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India – No Country for Dissent – `I am frustrated by the impotence of writers’ 

They’re too busy chasing awards, promoting books, says Shashi Deshpande
Of what use is creative writing? The general under standing is that it comes under the umbrella term of culture -something you enjoy when you have time, money and nothing more important to do. But there is also the idea of the writer as a thinker, an intellectual; a shaper of opinions. In India, especially , because of the long connection between literature and religion, writing has been imbued with a special aura, and writers with a greater wisdom.I am on the side of those who declare that writing is the writer’s form of activism. Centuries ago, Kalidasa declared that “drama is not a popular method of preaching“. Drama, he says, is the “study , not the moral of life“.

However, there is no doubt that writers can make an impact on the social and political life of the nation by using their reputations as thinkers and writers. Have our writers done this? I am forced to admit that writers in our country are, unfortunately , not playing the role that we should be playing. When I look at the contemporary scene, it seems to me that writers make no impact at all. There are many reasons for this, some of which are outside the writers’ control. One is that there are too many voices speaking out today: politicians, journalists, celebrities, the media, the many specialists. This is a good thing. But it does mean that it is hard to hear the writer’s voice in this cacophony of voices.

There’s this too -the mystique surrounding the writer has all but disappeared. Writers are now seen at so close at hand that there is no longer any awe surrounding them. By making the writer a celebrity , the media has weakened the writer’s role and taken away to some extent, her freedom. To want to be known and to be known -both these erode the writer’s freedom. Fame brings its own pressures and Virginia Woolf ‘s words say it beautifully: “Now I think Shakespeare was very happy in this that there was no impediment of fame, but his genius flowed out of him.“

There are many other pressures.The myth of the writer’s freedom is as strongly entrenched in human minds as that of the pen being mightier than the sword. “Behold there is no calling without a director except that of the scribe and he is the director“ -these words come from ancient Egypt and tell us that the idea existed even then. However, I am sure they were as little true then as they are now. Freedom comes only with money . In earlier times there were patrons who helped writers to survive. A salaam, was enough to keep the patron happy and the writer could go on with her work; I’m quite sure a clever writer was able to write what she wanted. But, today , the writer has to please many more people -publishers, readers, journalists and reviewers, etc., for writing is as much a market-driven profession as any other. In addition, there is also an urgent need to be on the right side of the government. For, to write, to be published and to be read is not enough; there are prizes and awards to be won, committee memberships to hanker for, political appointments, possibly travels abroad.

Writing, I am afraid, has become a self-promoting activity. To see writers hankering for rewards is to lose faith in their ability to play any role beyond a selfish one. I am extremely suspicious of awards -especially governmentsponsored ones. I see them as a kind of slow poison destroying the strength of literature, which comes from the direct response of readers to the writing. When awards -which are always subjective and too often political and biased -mediate between the writing and the reader, this necessary connection be tween the two is destroyed.

But, to me, a problem greater than all these is the way writers have lost confidence in themselves, in their ability to play any role at all. I myself am consumed by enormous doubts about my writing making any impact on anyone. Does anyone read what I write?
Does it mean anything to a reader? I remember my own anguished helplessness after what happened in Gujarat. What could I say? Who would listen?
In any case, how often do we hear writers speaking out on major issues?
When I see a letter to the editor signed by a list of august names, I am filled with despair; it seems to spell out the pathetic limit of the writer’s role.Politicians have, I think, very accurately gauged the impotence of writers; they don’t give a damn for their opinions. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that there is no place for the intellectual, for the reasoned balanced opinion in a democracy . A single voice has no value; only numbers matter. In our own country , we are seeing how gradually and insidiously the fabric of our society is being damaged by dividing people on the basis of caste, religion and language. What have writers been able to do about this? I am frightened by the way the idea of this country as one of multiplicities is being eroded, of how slowly the idea is being circulated of a country of one people, one religion etc. I am frustrated too by the inability , the impotence of writers and intellectuals to contest this idea.

I doubt whether writing can change anything. For example, even after so much has been written about feminism, people still equate it with hating men, abandoning families, lesbianism, etc.The truth is that a writer by herself, can achieve very little. Nothing, in fact.Woolf, speaking of masterpieces, says that they are not solitary births, but the outcome of many years of thinking in common by the body of people; the experience of the mass, she says, is behind the single voice. I know how true this is when I think, once again, of the feminist movement. It was the effect of the voices of writers, academics, journalists, lawyers, activists, and ordinary women speaking together, that finally made some impact. The writer matters as part of a group and can spearhead a movement. By articulating ideas with great clarity , she makes it possible for others to identify with what she is saying. And often, the writer, by first articulating an idea, builds a platform on which others can stand.

However, there is this too: unless people are ready to hear what is being said, the words make no impact at all.It happened in the dalit movement and the women’s movement, where the writing kept pace with the general trend of feeling. But these are rare examples.Writers have not been able to use their stature as writers and thinkers to form a collective voice that carries weight.The trouble is that the writing community in our country is a splintered group -caste-ridden, as well as language and gender divided. Yes, sadly , writers too look upon women’s writing as being less significant, less intellectual.

However, I do believe that there is a role which writers continue to play ,a very important role which is not connected to society as a whole, but to the individual human being. For one thing, a writer gives voice to the voiceless.

I don’t think a book can change a person’s life but sometimes a book, through a kind of identification, can spark off an understanding of herself in the reader. If writing is a quest, the reader is a partner who travels with the writer. As Kafka puts it, “ A book ought to be an axe to break the frozen sea within us“.

Exclusive extracts from “The Writer as Activist“, essay published in Guftugu

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