Friday, May 29, 2009

On Knowing Writers

The launches in Delhi and Mumbai were great in different ways. I really appreciate Rana and Jeet for being so generous with their time and thinking as we prepared and participated in the author discussions at each of the launchs.

I met both writers right at the start of my effort to become a writer -- three years ago.  I met
 them at literary festivals and at the homes of literary types, places I was skulking around in the hope of gaining insight into the business of writing.  I met Rana first and Jeet a bit afterward.  Both were words on the page first and very quickly and exhilaratingly people I engaged with in person.  And back I went to the page again.  Knowing the writer of a work while reading the work was a first for me.  I remember resenting their intrusion into the work, wanting to read the book without their voices in my head, and yet and yet succumbing to the charm of the idea that I would somehow know more about the work if I knew them.  

I think knowing the writer can shrink the work. The best kind of knowledge, best in the sense of it aiding a good reading of a work, is one in which the reader has access to the socio-political-economic picture of the times the writer lived in. Ideally from the distance of elapsed time.  Maybe after they’re dead.  

To know writers here and now as contemporaries is a lazy-making enterpise.  First, there is the desire to interpret their work through the lens of the known details of their life.  “Oh this story must have to do with that loss in her life etc.”   To be in possession of the sense of having a true and right interpretation of a story is an experience that leaves the reader feeling powerful.  Who can argue with an interpretation based on the actual author’s actual living?  There can also be a certain malice in such a project.  The malice of reducing the larger to the smaller.  And lazy-making is the desire, fed by lit fest etc, to have the writer explain their work.  Spoon feeding.  I picture the infant on the high chair, head lolling, sleep setting in, belly full, the excess dribbling from mouth.  How easy to not have to chew or even swallow.  How easy to not have to think, to debate, to take the work and allow it to expand through collective interpretation.  Ultimately a great work resonates not because of its relevance in a writer’s life, but because of its relevance in the lives of readers.  Good writing carries more than the traces of one human’s limited experience.  Perceptive and courageous writing is a channel for the thinking that’s preceded it, and what will follow from it.

I have to say that in the end, my loyalty to the book and not the writer.

So what I owe the writers I have met along this journey is not the access to their lives and a resultant and exalted understanding of their work but instead an understanding of what it is to be a writer.  I have learned so much from the writers I have met in Delhi about my responsibility to engage not just with my writing but also with the idea of myself as a writer.  It is too tempting to step back from the work and say, well, gee where did that come from?  Or on encountering praise to say, well that was a fluke wasn’t it?  To disclaim ownership and responsibility.  Fearing criticism, to introduce a work by saying, well just dashed this off and now I’m going to impose it on you and you can’t go after me for what is flawed here because, did I mention, that I just dashed it off.  

Most recently there was my own reluctance to engage in the launch activities around my  
book, a shying away from talking about the book not only because I felt shy but also because I felt I wouldn’t add to the book so much as detract from it.  On different occasions, Rana and Jeet pinned me to the task at hand, which was specifically the launch and the discussions we were preparing as part of the launch, which in turn was related to the larger task of engaging with 
my writer self.  No wiggling out of this one now. 

Books are on sale in Delhi and in parts of Mumbai, and they should be out shortly in the rest of India.  Let me know if you are having trouble finding a copy!


  1. Congrats, Mridula! Really looking forward to reading your collection, and hopefully chatting about the stories sometime.

  2. Just wondered about plans to launch in the rest of the world - Hong Kong to be precise...