My World, My Writing

What is life? Does life have a meaning and purpose? Who or what am I? These are all of course interrelated questions and questions that have troubled human minds from the time the mind, the self or the ‘I’ consciousness emerged on earth.

The various attempts to answer these questions over the centuries may be roughly brought under the disciplines of science and arts. But I’ll talk briefly only about science and literature which has some bearing on the subject at hand.

Both science and literature have created particular images for themselves. While these images may not be antagonistic to each other, yet they are pitched in opposition to each other, usually privileging science over literature.

The popular belief—which is generally propagated—is that science is intrinsically related to the ideas of truth, reality and knowledge, and that it is an objective discipline; while literature is seen as related to fiction, myth and imagination, and that it is a very subjective practice. In effect, science has appropriated the notions of reality, truth and knowledge within its domain and activities.

Literature has been a smug participant in this epistemological game and it seem to have gleefully accepted its role as one dealing with not a real but unreal, fictional world. This idea of literature which stands in opposition to truth is incorrect and needs to be set right.

These ideas or images of science and literature are not only problematic but evidently untrue. The unmasking of these images should reveal that science is in a surreptitious relation with ‘fiction’ and subjective imagination, and it owes a lot to myth and literature which have been the major source of knowledge of life and the world.

As a matter of fact, both science and literature are different modes of describing and understanding the world and both build their discourses on the real, the imaginary and the fictional. The main and only difference between them being that while science is called upon to justify or offer justifications and prove the verifiability of its ideas or theories, literature is not put to such a test.

In other words, literature is not expected to justify what it does, although it is immersed in a complex relation with reality, and it is involved in both producing and perpetuating the knowledge about reality. Hence, as Sundar Sarukkai, a fine thinker, puts it, the writers have to acknowledge their indebtedness to ‘the ideas of reality, knowledge and objectivity, terms which have been excessively appropriated by science. In other words, literature can no longer hide and protect itself within the ambit of the subjective and the fictional, but must take responsibility for what it really does in the space of knowledge.’

What is on literature?

Let’s say literature is all about talking of life, rather, of our living in the world, literature itself being a part of that living, a part of social practice.

Literature speaks in different tongues, different genres, different forms and styles, and over centuries, there have been innumerable, some great, some forgettable, experiments in this process. 

A writer may find the old form—be it in poetry or plays or story telling—inadequate, even constrictive, to say what he or she wants to say; hence the innovations, and the production of new understanding or perceptions of life become possible.

Knowledge is encapsulated in language. And a writer is a fine user of language. Language, or knowledge of reality and the world is not a given, like the natural world, but something humans have produced or constructed through the energies of the body-mind over millions of years. In short, knowledge is a construct. We live, say and do what we say and do within the field of such knowledge.

So then, how does a writer (the writer himself or herself being an embodiment of that knowledge) use this knowledge to talk about the world and living?

Here in comes the question of responsibility, also ability, of a writer.

Whether we write historical novels, poetry, script plays, or produce crime thrillers or science fiction, we are already always talking of life. It is an escapable fact; what else can it be? And, whether we realize and accept it or not we are dealing with notions of reality and truth and through what we write we are constantly adding our bit in the space of knowledge.

If we take for granted the given knowledge as final, unquestionable, then we’ll be reproducing what is already there: the same pictures or images, the same stories of sadness, of tragedy, of joy, relationships, war, murder, love, sacrifice and so on and putting on them the same conventional interpretations, which will be like going round and round in circles, which may be very exciting and even fetch some good money for doing it.

But, when we know that the world is not what it appears to be, that love may not be what they say it is, murder may not be what the legal system says it is, relationship is not what we think it is and fight for, cricket matches or films are not mere forms of entertainment, then, we’ll look for clues, upayas, which should enable us to look at the world differently and talk about it in an open way. In other words, when we see that the world is like a story, rather, a story but a story within a story like circles within circles, and that there are several layers to these stories, some of which may lay hidden, yet to be explored and unfolded, then we would be looking at or perceiving the world differently and writing about it.

Of course, a major portion of our literature is all about the world as it is, but at a superficial level and quite stereotypical or conventional. I have no issues with such literature, simply because that is how things are and they may have a huge entertainment value. But I have in mind writers who think differently and write differently. There are writers, who, like good scientists and thinkers, are involved in the creative process of questioning the given, innovating new forms and styles, and they have produced narratives which have enriched our understanding of life and the world.

It has been my constant endeavour to tread that path, and that in short, has been the burden of my writing: To produce narratives that can offer new insights into life and thereby new ways of experiencing and being in the world.

That said, I’ll end this little talk now by giving you a small passage from my recently published novel: In Search of Shiva.

The fires atop the poles at the four corners of the stage hissed like the mythical seven-headed serpent. In his dark-yellow turban that shimmered like unalloyed joy, Bahurupi stood at the centre, telling his story.

One day, I met Allama Prabhu and introduced myself. Mischief glinted in his eyes when I called myself a storyteller. He already knew about me and I felt truly flattered. And then getting on to my business, I begged him for his story.

He laughed a laugh that was at once mocking and affectionate. He said, ‘Sorry, there’s no story.’

But you know I’m not the type who would take such a reply for an answer. I’m like a gravedigger, who’ll not stop digging until he finds something to play with. So, as I kept persisting and pestering him with questions, at last, Prabhu asked, ‘How will you tell a story? When and at what point does a story begin, eh? There is no point. Forget it. You do not know, you cannot know.’

I said, ‘Prabhu, you are destroying the very ground on which my living is based. You should not be so unkind. Give me a clue or something with which I can begin.’

He stopped me with a wave of his hand, and said, ‘When the sky is the palmyra leaf and wind the story, what will you say and where will you begin?’

I said, ‘Prabhu, that is a beautiful metaphor!’

He said, ‘All stories are metaphors in frames of time and space.’

I said, ‘So at least you agree there are stories, though we may not know where and how to begin.’

Laughing, he gurgled, ‘Stories within stories within stories, eh? You are a charming liar.’

I said, ‘Prabhu, I tell stories to make a living and pass my time. I have no other talent, you see.’

‘That’s all right,’ he said, with an approving smile. ‘Go and tell your stories. But, remember, you really cannot tell the full story of anyone or anything, not even your own, let alone of someone called Allama.’

~ * ~

My World, My Writing

Mukunda Rao

A paper presented in

Writer’s Meet, March 5, 2011.

Trivandrum.