose of religion for better understanding. What about the freedom of speech of those who oppose his views and think a book of religion is literature? Many of us were told to read the Bible in our convent schools only for its literary merit. Has Rushdie been able to deconstruct the Quran’s seminal message?

The moment a writer uses a position to affect opinion, s/he become responsible for it. Therefore, it was disingenuous of Arundhati Roy to state, “I am a writer and want to be identified as a writer only. One should not define me as an activist. I am not an activist.”

After The God of Small Things, she did not write anything that was not activist in nature. Her collections of essays and interviews were about subjects that have to do with a society in turmoil. Surely, a committed writer ought to be able to stand up for what she did all these years.

In a world where wastelands thrive, memorials to such mortuaries deserve a bit more than a few good metaphors.

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