Pause, take a deep breath, write it down

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The world has moved too far in the morbid direction of the unexamined and unarticulated life. The reason we invented language was to solve each other’s problems by constructing consensus using shared words.

A great way to make sense of a world filled with uncontrolled chaos is to step outside of it and read a book by a burbling stream.

Indeed, it is interpretive communities rather than either the text or the reader, that produce meanings.

~ Stanley Fish, Is there a text in this class?


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 like hell 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 your line of vision, especially if it is tinged with the venom of provocation.

Writing then becomes holding oneself back, 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 at hand because I’d be overemphasising movement. With such uncentering, a tipping point comes where even in — rather, especially in — the midst of a hectic schedule I’d drop everything till I finish a book. It gives me a story to be part of, it makes me whole again. 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.”

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, punctuating the conversation with “that’s exactly how I feel”s. Writing is first a conversation with the self, and then an extended hope of finding someone else to talk to.


By relegating writing and 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.


How can this be removed from reality? Isn’t that the dream, to be able to solve the world’s conflicts through conversation, interaction and 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 this 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 buried desires and pain would flood them. They don’t realise that if they keep their heads 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 writing but committed to it discreetly and intermittently: “The world would never accept our love.” This happened when I got out of home to attend college and the inequalities of a small town made way for the shameless class schisms 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 grassroots activism was the least one could do to respect and support people’s struggles.

But by relegating writing and 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 that the poor are not inspired to go to, to stifle their channels of articulation and beat up protesting children 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 mesh that they trip over themselves, and stump 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 written in the hitherto blank end-pages.



Writing doesn’t have to be related to pedigree or degree. Manoranjan Byapari of West Bengal, India, became literate when in jail and wrote a book that became the talking point of multiple literature festivals in the country. An astute 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 performed by the first-hand sufferers won’t receive any space. Is it not then important that the poor should write and speak directly to their oppressors and, soon after, make space for their cultural representation?

The other side of this attitude towards art and culture, more so in cities, is to encourage art in such a way that it becomes a form of intellectual revelry or creative stimulation for the elite. The worker will have no time to either watch these performances or create her own. A few years back in India when striking workers of an automobile factory came up with a play on their issues, they stepped outside the role thrust upon them by their employers and the state, and became writers, directors, singers, actors — they were “creatives” who did churn out material on their employers’ command but also produced their own work that was a pausing, an act of reflecting upon their lives, of sharing with fellow beings, and an assertion that if this be the only alternative then this is no choice at all.

The books don’t have to apologise 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 drum it home into plugged ears that pulp farming doesn’t call for destruction of forestland. The books and the pens must stay to plot their sepia mutiny to vanquish hunger and homelessness and war.

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