Writing Rigour

I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing. – Agatha Christie

That’s the headline of a blog that I have followed for a while. For a few years now, the blog has been defunct; not the blogger. I met the blogger today; very much alive. Said blogger stopped blogging a few years ago. What’s the point, she said. When she stopped blogging, she did not explicitly ask this question. I know another blogger who did the same. She perhaps was asking different questions. I actually know of a third blogger. He stopped blogging too. His question — I have no idea. He went to the extent of deleting his blog. It must have been serious.

I have, I will confess, considered not blogging. But for the life of me, I could never consider deleting my blog. Good or bad, I cannot deny that this has been an integral part of my life. That, some of the followers of my blog bring up posts from several years ago in a conversation, is reason enough. (I tried doing an April Fool gag; fell flat on my face). There was a time when I wrote words that everyone most people liked. That’s not the case, now.

Not that words are foreign. They are still mine. I recognise them just like before. Just that the way they want to be together is unlike how they’d gather like obedient children; earlier. Perhaps, I am not a shepherd of words. Perhaps words shepherd me. Perhaps, that is why some of my recent posts are shite. Or, I have lost the ability to shepherd. The shepherding, notwithstanding — the words are mine and I am of words.

We have just lost the rhythm.

All I need, is to go to the dance floor that isn’t patronized by any one any more and do my silly dance. Where no one will see me. Where neither my words, nor I will care.  Salsa with adjectives and Samba with verbs. The apocalyptic dance. One writer in the world; no reader left. Is a writer made of readers or is a writer made of writing? Will a writer write if there is no one left to read? What defines a writer? The writing, or the readers?

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I told her today, my writing, in recent times, has achieved heights of mediocrity, not knowing, if that is a sense of achievement. But I have to write. Not because you will read. Not because you will like it. I have to write, because I have to write. Scribble.

125659: Wall Grunge

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No writer, if she can, should give up writing. Because every writer knows one thing (even if she cannot sense it) – she and the words are one. She may walk away from words. (Words are kinda stupid; they have no emotion – they will sit where they were last sat; where words should be – is a writer’s prerogative.) But there is no leaving. Even if she never writes them – she cannot escape them.

If you can help it – do not become a writer. There is no escape. If you become a writer; welcome to the club!

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209 pages

This book that I am reading. A mass market paperback. It’s called “What is History?” by Edward Hallett Carr. I started reading it on 10th October, this year; am on page 112, now. That seems like an achievement to me. So, as is my nature, I posted this update on Goodreads, and it showed up on my Facebook feed. (Not magically; I’ve given Goodreads permission to publish on Facebook on my behalf.)

Of all the people who saw that post, it was picked up by my English teacher from school, and she commented, “Atul, keep up the speed.”

Disclaimer: She is my favourite teacher of all times and I am her favourite student of all times. (Irrespective of the thousands of kids she taught after I completed high school. A few of these thousand kids may have been good, but I am her favourite, I am sure. Let’s not dwell on the fact that I didn’t make it to Editor of the school magazine, in my last year. Those were purely technical issues.)

More than twenty-five years later, she keeps tabs on what read and write. On my previous post, she said, “Well tried.” That was a message, if I ever got one. That’s who and how she is; she always pushes you forward.

You are never as good (or bad) as what you just accomplished, you are as good as what you can achieve.

Perhaps, that was her mantra for all of us. Perhaps that’s why I am not as lost as I think I would have been, otherwise.

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Back to the book.

This book is about Historiography. Unlike most facile stuff that I once used to read, it’s not an easy read. Here’s a sample:

This is the real indictment of those who seek to erect a super-historical standard or criterion in the light of which judgement is passed on historical events or situations—whether that standard derives from some divine authority postulated by the theologians, or from a static Reason or Nature postulated by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. It is not that shortcomings occur in the application of the standard, or defects in the standard itself. It is that the attempt to erect such a standard is unhistorical and contradicts the very essence of history. [E. H. Carr, What is History?]

As is obvious, such a paragraph takes time (for me, at least). The idea in itself is quite simple and straightforward. The manner in which it is presented seeks that the reader be involved with heart, soul, and mind.

So, yes, I’ll complete this book. Soon enough, for it’s the kind that needs to be savoured.

And that’s the speed. Thank you Ma’am!

One of His Many Books

I want to read Demian, by Hermann Hesse, again. It has been a few years, since I read it. And as I was cleaning the shelves today, this book just called out. It will have to wait, as I finish the book I have on hand. But Demian is next.

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This is a book that I did not buy, borrow or steal. It is an inheritance.

I remember seeing this book on my father’s shelf. As a child — I must have been 10 or 12 at the time — this book scared me, because of its cover. That expressionless face, with those empty marble-eyes devoid of focus; celtic-like tentacles flowing out, where hair should have been. The stony under-eye-textured face, and those tentacles again, that slid dreadfully to the back cover creepily intertwining a screaming skull. In my immature mind, Demian was another word for a Demon.

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Years later, when I first left the country for a long-term assignment, fifteen years ago, I took this book with me. I remember the time, when, with much trepidation, I opened the book; my childhood fears still alive and begging me to close the book. In a foreign country, alone, afraid, adventurous, audacious, and animated at the same time, I added to the excitement and the fear, and opened the book. At the end of the two-page prologue, I discovered:

The life of every man is a way to himself, an attempt at a way, the suggestion of a path. No man has ever been utterly himself, yet every man strives to be so, the dull, the intelligent, each one as best as he can. Each man to the end of his days carries round with him vestiges of his birth — the slime and egg-shells of the primeval world. There are many who never become human; they remain frogs, lizards, ants. Many men are human beings above and fish below. Yet each one represents an attempt on the part of nature to create a human being. We enjoy a common origin in our mothers; we all come from the same pit. But each individual, who is himself an experimental throw from the depths, strives towards his own goal. We can understand each other; but each person is able to interpret himself to himself alone.

~ Demian, Hermann Hessse, translated by W. J. Strachan, Granada Publishing Limited, first published in 1960; last reprint in 1976

This concluding paragraph of the prologue was hopeful, and frightening at the same time. The original fear had manifested itself, and I felt the presence of new invisible fears. What lies ahead; in the hundred-and-fifty-odd pages that I am to read? I can never know. Leaving the safety of home, when I asked my father, if I could take this book with me, he seemed happy as he handed the book to me. I remember little now, but perhaps, he was smiling. I think he knew that this book terrified me, as a child. But, if he was smiling, it wasn’t because of the irony, it was, perhaps because he sensed that it was the right time for me to read the book.

This book is unique, for me, because he never signed it; it is bereft of his marginalia. There is a small pencil-scribble on the first page. Top-right. ₹9.50. That’s what he must have paid for the book. There is nothing to say that this book was his and he read it, other than the fact that I know he did. Only a few sticky-notes (mine; I dared not enter marginalia in a book that did not belong to me; even now, I do not) stay glued, neatly above paragraphs, where some questions terrorised me. And this fear was different. It had nothing to do with the cover. It became real. I hoped that I’d have a conversation about these questions with him someday, but we never found the time. And without a spoken or a written word, that sudden day, his books were bequeathed to me and my sister. And we had to find our own answers, since that day.

Time passes. Our questions change. And therefore, our answers.

It’s time for Demian.

The Challenge

I don’t remember the last time a book challenged me.

Reading non-fiction, for a long time has, perhaps slowed me down. In a way, non-fiction is the book of answers, fiction is the book of questions.

This one book has me in a frenzy. For many reasons. One, it was written in a language that’s not native to me. It’s not alien though. Both my parents learnt this language, and were good at it. Two, it is written by a person who is known as the father of the revival of this language; I know little about his work, but I am learning. And I am fascinated. Three, it is historical. That should explain a lot, of my interest in the book. Yes, it’s fiction. Four, it was written about 125 years ago, and it is timeless, for it holds within it answers that society is asking today. If we can see it through our own eyes and not through a lense that belongs to another. Five, finally, the questions that this book asks of me, that are appearing in my notebook, are those that I do not recognise. I am excited of what answers will come.

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The Questions I Was Asked

But they’ll have to wait, those answers, I need to read two more translations before I know. And I think my life will thank me for it.

Moblogged. E&OE

Word’s Worth

A well-known person recently wrote a very ill-structured article, distorting history, and creating a hateful environment, all around. It was worse than a recently released film, which distorted history, but without any predetermined malice. This article, not so.

The nature, structure, and intent of the article disturbed me, I wrote a response. A really long response. A well-intentioned friend, encouraged me to publish it. It’s there, in my drafts.

I don’t want to publish it, however. At least not now.

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After I finished writing that article, and was proof-reading it, I thought of the time I spent thinking and writing about it. What was the time worth? If I had published it, nothing would have changed. I do not mean this in a defeatist way. Some like-minded folks would appreciate it, and then, in a month or so, we would move to the next outrage. Knowing (as in, about the person; not personally knowing) the person, nothing would change. That person will continue to spew hatred, irrespective. A few hundred words would not effect a change. There are enough problems in this world, and they need our help to be solved. And the way to solve these problems is through a concerted effort, not one-off responses.

For the Love of Writing

For the Love of Writing

In these same few hours, I could have written a better post, which is due, anyway. It’s sweet, interesting (to some of us), and informative. It’s part of a very long-term project I am working on. The limited time I get in a day to write, was wasted on a response to a confirmed bigot. Even if I wasn’t writing, I have a very interesting book, which I’d love to read. I’ve, mostly been able to ignore distractions from folks like the aforementioned bigots, but once in a while I succumb. Today was one such instance. I may have wasted my time, but I feel happy about my decision not to publish that article. In a chat, with my well-intentioned friend, I mentioned, that this is a slippery slope. I felt there was no turning back after I click, Publish!

At the edge, I saved myself.

Our time, our words, are worth much more than being directed at a worthless person or a worthless idea.

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On a separate note, I am taking cue from my dear friend, The Bum, and plan to write letters. On paper. With pen (or pencil). Using envelopes. Postage stamps. In India. Abroad. Wherever you are. If you’d like to receive and write letters, let me know your address by email. (You can get my email through a comment I have posted). If you have difficulty finding that, let me know, and we’ll find a way.

Our word’s are worth, much more.

Of Courtly and Carnal Love

A while ago, I was wondering, “What’s Underlying In The Underline” — a description of a conflict, of writing in books. Marginalia, to be precise and its various cousins.

Recently, Amit tagged me in a tweet:

My instinctive reaction was: NO!

I’ll admit, however, since my last post, however, I’ve been doing more of underlining (neatly) and making small notes in the margins (good handwriting), in pencil only.

Then, Rob Burdock, got into the conversation. We exchanged a few tweets, and the conversation, though short, was very sweet and interesting. Rob, then shared an essay with me. I read it.

[Imagine a very long pause. A really long pause.]

Sacred Games
Given the length of the essay, it is the most compelling essay I have ever read. I felt an urgent need to return to my books and underline and add notes to all the books I have ever read. An almost impossible task, given the books I have read. A few days ago (i.e. before I read this essay), I was reading a book, for an article I have been researching for my latest adventure — The Custodians. I was quite excited about the topic and I began slashing underlines defiantly, adding notes here and there, circling dates and names of them, who caused history. It was as if, I was myself of fifteen years ago, copy-editing a storyboard. (I know it is hard to believe). Just four pages down, I felt an acute pain, heavily underlined by a new-found guilt. I could no more do it. I went back to the first page, erased all the graffiti (yes, it was a pencil), and calmly restarted marking the lines neatly, slowly, with care. Therefore, the book isn’t finished and my neat markup continues; needless to say, the article is delayed.

And then, couple of days ago, I read this essay. I shared it with The Bum. He agreed wholeheartedly with me.

I don’t know about you, but if you love books, this essay is a must read. If nothing, at least to know the idea behind the title of this post.

Download the PDF of “Never Do That To A Book” by Anne Fadiman. And many thanks to Rob!

It All Comes Together

Bugis Junction

Bugis Junction

It was early in 2000 or 2001 that I took this photo. As the caption (on Flickr) says, “A photo that has eluded me for long. I probably took more than sixteen pictures of this place. I wonder why…” These were the days before the digital camera, when you can take a few hundred photos of one thing, choose the best, and happily delete the others. Film photography was expensive, and perhaps that is why we spent more time composing a photograph and ensuring perfect exposure. But it never comes easily to an amateur. Some exposures (photos) will go bad.

As you can see, I still didn’t get it right, after sixteen exposures. Yet, this has remained one of my favourite photos. Why this place and this name fascinated me then, was also a mystery. (Fifteen years ago, I wasn’t inclined as much to curiosity as I am now.)

Cut to today, after that evening with an elusive photograph, fifteen years later.

I am reading The Spice Route, and early into the book, one and a half decades later, I see the word again. Instantly the elusive photograph comes to mind. Something about travel, photography, and reading, makes perfect sense.

Bugis.

By foreigners — Asian or European — seeking to usurp control of the most obscure extremity of the spice route, all such indigenous operators would be termed ‘pirates’, a pejorative freely applied to any rivals and especially to local seafarers who attempted to defend what they considered their own territorial waters and maritime rights. The Bugis of Makassar, in particular, invited obloquy. Master-shipwrights and excellent navigators who were supposed to be able to detect a reef purely by smell, they darted in their rakish prahus (sailing vessels, sometimes with outriggers) from unsuspected anchorages on the coasts of Borneo and Sulawesi to challenge all rivals. Against monopolistic Europeans the Bugis would continue to wage a rearguard action well into the nineteenth century, by which the term ‘bogey’ or ‘bogy’ was entering common English usage. This may have been a coincidence; but allusion to the spice trade being not uncommon in nursery rhymes, those who as children were hush-hushed to bed by ‘here comes the Bogey-man’ may well originally have been threatened by a ‘Bugis-man’ who, at the helm of a piratical prahu, would certainly ‘catch you if he can’. ~ The Spice Route, John Keay

The online-etymology dictionary that I frequent often, has a different tale. But I did find other references for the etymology of ‘Bogey.‘ The disagreement about the etymology notwithstanding, it was an excitable moment for me, to encounter the word.

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I am enjoying the coming together of my travel, photography, and reading. The fascination with a word or an image, the context and meaning coming to you, years later, is a wonderful experience, even if it is not new. I recently told a friend, that I watch movies twice; just like I want to visit places, at least twice.

There are times when you can visit places again, without actually going there, and that’s a fine feeling.