Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Photo-Shopping Words- Lies, Damn Lies And Journalism



This essay has become too long, because I wanted to quote the references. Still, I suggest you read it in full. I quote Scott F. Fitzgerald here, to explain why you should-

We want to believe. Young students try to believe in older authors, constituents try to believe in the congressmen, countries try to believe in their statesmen, but they can’t. Too many voices, too much scattered, illogical, ill-considered criticism. It’s worse in case of Newspapers. Any rich, unprogressive, old party with that particular grasping, acquisitive form of mentality known as financial genius can own a paper that is the intellectual meat and drink of thousands of tired, hurried men, men too involved in the business of modern living to swallow anything but predigested food. For two cents, voter buys his politics, prejudices and philosophy.

It is an art to write Non-Fiction. It needs to carry the pretense of being objective and true, without being dull and boring. There is a wonderful book by Sol Stein he covers this part in great details. He talks about how dreary, factual piece of non-fiction can be brought to life with brilliant colors of life weaved around dead, soulless data. The writing in such case stands precariously on the thin boundary of fiction and non-fiction. I am an Engineer, or as they say, basically an Engineer. This essentially means I am not classically trained in the art of writing. This also means that my education in literature is ambiguous, arbitrary and essentially non-academic. My learning of writing is not limited by curriculum and my notes come from various sources. I came across the wonderful book Stein On Writing by Sol Stein in this process of trying to educate myself, which has this one full section on writing Non-fiction.

He mentions various techniques to bring impact and interest to dull reporting of plain data. He however, classifies as Literary Nonfiction. In the Indian context of media reports, almost all journalism is literary non-fiction. He writes- Literary nonfiction puts emphasis on the precise and skilled use of words and tone, and the assumption that the reader is as intelligent as the writer. 

However, in different context, it is also, at times based on the assumption that the reader is as dumb as the writer is smart. He says, “The nonfiction writer who becomes aware of the emotions elicited by cultural difference can use this power in representing people by well-chose class markers. Recently there was a big hullabaloo about noted journalist, who having seen the best days of adulation during Kargil, but now has come to  signify the worst of journalism to those who are termed as Right-wingers in Indian context, and who are largely kept out of public media, except for social media-Twitter, Facebook and  Independent Digital News media and blogs. This is what we usually call now media-spin or manufacturing the narrative- the class markers. She added to the description of Social media warrior, son of a headmaster to the reference she made to killing of Kashmiri terrorist, Burhan Wani, by Indian Forces. This is a perfect example of class marker.

The techniques of literary non-fiction cuts both ways. It serves the purpose of an interested writer by being present and at times, by being conspicuously absent. It creates interest, empathy, by being in the news and many times, by design, creates apathy and disinterest by deliberate absence. So while Burhan Wani was put into context, flesh and blood was rendered to a name, a terrorist’s name, Prashanth Poojary or Sujith, the RSS members (not termed as terrorist organization unlike Hizbul, which is a UN designated terror organization). They skip the details, the meat of the matter, and the victim is not humanized, thus the empathy neutralized, the concern is conflicted and the impact is numbed. It is not about lack of ability. The same set of big media houses manage both the stories, but the treatment they render to the two is totally different. If one really observes, it is pretty evident. There is no fault per se, in such blatant demonstration of leanings and biases, as long as one does not pretend to be unbiased and neutral. It is not the case of lazy reporting, nor is a case of lack of competence. How the other side of the reports are presented, tells us how the data is photo shopped to manufacture a narrative.

Going back to Sol Stein, he quotes a brilliant example, which I will take the liberty of quoting verbatim, before giving the example of media reports to bring the point home. He presents the report of heretic Queen of England, Mary Stuart’s execution. Here is how it would be reported in Indian media if in the current context, she were a Right wing supporter in India.

Mary Stuart came into the great hall, followed by her retinue. She climbed the steps to her chair, faced her audience, and smiled.

Now, using best of the techniques of literary non-fiction, here is how historian Garrett Mattingly writes the same even in The Armada:
She entered through a little door at the side, and before they saw her she was already in the great hall, walking towards the dais, six of her own people, two by two, behind her, oblivious to the stir and rustle as her audience craned forward, oblivious, apparently, of the officer on whose sleeve her hand rested, walking as quietly, thought one pious soul, as if she were going to her prayers. Only for a moment, as she mounted the steps and before she sank back into the black-draped chair, did she seem to need the supporting arm, and if her hands trembled she locked them in her lap, no one saw. Then, as if acknowledging the plaudits of a multitude, thought the hall was very still, she turned for the first time to face her audience and, some thought, she smiled.

This is so brilliant. The man who wrote it had not seen the event, had no way of interviewing anyone who had seen it. Still he creates a lively event, interspersing it with his biases, which no one technically can question. We look what various phrases tell and the truth and untruth of those sentences. The little door, walked before she is seen- She is a demure, helpless woman. We don’t have an unbiased, neutral account from the audience of that time. We tend to believe, that the writer here has. The woman is not only defenseless, she is also religious. We do not know which pious soul thought, but as per the writer, someone did think that it appeared as if she was going for a prayer. She is alone and proud (only for a moment did she need a supporting arm), scared but dignified and brave (if her hands trembled as she locked then in her lap, no one saw). We don’t know if her hands trembled, for no one saw, still it is reported. This is so amazing.

Now let us see how wonderfully (or not) it is applied by the journalists in today’s context.

I searched through the internet and here is how the hacking of RSS activist, 27-year-old young boy, was reported by leading media houses.
Times of India reported: “27-year-old RSS worker was hacked to death in front of his aged parents in Kannur district in poll-bound Kerala, triggering a blame game between BJP and CPM on Tuesday.” 
- Times of India:
What is most interesting is that the competing media house, reports the incident in exactly same words. 

- Hindustan Times


- Indian Express


What stands out here? There are three media houses, supposedly competitors, used the same writer to report the incident. All used exactly the same words. Is it is case of lazy reporting that the news is just passed on as received possibly from common agency. But then, see how they defined the victim. A 27-year old RSS worker- which person in this world is such a unidimensional personality. There is no name, we do not know if his smile traveled to his eyes (another masterpiece borrowed from Barkha Dutt’s description of JNU’s Kanhaiyya Kumar charged with sedition for calling to breaking up of nation and freedom of Kashmir, by violence), there is no description. We have just read the description of the Queen who was sentenced to death in 16th century. But, no, no one writes what Sujith looked like because as a writer somebody has decided that the reader ought not to feel for him. The headline ends with the mention of “blame-game” between BJP and Communists. It doesn’t even say the BJP has “charged” the communists with the murder of “young” man. While blame-game is scalar, charge is vector, directed to someone. It hovers in air for a while and quickly drops down in dust like a dead leave. A blame-game has no owner and places the responsibility on both parties, even on the victim, by becoming a ripe target for a worthy kill.

Compare what we know about Sujith with what we know about Rohith Vemula. We don’t even track his story, we track even his parent’s story. So in Sudipto Mondal essay, it begins 18 years back. Essay begins with summer afternoon and Rohith’s mother- sweet child of one, and one feels overwhelmed by the hardship such sweet child faces as an adult losing a young son. And then Rohith’s diary is quoted, gorgeous, sensitive writing. He laments being treated as a political tool. We feel sorry for the loss of such a sensitive, thoughtful soul. And Sujith- we don’t know if he ever had a diary. (http://www.hindustantimes.com/static/rohith-vemula-an-unfinished-portrait/)

Another post in HT says about Rohith- He was a part of historical resistance by Dalit-Bahujan communities against oppression that erases our culture, silences our voices, takes over our lives and stigmatizes them. To call him a child is to deny this history.

Imagine borrowing the flow and erudition from aforementioned Rohith Vemula’s report to Sujith- He was a part of historical resistance to the subjugation of Hindu thought which Voltaire said was so peaceful and innocent, that it was equally incapable of hurting others or defending themselves, forcing it to shrink over the centuries across the globe, under the garb of conversions during Mughal and British rule and secularism in modern world. An attempt to position it as political killing is to deny this child this history, which he shares with the slain kids of the Sikh Guru.

We also find such marvels of brilliant journalistic fiction in the way they wrote about Kanhaiyya and his India-bashing group. Priyamvada Gobal wrote in Guradian how “Hindu” nationalist government faces challenge from Kanhaiya who somehow leads the “coalition of progressive forces”. Readers, readers, would you want to be a part of coalition of progressive forces or not? will yous still side with a Hindu nationalist government (as if this government did not take oath on the constitution with secular preamble)? Author is asking without appearing to be asking, insisting that you take side. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/17/india-kanhaiya-kumar-watershed-freedom-intolerance-bjp-hindu .

Kanhaiyya was the band-wagon which everyone rode, from Shashi Tharoor to Barkha, given the opportunity it provided to the Zamindars of intellectual space and written pages to hit at Modi, but the cake was taken by DU professor, who wrote- Umar sees himself as a person without borders. He does not want to remain imprisoned by nationalities. He reminds me of Rachel Corrie, a young woman from the US who, oceans away from her home in Columbia, stood before an Israeli tank to save a Palestinian house from being bulldozed. 

The good professor pretends to have actually raised Umar Khalid as a child since he knows his self-perception, or to have acted as his psychiatrist. But then, let not the truth interfere with journalism. The idea is to do a verbal photo-shop, to manufacture a narrative, to carry and agenda. Most mentioned above are old news, old reports. However, what prompted me to write this was an article by Rakesh Ankit in FountainInk “History,as you like it. It poses as a report of a BJP event commemorating Syama Prasad Mookerjee. It actually is an opinion piece. It seeks to insult the BJP supporters, embolden BJP haters and drive the undecided away from BJP. It begins mentioning the event to pay respect to Syama Prasad Mookerjee as selfless patriot. The next sentence, writer says- whether he was either of the two, we need to examine. Syama Prasad had at least to careers, as lawyer and educationist besides becoming a lawmaker, he writes. The intent clearly is not to inform, rather to create an image of non-serious, non-committed politician for the late leader. He forgets that most Congress leaders were practicing lawyers and writers and newspaper editors those days, even if we do not go into the shell companies of Rahul Gandhi. He hints that the death of Syama Prasad was not a conspiracy, not even an accident. It was because he was a man unused to street struggle, landed, mistakenly, somehow in Kashmir’s unusual circumstances, resulting in his death. He could not bear the shock the alien land presented to the Bengali gentleman.

The lines are dropped, hints are made, carefully, smartly, surreptitiously. Prejudices are abound, though craftily covered. See this- These challenges by the manly Englishman to effeminate Bengali- he writes, hides quickly, saying he merely quotes, Mrinalini Sinha. Why? he doesn't stop to explain. He even writes, pompously that BJP, whose ideological forefathers had no role to play in India's freedom movement, are trying to claim the credit when none is due. Again, he doesn't explain why? Ideological link of BJP should stretch well to Lala Lajpat Rai, Malviya, Tilak and even Arya Samaji Ram Prasad Bismil. But then again, let us not allow fact to interfere with fiction.

For instance, I quote some very smart sentences, to help you sample how brilliantly the writer articulated a bias,

I gulp- what does Amit Shah read barring transcripts of taped conversations? Suddenly, I realize a policeman and a paramilitary shooter have taken position behind me.” He adds- “not out of interest in me but because the spot offers a 360 degrees view.” There is no pause. Still, the first part of sentence seems independent to the second, which is almost an afterthought. The idea of intolerance, arrogant power, lack of privacy (snooping), military state is immediately established. First sentence is a thought in writer’s mind, cannot be argued against on facts, second is false alarm, but still cannot be argued against as it is disowned by the author himself and discarded, once it has served the purpose. One immediately forgets that a reporter with such bile against the ruling dispensation is an invited get in a party function, which allows him to write a scathing piece and publish it in a well-circulated daily. Salute to the great piece of writing, criticizing something deeper than the Government, humiliating the ideology that makes the party in power. I wonder, if any right wing writer attended any Politburo meeting. If they did, Why did they not write like that? The line between truth and lie in today’s journalism is fairly thin, and gorgeous journalism is on one side of it, on the other is propaganda. There is no better name for it. 

Here is my tribute to Sujith, the young man hacked in Kerala and poorly reported by media (Click here to read)

My another write-up on similar subject - Nationalism and Intellectual Priesthood- Read Here

Monday, September 19, 2016

Post Uri Options and Attempts to Change Narrative

Most of us do not write for a living. Some who do, work with the words so long that words become their tool, their device for deception. They lose affection for words, the respect for words; for them words are weapon to control and rule over the world. They use them to manipulate the truth. But then, words are like guns. Guns don’t kill, people do. Words don’t deceive, people behind the pen do. Hyperbole is one such literary device which shoots in both the direction. War, or conflict, as they say, brings out the best and worst of us. It is true about our media as well.

Yesterday, there was a terror attack on a Military camp in Uri, Kashmir. As is the case with any conflict, it brought out the best and worst of us. Amid the din, with a numbing thought of eighteen caskets, wrapped in Tricolor, haunted most citizens. The government sat silent, except for perfunctory condemnation and assurance of definitive action. That was day one. People were too angry, too annoyed at the prolonged dithering on international policy especially with reference to a terror state right on our next door, a bankrupt nation, one-fifth the size of India, still propped up by the west as self-proclaimed guardian of Muslims across of world, irrespective of their nationality.

Writing anything against the public sentiment, overwhelmingly sad, furious and at the same time, frustrated was troublesome. That was day one. Day two, and the perverse play of politics came into play. Journalists began offering their advices ridiculing the possibility of military action. They weren’t worried much that most common citizens proposed non-military options. One Morning newspaper opened with the options to deal with terror coming from Pakistan. Hindustan Times proposed options available for India in the wake of this attack as below- (What Next? Read the HT Article )

Surgical Strike- Covert attack on Terrorist camps in Pak Occupied Kashmir. From readiness, from moral one-upmanship perspective, and to an extent, from technical feasibility perspective- this is a jingoist, but very difficult option. Further, in a country, where internal strife is causing so many death, and where US drones keep attacking with impunity, I don't think it will serve much purpose.

Hot Pursuit- Indian Forces going into Pakistan as retaliatory step. This was same as earlier one, only overt. The daily however, trashed its own proposition since unlike Myanmar opposing terror publicly, Pakistan has terror as official wing for aggressive diplomacy.

Diplomacy (Global)- Isolate Pakistan- HT clearly mentions this as attempt to isolate Pak globally by getting it declared as a terrorist nation. The option ignored our own role in this sanctions we propose others to impose on Pakistan. As we see, and have seen, Global powers are driven not by morality, rather by their own interests. It is hardly likely for them to their obedient stooge which allows them to trample on Pakistani sovereignty to pursue their design, whether it is about drone attacks or killing OBL. They are also going to see that the Pakistan envoy continues to enjoy hospitality and trade continues to flow through unilateral MFN between India and Pakistan.  No one can support you in your fight which you yourself are unwilling to fight your own fight.

Bilateral talks- Engage Civilian leadership of Pakistan. However, the article junks this idea, which surely is outlandish, but, and read carefully, it places the onus of impossibility of this impossible idea on Indian Government. It says this goes against New Delhi’s stated line. Thus implying that had India government not tied itself in knots, by its own public posturing this would have been a plausible option. This has been stemming out of a naïve Hindu hope of some goodness in all evil. It is foolish to treat Pakistan’s civilian leadership as separate from Army establishment of Pakistan. This Good cop- Bad cop act is just the face and we see even Pakistan is not much keen on continuing with the façade. So, an AK-47 carrying terrorist, becomes a hero for Nawaz Sharif and he calls the person out to destroy India a hero and calls for black day on his killing. It is absurd to continue treating civilian leader as last hope for humanity. Democracy in Pakistan is a sham; it is feudal and as blood thirsty as the military. Their job is to maintain goodwill and get alms for the military.

Other options they propose is back channel with Pakistani army, which is trying to make friends with your potential murderer, and aggressive posturing- Army mobilization like Operation Parakram, which is as absurd as it sounds, and which constitutes nothing but posing as a peacock until you get tired of it. 

Now, we have seen the options listed out here as only options available with Indian establishment against an enemy nation by a reputed daily. Barkha Dutt has almost gone on the lines of Digvijay Singh after 26/11. Malini Parthsarthy, another senior journalist is amused with the hullaballoo over 17 martyrs, since as per her, they join the army to die. Well, talking about what drives one’s career choices, one only wonders what drove these journalists to become journalists. Striving for truth or peddling the lies- they need to introspect. Slowly the machinery comes to action, a party releases statement linking attack with Kashmir, suggesting, India should begin talks with all stakeholders (which would of course, include those who felled these soldiers) on Kashmir. They are not wrong. The intent of terrorists is to get India talk of Kashmir and eventually leave it for them.  Barkha had earlier written an article on Government’s effort to talk to terrorists within constitution, provocatively asking- If not for greater autonomy, then what is the talk for? She should know, talk is about negotiation, and it need not go necessarily in one direction. My answer to her would be- talks could also be for lesser autonomy. The autonomy to the degree currently given has yielded no result. So obviously, case is pretty strong to have a negotiation around reduction of autonomy. Vajpayee doctrine has failed, there is no point in keeping revisiting it merely because it had better sounding slogans. As time passes, the failures of past begin to appear less pathetic, that is the case of Vajpayee doctrine. If yesterday were so perfect, today won’t be in such a mess. So please stop pleading for good old days, since they seem good only because they are not there.

There is sinister game of manufacturing the narrative happens. This has happened every time an attack happens from Pakistan. Debates will happen largely aimed at proving A) any one demanding visible action is a war-monger B) as a corollary to it, reject his or her plea for visible action, calling it war-mongering, and push for talks, more talks, people to people contact, exchange of art and culture. Essentially it is all a build up to prove everything a nonsensical demand of middle class, the non-public school citizens, and ensuring business as usual. The Industry flourish that way, interlocutors are appointed, money flows, until another attack. Hyperbole are used here. Hyperbole refers to the use of exaggeration as a rhetorical devise. However, it is not always used to build an argument. Sometimes it can be used to kill and demolish an argument. So the general demand of action on cowardly act of killing our citizen is converted into a hyperbole. It is pumped and pumped till it starts looking ridiculous, worthy of being dumped immediately. In a very interesting note by Christopher D. Johnson, he writes- “By pushing language beyond its ordinary limits, hyperbole devalues it, reducing speech to a shockheaded, arm-waving extremity from which no true, let alone clear, idea emerges.”  

The clarity of thoughts of most normal citizens on Twitter is amazing. The asks were easily doable and will be extremely, demonstratively and definitively scathing for Pakistan as a retort. Here is what common people sought on Twitter from Government as visible action-

1.      Declare Pakistan a rogue state. – Done. After frustratingly poetic condemning of Pakistan for terror acts, “Without naming it”, finally it has been done- Named and shamed.

2.     Send Pak Envoy back, recall Indian Envoy- Why have diplomatic relations with Pakistan. It is an enemy nation, irrespective and not because of Uri Attack. Burhan Wani was sworn enemy of India state, wanted so break Kashmir, which we say is integral part of India, away from India, and make it a part of theocratic state. Pakistan blatantly and brazenly supported him and his kind.

3.     Scrap Most Favored nation and End trade ties- We export around 3 Bn USD to Pak and import 0.6 Bn from Pakistan. Given the size of Indian economy, it hardly would matter, but coupled with two aforementioned points, will make the isolation complete. Post that when you go around the world, asking Us or Them, your words will make more sense. Close Wagah and Aman Setu. Maybe some Kashmiri apples will not reach Pakistani market, but let some apples rot to isolate our rotten apples. Then we can tell SAARC and other platforms we share, we will attend only if events are not in Pakistan soil. Make it a pariah for us. If we really consider soldiers as our brothers, how can we keep being civil to those who are not only killing our brothers, rather are quite proud and boisterous about it.

4.     Clean internal conflict zones like JNU.  Why not commemorating the martyrs by Government of India inside JNU, Jadavpur University and such places? Why not a parade commemorating the sacrifice of Uri at Lal Chowk? If we cannot manage that in our own territory, forget surgical strikes. If we are able to do this, we don’t need surgical strike.

The game of Journalistic industry is to keep it simmering. Ignore all these options, extend them to a hyperbole. Once it stops making sense owing to extreme interpretations, dump it; and present absurd options, which are impractical and eventually push the government into rejecting all of them. And thus, let the fun of track two diplomacy, and their own position of unchallenged thought-supremacy, continue. Using hyperbole, extremely practical suggestions are junked. I am an ordinary citizens- A small-time writer, the high priests of journalisms would say dismissively. But I observe, and I share it so the game is exposed, if not to all, to those who can take time to see the truth for themselves. It is high time someone did this, in however small way as possible. I can’t fight on border, I can’t possibly fight an election. But I can see, analytically and write. That I will. We need to be on our guards when we open the newspaper tomorrow. As George Orwell wrote- “But if thoughts corrupt language, language can also corrupt thoughts.” The cracks in the cabal is showing, but the cabal is still there. It controls the truth and I quote Orwell again- , “And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed- if all records told the same tale-then the lie is passed into history  and becomes truth.” Unfortunately in case of India, Party is the ecosystem of unhappy and scheming people whose established way of living as unchallenged, unquestioned feudal lords of public morality and public thoughts, who want to change the current government, whatever be the cost. Beware of their lies, lest it might become truth.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Madam Bovary's Eyes- Flaubert's Parrot - Book Review

Image result for flaubert's parrot


Some books are very hard to classify and categorize. This is one such book. Officially, it is a fiction, a novel. In terms of genre, it should be put in the same shelf as Cakes and Ale by Maugham or The Ghost Writer of Philip Roth, both I have read this year. But then, maybe not. The two are totally fictional, in terms of all the characters contained in them, even though they do have a writer as the central character. But then, that is all that has to do with writing. I don’t think we ever consider the writer’s profession as a central point of those novels. Also the characters are out and out fiction. That is where this book is different. It is about the giant of French literary history (and now, of English classical literature)- Gustave Flaubert.

            The characters and references are all real. Julian Barnes throws all his weight behind the genius who is the key protagonist in the fiction, follows the dictum of a perfect biography as mentioned by Flaubert in a letter in 1872, where he wrote, “When you write the biography of a friend, you must do it as if you were taking revenge for him.” Julian Barnes, although speaking through the character of Geoffrey Braithwaite, fights valiantly, with unwavering loyalty. Braithwaite is a British doctor, in his sixties, travelling to France, looking for Flaubert’s stuffed parrot, and tracing his life, through trains of France. But then this is not a non-fiction, and not a biography. We know it is not to be a biography, when early in the book, he muses, why not the writer as a person be left alone, and his work be allowed to represent him, once he is gone. He further writes about the impossibility of writing a biography of someone like Flaubert, when he writes, “What chance would the craftiest biographer stand against the subject who saw him coming and decided to amuse himself.

            The story begins with Braithwaite searching for the Parrot, which Flaubert borrowed while writing “Un Coeur Simple (A Simple Heart)”. However, once he begins dwelling into it, the writing- the process, effort and the art of it begins drawing him into it. The facts become vain, and from then on it levitates, it hovers above the point where fiction, fantasy and facts merge. The writer becomes the muse. We notice this transition when Barne as Braithwaite quotes from the scene of death of poor Fe`licite` from Un Couer Simple. Flaubert writes there, “There was a smile on her lips. The movement of her heart slowed down, beat by beat, each time more distant, like a fountain running dry or an echo disappearing; and as she breathed her final breath she thought she saw, as heavens opened for her, a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.” Gorgeous prose, but Barnes doesn’t stand their clapping, like a schoolboy, his mouth open in awe; nor does he succumb to convert this into a literary analysis. He goes after the writer, and the writing. He touches the exact nib of Flaubert’s exquisite pen and swims through the ink from which such wonderful words would flow. He gets into the process and writes- Imagine the technical difficulty of writing in which a badly-stuffed bird with a ridiculous name ends up standing in for one third of the Trinity, and in which intention is neither satirical, sentimental nor coy. He doesn’t evaluate the plot, nor measure the worthiness of the waving of the words; his discerning fingers run through the silk of those words. At this point, one can visualize, the ghost of the giant of classical literature, Gustave Flaubert, his six-foot-one frame, out on the verandah of that house in Rouen, France, with Julian Barnes, sitting at his feet, his head resting on his knees, as Flaubert writes. He is Flaubert's companion, and we, the readers get a chance to look into the extraordinary talent which took to the “difficulty o of telling such a story from the point of view of an ignorant, old woman without making it derogatory or coy.” This, we know, is also the strength of Madam Bovary, and this is the strength of his writing and a testimony to the sensitivity of a writer's soul.

            This is a book on writing and Gustave Flaubert is a near-fictional teacher that Julian Barnes creates here, when for instance he writes, that – words came easy to Flaubert; but also saw the underlying inadequacy of the words. Then he goes on to quote Flaubert from Madam Bovary- Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for the bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity. It is a writer here paying homage to another writer. He acknowledges the solitude that the profession of writing, undeniably requires, when he quotes from one of the Flaubert’s letter, “If you participate in life, you don’t see it clearly: you suffer from it too much or enjoy it too much. The artist…is a monstrosity, something outside nature.” Barnes also writes at one point that the writer should walk into life only up to an extent, as someone wades into the sea, only up to the knees. My mind wanders to much popular stories of Ghalib being a drunkard and the truth captured in historical accounts of his life, where it is clearly mentioned that Ghalib, who wrote a lot about wine and drinking was a stickler of schedule and a disciplined drinker of alcohol, as I read - a drunkard can not write a drinking song.

            Julian Barnes love for Flaubert is hard to hide. He finds quarrel with Flaubert’s British biographer- Enid Starkie, who taught language at Oxford. She criticizes Flaubert, and this infuriates Braithwaite (Barnes, I would say). She finds Flaubert’s account of Emma Bovary’s eyes unreliable. She writes that unlike Balzac, Flaubert doesn’t build up his characters, by objective, external description; in fact, so careless is he of their outward appearance that on one occasion, he Emma brown eyes; on another deep black; and on another blue eyes.  Braithwaite is annoyed. He says that it is totally up to the writer if he wants to use the eyes or anything else, in particular, as a prop or a tool to build a character to carry the story forward. He argues his point brilliantly and could hold true for many writers, “In the writer’s moment of private candor, he probably admits the pointlessness of describing the eyes. He slowly imagines the character, molds her into shape, and then- probably the last thing of all- pops a glass eye into the empty sockets. Eyes? Oh, yes, she’d better have eyes, he reflects with a weary courtesy.

            Not to leave it at that, Barnes also has Braithwaite mention three references from Emma Bovary to prove the falsity of Enid Starkie’s observation. The one I liked best, I quote here, “Her eyes seemed bigger to him, especially when she was waking up and fluttered her lids several times in succession; they were black when she was in shadow and dark blue in full daylight; and they seemed to contain layer upon layer of colors which was thicker in here deep down, and became lighter towards the enamel-like surface.” We know here, not only has Flaubert, found a perfect reader, we as reader, have found the perfect writer. The critic, we know, here has counted the trees and missed the forest. 

This is a very smooth, quick running, witty book. Only part which disappointed me was that of Flaubert’s lover and Poet, Louise Colet. It to me, did not add to the story, and seemed to only be brought in to bring some sort of balance to unabashed affection of the author to Flaubert.


That said, this book is a book for the readers, and a book for the writers. We look at the work and writing of Flaubert through the eyes of Julian Barne and learn a thing or two about writing. And no, it is not a boring literary analysis, lesson in creative writing or historical biography of a great writer, as I said earlier. It is about heart and about eyes- the many-colored eyes of Madame Bovary

About the Book:
Author: Julian Barne
Published: 1984
Awards: Shortlisted for Man Booker Prize
Genre: Speculative Fiction 
(Amazon Link - Flaubert's Parrot )

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Writer's Recurrent Dilemma

Writing is fun only when I am in the process of writing, creating a world, conjuring some kind of magic. It is such a liberating feeling when the ink flows unhindered, words come tumbling over welcoming white pages. But at all the other times, my life as a writer is a life of absolute miserly. The periods are fraught with self-doubt, gasping in a sea of insurmountable emotions, searching for one write word, one perfect phrase. Some evenings are filled of such blankness of mind, I worry if I will ever write another word, let alone construct another story. The build-up to a story and the settling down after the release of a book- such miserable moments, and a haunting question, the Damocles sword- Will I ever write anything worth anything ever again?

It must be so very hard for anyone who is a full time writer. But even for someone like me who is not a full-time writer- one question keeps coming back- Will I be read? To quote Julian Barnes from Flaubert’s Parrot, my companion on commute to the office these days- “Is there a perfect reader somewhere, a perfect reader?” as he comments on a critic of Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, who questioned how Flaubert mentioned the color of Madam Bovary’s eyes- different color at different places. Writing is something which begins innocently as a little vice and eventually captures all your waking hours. One always wonders and is filled with self-doubt about the quality and content of one’s own writing all the time. My own stories are like my kids and I cannot not love them, but at times, I do pause and wonder, am I spoiling them out of false love, which they might be totally undeserving. I read further in Flaubert’sParrot, Barnes writes- “My reading might be pointless in terms of the history of literary criticism, but it is not pointless in terms of pleasure.” I close the kindle and contemplate- Will someone read one of the stories of The RudeTenderness of Our Hearts, close the book on his or her lap, and whisper to his or her own soul something such from behind her closed eyes? where art thou, my perfect reader.

This weekend there was a good half page write-up in the newspaper about the struggle of Rana Ayyub, a vehemently anti-government, angry journalist, and her self-published book. The story spoke about how her father invested money in her venture and how she was left alone to fend for herself, with no help to promote her book. But then, this was a half-page article in a national daily. She is a prominent journalist, got airtime on TV channels as well owing to her strong network of fellow well-wishers (read celebrity opinion-makers on the television) who continued to come on public spaces, recommending her book, lamenting how the poor lady was fending off all by herself. Nothing better than a poor celebrity. It is even inconceivable for those champagne-soaked  sighs lamenting over the imagined plights of the well-connected journalist to even contemplate for a moment the difficulty of an ordinary writer, who might have just written because he could not contain the words anymore. It is horrible, it is unforgiving and it is humiliating. One cannot ignore easily the snide smiles of the people, looking at you, doubting your professional commitment as a bread-earner of the family, your proven caliber in your day job notwithstanding, as if you are some sort of moron, or a lazy escapist. One only hopes and waits for the perfect reader. For someone like me, it is even difficult. I am a hell of an introvert when it comes to talk about my writing, in person. There are young people writing nowadays, what we call chick-lits. They are young, good looking, well-connected writers, who knows the ropes of the game and do know how to do it. While I write old-fashioned stories, true on emotions and true on the power of written words. I cannot betray words, though they oftentimes make my stories heavy to read. But then those few who do read them enjoy the beauty of words placed there on those pages with immense affection and respect.


Promotions of books is so exasperating for me. You tell people about your book and you just hope they would just read what you written through so much of pain and difficulty, pushed in a metro, panting to catch breath as you settle down in the aircraft, staying awake on the weekend. Some read it, some don’t. Saddest is when people will want to get the complimentary copy, which is no trouble when your next day’s bread is not going to come from the royalty of your writing, but when you give the book and find that it lies unread. It is crushing when someone tells you that they could not find time to read the book- across days, weeks and months. It is sad an humiliating. You want to ask them, “Why? Tell me why?Why can't you read the damn book and grant me the satisfaction of having been read?” but one is constrained by manners and norms of society. You do not want to sound pushy, and you are thrown in the dark maze of self-doubt over your capability and adequacy as a writer. You, at such moments, want never to tell people that you have written, ever; pledge to yourself, never to, in fact, in some weaker moment, write another word again. You want to be a Salinger and hide in anonymity and want to destroy all your work like a Kafka. You curse yourself for thinking these lines and for the blasphemous act of comparing yourself with such great legends. Time passes, you read The Great Gatsby and you realize that by your age, Fitzgerald had already put in his best work for the world to cherish after him and moved on to another. I think of book release, but I can never bring myself to do it- not on my own. There is an air of surrender. In Flaubert’s Parrot, Barnes write about a writer who found Flaubert’s letters, who he is certain to slip into anonymity, without having accomplished anything of literary value. I read it yesterday, “His air of failure had nothing desperate about it; rather it seemed to stem from an unresented realization that he was not cut out for success and his duty was therefore to ensure only that he failed in correct and acceptable manner.”  Why does it feel if he was writing about me? Will I give up writing at all, will no other true word will bless my pen? 

But then I read by evening W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up which cheers me up again. He writes, “We do not write because we want to. We write because we must…We must go on though Rome burns. Others may despise us because we do not lend a hand with a bucket of water; We cannot help it; we do not know how to handle a bucket. Besides conflagration thrills us and charges our mind with phrases.” When I read it, I know I will pick up the pen again and write again and push myself through the whole cycle of self-inflicted humiliation. I write because I must. I do not have a choice. I have things in my mind which are to be told. I must write.

( I have just published collection of stories - The Rude Tenderness of Our Hearts. It is available for sale on Amazon India (Amazon India Link) and Amazon.com (Amazon.com Link)