Words: Ankita Anand
Visual: Sanika Palsikar
Edit: Tanushree Baijal
When you have done a bit of activism, writing or reading starts seeming like a luxury, even before others point it out to you. This is so because writing takes place in stillness, the opposite of movement or action. But then stillness is not the same as inactivity. The title of an Indian play called ‘Still and Still Moving’ comes to mind. You can be moved even when you are still. You need to be still in order to be moved.
Keep moving and you won’t confront what you feel about the beggar on your street or the news report about the gang rape or the unpleasant conversation with your family. Movement can be numbing on these occasions; the wounds don’t heal, you stop feeling the pain temporarily. When you remember, it is shooting, with the vengeful, jagged ends of a lightning streak, through one bloody, pus-oozing mass. It suffocates clear thinking and creates a burning thirst for onomatopoeia, shoving you towards a noisily chaotic act like violence. You want to see the accumulated pain get demolished but that’s not what you are attacking. Your target becomes whatever comes in the line of vision or in the venom of provocation.
Writing then becomes holding oneself, pausing, saying ‘It’s ok, it’s ok, together we’ll make sense of this, we’ll crack this.’ It’s acknowledging the existence of pain, which thrives in invisibility and wordlessness and starts to crumble away as we begin seeing it in the eye.
Reading is similar. For days on end I won’t have a book in life because I’d be overestimating movement. A point comes of such uncentering that even in, rather, especially in the midst of a panting schedule I’d drop everything till I start and finish a book. It gives me a story to be part of, it makes me whole. Toni Morrison is a beloved scribe to me because she clothes pain in words and makes its wounded nakedness bearable. These lines from her book Beloved sums up my relationship with books, “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”
Both writing and reading are conversations. When reading we are listening to someone. If what they are saying relates to us, we also start talking to the story, telling it our secrets, woes, thinking “and that’s exactly how I feel”. Writing is first a conversation with the self, and then an extended hope of finding someone else to talk to.
How can this be removed from reality? Isn’t that the dream, to be able to solve world’s conflicts through dialogue? When faced with a mob of rioters, I’d like to be able to stop them and say, “Could we talk about it?” Of course that too is a dream. But the reason it seems unrealistic – the halting of the rioters – is because, by never having paused earlier, they have got to a stage where numbness is the only victory to be had. They don’t want a break now because then their own dreams and pain would flood them. They don’t realize that if they keep their head up for a while the waters would subside, and then they can grieve and breathe and not be out of breath anymore.
After writing wooed me as a child, in my adulthood for several years I continued to love it but committed to it discreetly and intermittently, “The world would never accept our love” is what I resignedly admitted to the art when everyone else had gone to bed. This happened when I got out of home to attend college and the inequalities of a small town paved way for the shameless class chasms of a big city. I thought I had paused long enough in my sleepy town, where I had started getting tired of my self-deprecatory writing about my privileges. Now I wanted to move, not to be the apolitical intellectual but the political activist, a term I simultaneously aspired to and rejected because I felt I could never meet its expectations. I thought writing is important and has some value but wondered how effective it could be to write in a country where so many cannot even read. I decided that going out there and getting your hands dirty through activism is the least one could do to respect and support people’s struggles.
But by relegating writing-reading to the realm of the elite, we also undermine the potential of the struggling classes to use existing literature to their advantage and create some of their own. Reading is the precursor and writing, a method of articulation. It suits governments to run ramshackle government schools the poor are not inspired to go to, to stifle their channels of articulation and beat children up when they demand that they be taught better. Then the state tells writers that writing is finery that does not accommodate lived realities.
Politicians claim to represent the poor by using another kind of writing – policies and laws drafted in so complicated a manner that they trip over themselves and trump the regular writers and readers. It could be said that middle class writers too should not claim to adequately speak for the poor. If so, it becomes all the more important for the poor to articulate themselves. For that, we don’t need to embarrassingly hide our books but to send them to the fields and the factories, in eager anticipation of receiving them back with notes in the margins, and critiques, challenges and rejections of the narrative in the end pages.
Writing doesn’t have to be related to pedigree or degree. Manoranjan Byapari of West Bengal became literate when in jail and wrote a book that became the talking point of multiple literature festivals in the country. A clear mind, which has nothing to do with literacy, would string together words that reflect that mind’s clarity. This has already been happening in oral narratives, ancestors’ tales, traditional plays and dances, and songs. But this cultural articulation is cleverly dismissed by the decision makers as non-serious, a method not of communication but of entertainment. In a political scenario, a drab presentation by the mediators would be accepted, but a brilliantly executed play on the same issue by the first hand sufferers won’t receive any space. Is it not then important that the poor start writing and speaking directly to their oppressors and, soon after, make space for their cultural representation?
The other side of this attitude to art and culture, more in cities, is to encourage art in such a way that it becomes a form of entertainment and intellectual revelry for the elite. The worker will have no time to either watch these performances or create her own. When striking workers of an automobile factory, Maruti, came up with a play on labour rights and the company’s violations, they stepped outside the role thrust upon them by their employers and the state and became writers, directors, singers, actors -“creatives” who did churn out material on their employers’ command but produced work that was a pausing, a reflecting upon their lives, a sharing with fellow beings and an assertion that if this be the only choice then this is no alternative at all.
The books don’t have to apologize for existing in a world suffering hunger, homelessness and war. They need to get recycled and go back to the printer, the typesetter, the pulpwood farmer who can put into plugged ears the thoughts that they want to continue farming pulp and that forestland need not be destroyed for it. The books and the pens must stay and plot their sepia mutiny to vanquish hunger and homelessness and war.
Ankita Anand is a journalist-writer-poet based in Delhi.