Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Naipaul on travel writing

Naipaul writes in this article in the Guardian of how he conceived and wrote India: A Million Mutinies Now, one of my favorite books. I always find myself disagreeing with Naipaul when I read his non-fiction or hear of his arrogant, unsubtle opinions in interviews. But there is something in the way he looks at things and reaches out to people that repeatedly draws me to his work. His travel writing – especially his later work: A Turn in the South and India: A Million Mutinies Now – is built entirely from narratives constructed from what people have to say. Indeed more than half of these books are direct quotes from people from all walks of life: people in cities and villages, people involved in struggles for social justice, the elite, entrepreneurs, administrators, religious figures, politicians and many more. In this wonderful paragraph that summarizes his view of serious travel writing, Naipaul talks about people and narratives:
"Ideas are abstract. They become books only when they are clothed with people and narrative. The reader, once he has entered this book and goes beyond the opening pages, finds himself in a double narrative. There is the immediate narrative of the person to whom we are being introduced; there is the larger outer narrative in which all the varied pieces of the book are going to fit together. Nothing is done at random. Serious travel is an art, even if no writing is contemplated; and the special art in this book lay in divining who of the many people I met would best and most logically take my story forward, where nothing had to be forced."
Naipaul’s travel writing is unsurpassed for the sheer number of people he has spoken to, and whose thoughts he has meticulously jotted by hand; some of the conversations in his books run on for many pages. Such labor and perseverance! I had always wondered about how he had achieved this. In the article Naipaul explains his way of approaching people while travelling:
"I have often been asked about note-taking methods during the actual time of travel. I used no tape-recorder; I used pen and notebook alone. Since I was never sure whether someone I was meeting would serve my purpose, I depended in the beginning very often on simple conversation. I never frightened anyone by showing a notebook. If I found I was hearing something I needed, I would tell the person I wanted to take down his words at a later time. At this later time I would get the person to repeat what he had said and what I half knew. I took it all down in handwriting, making a note as I did so of the setting, the speaker, and my own questions. It invariably happened that the speaker, seeing me take it all down by hand, spoke more slowly and thoughtfully this second time, and yet his words had the rhythm of normal speech. An amazing amount could be done in an hour. I changed nothing, smoothed over nothing."
Update: And here's a review of Naipaul's new book A Writer's People.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The price of pencils

I happened to win the second prize in a writing contest organized by Helen Chen (thanks very much to her for putting it all together) and sponsored by the Rochester Public library (in Minnesota). The contest was open to the public; it was judged by some writers who live in the region. The theme was family, broadly interpreted, and the entry had to be no more than 1200 words. My submission is below; it is a memoir from my days in Ahmedabad in western India.

It was through pencils that I came to know of the financial insecurities of my parents. I was in primary school, and we were allowed to use only pencils for our daily work. I was careless and lost so many of my pencils that my mother hid them in the closet; she scolded me severely every time she lent one to me. I learned to value pencils: each one sharpened unevenly with a knife and used until it was a stub that you couldn’t grip anymore. But I learned to value them even more after my father made it clear to me one afternoon – unequivocally and in dramatic fashion – just how much their price was and what that price meant to him.

That afternoon, I rode my bicycle to the stationery store to buy a new packet of pencils. I chose the usual bonded lead ones; the red and black stripes on them smelled wonderfully of paint over wood. When I returned home, the change I thought I had brought back was missing. It was only five rupees – just more than ten cents today, but money nevertheless. My parents weren’t happy. My father and I went back to the stationery store; something in his demeanor suggested that my folly had been a serious one. We asked the cashier, a dark man with glasses, if I had left behind my change. He searched the cash register perfunctorily and shook his head.

My father took me just outside the store.

“Where is the money?” he asked me.

I was trembling; I had no answer. My father scolded me only rarely but I had always feared his silences more than I feared my mother’s frequent reprimands.

“Where is the money?” he asked again, louder this time, and slapped me.

I began to sob uncontrollably. The stationery store and the shops around were busy with people who were now beginning to look in our direction. I was conscious of their presence; it worsened my humiliation and helplessness. My father slapped me again.

The cashier, who had been watching all this and who perhaps wasn’t too enamored of publicity of this sort, called us and said that he wouldn’t mind giving us the money. My father might have taken the money – I am not sure. Strangely for such an eventful day, I do not have any memory of what followed afterwards. The incident itself stands out in my memory, but nothing immediately before or after it has stayed with me.

It was only later – the passage of time having put distance and perspective on things – that I began to understand the anxieties that had swirled to a focus that afternoon.

We lived at the time in Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat in western India. My parents had emigrated to Ahmedabad from the south Indian city of Chennai, in Tamilnadu, a few years ago. For nearly three years we had been tenants on the upper floor of house owned a joint family, but my parents had always wanted a place of their own. Veedu, or home, was at the heart of their middle class aspirations.

My parents soon bought a cheap, small flat in an area slightly away from the city-center of Ahmedabad. But almost immediately after we moved into the flat, my father had trouble at work and lost his job.

And my parents began to have doubts about their decision to buy the flat: it was unsettling to them that the owners of the other flats in the complex included a chauffeur and a maidservant. My parents were Brahmins, and their caste had given them a high sense of their worth; they felt uneasy living among people of other, traditionally underprivileged castes, who, in the decades after India’s independence, had slowly begun to assert themselves. Had my parents been in Chennai, walking its familiar streets, speaking a language they knew well, their extended families in the area always a comforting presence; in Chennai, such social changes might have been easier to absorb. But in Ahmedabad they felt they were alone.

The only Tamils who lived in close proximity to us were migrant workers who stayed in a messy slum that sprawled adjacent to our flats; they lived in huts that were a haphazard patchwork of sackcloth, wooden poles, and tarpaulin. They too had made an uncertain journey like my parents from southern India. But their poverty meant that we would always avoid them. Their Tamil, my parents said, was the Tamil of the slum: coarse, rough and loud. And we couldn’t speak our Tamil loudly for we feared that if they heard us, they would come knocking at our door, asking for money that my parents were struggling, and mostly failing, to save.

These things – the feeling that the neighborhood wasn’t nice; our forced lowering of voices, to stay incognito from the Tamil migrants who lived in the slum– these things were seemingly minor annoyances, but they weighed heavily on my father. My father was the only one who earned; he felt acutely responsible for how things had gone. He had invested savings from his previous job in the flat but he was now out of work. He pedaled twenty-five miles every day on my bicycle to an industrial town called Naroda in search of part-time jobs; he came back dejected and sweating profusely.

The incident with the packet of pencils happened around this time; and to my father, my carelessness, the easy way in which I lost my change, was an insult; it mocked the situation we were in. And it probably also mocked his efforts in a very personal way.

Our troubles continued in years that followed: my father found and lost jobs and we hopped through other cities in western and central India, each move necessitating difficult adjustments. All this time my father never spoke to me of that afternoon. It was only much later – more than a decade and a half later, just three years ago in fact, when our position was relatively secure – that he brought up the topic.

“Do you remember the afternoon when I hit you?” he asked, his face and his voice full of regret. His intent in asking the question partly might have been to see if I’d retained any rancor from what had happened. Since I was aware of this, I tried brush the whole issue aside, so I could convey, indirectly, that I had not carried along harsh feelings.

Our conversation, because of the awkward nature of the topic, didn’t proceed further. And so I wasn’t able to express to my father that that afternoon in Ahmedabad was important. Until then, I had been only peripherally aware of the difficulties that my parents faced; I had shut them away as only children absorbed in their own worlds can. But from then on, my parents’ situation was mine; their hopes, concerns, excitements, disappointments were mine as well. In its own inadvertent way, the incident with the packet of pencils had brought me closer to their world. And if only my father were to know of this, the guilt of that day might weigh less heavily on him.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The necessary vanity of a writer

Pankaj Mishra, author of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, says in an interview that writers have to believe in the importance of what they are doing, though such an idea is often delusional:
"... so much of writing is fed by vanity and the feeling that what you are doing is the most important thing in the world and it has not been done before and only you can do it. Without these feelings, many writers would not be able to write anything at all. If you think that what you’re doing is not all that important in the larger scheme of things and that you’re just an insignificant creature in the whole wide world, which is full of six billion people, and that people are born and die every day and it makes no difference to future generations what you write, and that writing and reading are increasingly irrelevant activities, you’d probably never get out of bed. You need to work yourself up into some kind of a state every morning and believe that you are doing something terribly important upon which the future of literature, if not the world, depends. Buddhism tells you that this is just a foolish fantasy. So, I try not to think too much about Buddhism early in the morning. From noon on, I think about it."
The full interview, in which Mishra talks about many different things, is here. Mishra says he used to read a 350 page book in 5-6 hours - that makes me jealous. I feel good if I can finish one in two weeks. And while I am at it, let me confess that I am also jealous of how prolific this young man is.

The illustration of Mishra above is by Charles Burns.