The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 31, 2003

How viable is it for writers to be activists?
Suresh Kohli

Shashi Deshpande (extreme left) at a literary seminar
Shashi Deshpande (extreme left) at
a literary seminar

ONE always thought Shashi Deshpande was a very clear-headed person. That was the message evident in almost all her fictional writings. Her characters were normal, though not necessarily rational and level-headed, human beings struggling to find their ways through tricky as well as simple mundane situations. Their actions governed by the demands of the situations they almost always inexplicably found themselves in. Actions that were neither warranted, nor determined, not even desired but forced by situations and circumstances. But then a writer is not necessarily the person he or she appears to be through the writings.

One found Shashi to be an out-of-the-ordinary middle-class woman. A writer who consistently grew in stature by the strength of her writing, by the determined approach of her feminine characters in particular, though not necessarily so because she has handled the male protagonists also by the same narrative technique, and characteristic singular sense of rational, perceptive thought. This feeling got substantially strengthened when one got to film her in her natural surroundings in Bangalore a couple of years ago. She seemed like any other middle-class woman going through the daily domestic chores with the proficiency normally associated with lesser mortals of her gender. But she was a different person once she left all that behind and spoke to the camera. She was angry, hurt. Her look changed with her response and the amount of venom she spit at those she felt had read her wrongly. She had a role to perform, she seemed to suggest, as thought after thought came as a rejoinder to the hurting comments hurled at her. At least those she found unpalatable, and uncharitable.

So reading the text of a talk she recently delivered at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore came in as a bit of surprise. The surprise was in the often contradictory stance of her otherwise well-thought-out presentation, which even if somewhat simplistic was not without rational arguments. The simplistic arguments come in questions like: Why does one write? What's the role of a writer in society? Where does the reader fit in? Is he/she communicating a message? If there is a message, what is its form? Is it socially relevant? What is its import in the Indian context and of its reformist temperament? But what she does not address herself to is the relevance of the role of the writer as a reformist, and therefore, the activist nature of writing. She also does not seek to contextualise, especially with regards to her own writings, the sheer absence of all those factors she feels are the meat and fodder of the creative writer in the Indian context. What also does not emerge from the text of the presentation is the realisation or awareness of the fact of the message being communicated to the reader. Or to put it more boldly, has creative literature — despite a brave attempt — succeeded in influencing even a segment of a society at any point of time? That is to ask, has creative writing ever crossed the arena of entertainment to become an instrument of social change?

Deshpande, after herself questioning the available evidence of a writer wanting to play a social role, succumbs to a subconscious desire on his/her part to do so. "Nevertheless, the idea that the writer is and should be an activist is strongly entrenched in our minds and writing which espouses a cause becomes significant because of this factor alone. Certainly in our country, no one, least of all a writer, can ignore the social and political realities. And most writers, good writers, that is, do not ignore them. But it is their effect on a person that interests the writer. And for writers who are activists, such activities are part of their personal agendas. They do not make these issues the subject of their work, they see them indirectly, through human lives`85To me, the writer's integrity is far more important than any avowed purpose." Isn't there a major contradiction here, my dear Shashi?

First of all, who is going to decide what's good and what is bad? The writer, or the critic - or both? Because it is they who are going to be concerned about what you describe as "carefully structure". Since when has a reader, the not-so-discerning reader, ever bothered about what's good and what is bad literature? For had that been so then what Shashi describes bad literature wouldn't interest a reader as it would be lacking in integrity and conviction, and "structured for a purpose". Even if that purpose is purely holistic entertainment and not social or political reform. And it is a well-known fact in the international market that the writer creating with the sole intent of entertaining as his avowed purpose is the one who lives by his writing alone, and not the one who structures his work for social, political or religious reforms, who sees himself as an activist, who takes himself too seriously, or is taken too seriously.

Is Shashi Deshpande confused, or has she begun to take her role as a writer too seriously? Or has she started to wear a mask while formulating theories. "The creative writer, unlike the historian or the social/political analyst, explores the gaps, the silences, the ambiguities, the complexities, the contradictions - and this, not to get to any kind of a conclusion. What matters is understanding and, possibly, reconciliation. Articulating this is a kind of activism. In fact, writing is the writer's form of activism. However, writers can have an influence on the social and political life of the nation because they are, undoubtedly, thinkers and opinion-makers. Have our writers done this? I have to admit that writers in our country (I include myself) are, unfortunately, not playing this role." To do this, dear Shashi, writers, especially creative writers, to be able to sell their books, have to find readers first. Even in a country of a billion plus potential readers, most writers take decades to sell their first editions. And what opinion can a writer propagate through his/her writing if the class that has the responsibility of implementing ideas boasts of illiterate paan-spitting criminals masquerading as leaders?

So shouldn't the writer reform himself/herself first? Shouldn't activism begin with the writing itself? Is it the drowning cacophony of voices, or the deafening sounds relating to success and ‘celebrityhood’ that are driving away writers from their professed intent, or whatever?

(photo by Subhash Bhardwaj)