The last few weeks have been distressing owing to the various developments that this nation has seen. I was constantly reminded of W B Yeats’ oft quoted lines: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Large parts of the country are adversely affected by floods while some still continue to languish in water scarcity. Kashmir is back in public discourse, and how. In such anguishing times, I often think about the role of writing. Does writing really help? Why must we write? In his iconic poem, Ode to a Nightingale, John Keats writes: “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains.” I wonder if the language is an enabler or often imperils this expression of heartache and the painful numbness that Keats mentions in his poem. Is there a language for distress or do we invent/ find new registers for it? How do we really write about distress?
If writing doesn’t help contain calamities, then why write at all? I soon dismissed my initial misgivings and array of banal thoughts which now seem rather churlish. Looking to resolve my dilemma, I turned to the novels of Toni Morrison, much loved author and recently deceased Nobel laureate. Morrison was a peerless humanitarian, who constantly endeavoured to unpack the Black female experience in the US. Her life was devoted to writing about their many struggles and agonies. At the heart of her writing, one finds intensely humane stories — people struggling to live a life of dignity. James Baldwin comes to mind too. In his poignant novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin, in a humdrum way, mentions the daily struggles of a couple who want a life together. Both Morrison and Baldwin gave voice to distress in their writing.
Owing to the recent developments in Kashmir, poet Agha Shahid Ali has found a new lease of life on social media. His poems about his homeland are being widely shared and discussed. In Postcard from Kashmir, Ali bemoans his distance from home and laments how the landscape and Valley wouldn’t be the same again when he returns. His verse pulsates with a sense of desolation, impending gloom and longing for home.
There are numerous others who emerge in my memory. Mahasweta Devi, who relentlessly fought and wrote about the tribals and their rights. Krishna Sobti, whose unabashed writing on sex and desire from a female perspective shook up the Hindi literary establishment. Dalit poet, Namdeo Dhasal, in a series of poems wrote about life in Kamathipura, the red light area of Mumbai, incorporated the language of the slums. Words that were never deemed appropriate for poetry found place in his work.
But why am I recounting these names and examples? To say that these authors and their writing taught us to resist. Writing in itself is an act of resistance. But then there are moments of self-doubt and personal trepidation. In such moments, one turns to writing to seek answers. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has famously cautioned us about the dangers of a single story, the perils of a linear approach to history. It is in and through writing that we can defeat the single story and accommodate divergent views. A close friend recently told me that if not now, may be all that is being written will find an audience later. But write we must without thinking of immediate gains. Therefore, we must persist, in distress or otherwise, to challenge the perils of a single story.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 21, 2019 under the title ‘The healing word’. The writer teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune.
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