When the writer succumbs to the monumental
Sumana Roy | 13 Aug, 2020
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
Some time around the early years of the millennium the ‘CV’ became an important middle-class sound. It was shorter and easier to pronounce than the word it was replacing—the ‘biodata’: which Indians often pronounced as ‘bio-daata’. And it had the forced gravitas of acronyms—like VIP. Everyone began getting themselves a CV—it was becoming the second most important document after the birth certificate. Both were certificates of proof, and, as a result, ridiculous—one had to prove that one had been born, the other was about proving what one had done. It was one more instance of living in the age of evidence supply. Yet, it wasn’t so much the CV—for all purposes a professional document circulated only institutionally—as its synopsis, made available to the public in journals and magazines and books and posters for lectures, that became the mantelpiece. Like almost everything else that had come to it from the West, Indians corrupted the original file immediately by exaggerating it.
‘Bio’, for the first two decades of my life, was a diminutive—it stood for Biology. It had more meaning than the other two abbreviated sounds it had to share space with: Phy and Chem. Even teachers used the word, thereby legitimising it. A few of us, for instance, were scared of the ‘Bio Lab’—a human skeleton stood behind its green door. One of the boys shook hands with its bony hands as we looked studiously at the dissection trays in front of us. I mention this only because that is the sense I began to get as I saw the world of literature and arts as an outsider: of shaking a writer’s bony hands in their bio. I had not, until I entered college, read a single book which had the author’s ‘bio’ in it. It is possible that Dewett-Verma, the authors of a book on Economics that my roommates Anvita and Lakbir read, had their bios in it, but, like James Bond, the name itself was enough: Dewett-Verma had the sound of bureaucratic importance, not quite unlike Duckworth-Lewis. But we knew as little of Dewett-Verma as we did about Duckworth-Lewis—not what they looked like, nor where they lived, neither where they had been educated.
When we had studied the poems from the readers prescribed on our syllabus—Radiant Reader in the first years of school, and later a selection called, ambitiously and a bit cheesily, Panorama— our teachers spent no more than a couple of minutes on telling us about the poet. Biographical criticism—the phrase that I’d learn soon after school—was of no real importance to our teachers. Also, the teaching of poems was not helped by the near-complete identification of the poet and the poetic persona, the first-person speaker in most of the poems we read. The questions asked to us were a direct manifestation of this equivalence: ‘What happened to the poet’s mother on the night the scorpion bit her?’ That was how we formed our impressions of the poet—all we needed to know about Nissim Ezekiel we knew from Night of the Scorpion: that his mother had been bitten by a scorpion. That was, for all purposes, his ‘bio’. There is no justification for such a pedagogical approach, but that was how it was—generations of readers raised on this indifference to the biographical personality of writers.
To have this conditioning challenged in the last fifteen years has been an education unto itself. It was a book by an Indian English writer in the early 1990s where I first discovered this phenomenon: there was a photograph of him, and below it, his year of birth, his achievements as a student, where he had studied, and where he had lived in his life. It was a piece of history that was meant to be as interesting as a historical novel. And perhaps it was. Except that it began to seem repetitive after the first few books—all the ‘bios’ looked similar. The author had studied in England or America, and now ‘lived between’ two cities or continents. I had no idea what to do with this piece of information. It was as useless to my delight or understanding of the book as my knowledge of whether the writer had had diarrhea or constipation when writing it.
What kind of a text the bio was—though I still hadn’t learnt the specific and focused use of the word—I did not quite know. In hardback copies of the Indian English novels I bought, it came printed on what, I would later discover, was called a ‘jacket’. None of this had been taught to me in the classroom, and I was educated about the existence of these extra-textual props by the book review pages of the newspaper that came home. I usually unclothed the jacket from the ‘real’ book—I was clumsy, and the jacket got frayed at the edges. While I read the book, my mother often dusted the things that I’d left on the table. She called the jacket ‘advertisement’—I laughed at her deduction, though I am able to make sense of it now. The author’s photo, their ‘bio’, the description of the book, all of these were not very different from the colourful handouts that came with newspapers and often with things purchased. My father, who has never lost an opportunity to sound serious, called all the printed material that came with things ‘literature’ (‘What does the literature about the hair dryer say?’). My mother thought it unnecessary—if I didn’t need it while reading the book, what was its use—or purpose—anyway? I tried to justify its existence, but she, not argumentative by nature, casually brought in a copy of Rabindra Rachanabali, a volume from Rabindranath Tagore’s collected works, where there was no photo or information about the writer on the jacket—just the title and the ‘khanda’, the number of the volume in the series. The weirdness of my family—or their lack of education in this new world of the bio—returned time and again. After Wikipedia became a part of our lives, one of my youngest cousins, on encountering an abandoned book jacket in my room, called the author’s bio the ‘printed Wiki page’.
At some point of time, owing to what must have been a series of accidents only possible in our times, I too became a writer. An ‘Indian English Writer’, no less. I must have worried as much about getting published as I did about the ingredients I’d put in my ‘bio’. I’d read and watched interviews of Rishi Kapoor rushing to ‘practice his autograph’ when told by his father Raj Kapoor that he’d been selected to act in the film Mera Naam Joker. The title of the film was appropriate to my first thoughts about my bio after the first email I received from my publisher. I needed to get my bio right even if I faltered in the book. This is actually not true, though it also is—I did not have these thoughts, though, had they come, would be completely natural. I did the opposite: among the requests I made to my publisher, the silliest was not to have a bio at all. In the end, after much pleading and coaxing and consoling and counselling, we settled with ‘Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri …’ Among the many things that a bio is expected to mention, I had had to succumb to one: location. I had tried to break free of its conventions, not as much from a sense of rebelliousness as the conviction of these words being redundant and unnecessary, but I had failed.
By the time the second book arrived, the bio had grown beyond my control. It was now like an FIR that lists all suspicious activities. I was reluctant—but what is reluctance in the face of exaggerated truth? It is no different from the desire to fit into a pair of jeans bought at fourteen when one is twice that age. My editor had condensed the life of the first book into a few sentences—it was a collection of its good life, the awards it had been shortlisted for, and so on, but I, ungrateful to circumstances that had made that possible, thought it akin to reports of misdoings that class teachers wrote in my class diaries. It was a report of the first book’s behaviour and responses of the world to that behaviour—I disliked reports of any kind, and did not understand why a report about the first book should be mentioned in the second. In school, the ‘report card’ was called ‘progress report’. The author’s bio was not very different from that.
By the time my last book was published, I had lost control—a bio was erected by a kind editor. When I read it, I had the sense of someone speaking to the person sitting behind me—it wasn’t me who had been written about in the third person. Every time I had to send my bio to an editor, I had the sense of wearing a Michael Jackson t-shirt—that I was trying to be someone else. And, as if for the first time, I began to understand what it is about such a bio that disturbs me. It was an imagined version of the person—the facts mentioned might have been true, but by highlighting them so as to emphasise them, they distorted the living essence of people. I once watched a writer staring at his shoes as his bio was read—at first he looked like his own parent, the way a parent is excited to share their little one’s first achievements, but, soon, even he looked bored. When he eventually read a poem, it was shorter than his bio. I felt sad for him even though I did not know him, nothing except his bio of course—that one quote from his life had become more important than the other. For, what, after all, is a bio but a quote of events from one’s life? I would have preferred to discover the poet from his poem; everything else that I was told was unnecessary to my pleasure and knowledge.
I cannot really say whether it is the bio I’d like freedom from or its current format. Why is it important for the reader to know where the writer was born, where they grew up, or even the cities they now live ‘between’? Is it because we are going to look for representation of the geographical places that have formed them? Why, too, is it important for us to know their age or their age group? ‘Senior poet’ and ‘junior poet’, and even ‘veteran poet’, seem like designations that have their equivalence in academia: professor, assistant professor, and emeritus professor, respectively. Two other words are used like salt and pepper in these bios: ‘eminent’ and ‘international’. The first is a semi-mystical word—I imagine that god is an ‘eminent’ person—whose perimeter is one of space: one becomes eminent when a large number of people, in different locations, becomes aware of their presence. Also, because of its semi-mystical nature, one can’t really tell when someone suddenly becomes eminent: 99 people knowing a poet’s work might not make them ‘eminent’, but 102 might. The other word ‘international’ is also about reach and expanse—in both is the urge to be as well-known as god, with a reputation that is as well-travelled as god’s: the adjective is supposed to bestow the equivalent of accumulated flying miles on the person. I had a professor at university who introduced himself with just that word, and not as adjective but as noun: ‘I am international’. I must hasten to add that ‘international’ continues to stand largely for the white world—its white institutions, not, say, Africa or Latin America—and being published in well-regarded journals made one ‘international’ immediately, so that mentioning these places became part of the bio. Elitism is a word that is now used like a sanitiser, so that one cannot be sure of its efficiency, but the arrogance of these bios is so obvious that it doesn’t need my mentioning. What is published ‘internationally’ is dependent on a mix of good fortune, the flavour of the season, and a willingness to provide Festival of India-like broadcasts of one’s culture to a largely white world. Not a single Kamtapuri poet, just to mention writers from my part of the world, would be able to use ‘international’ in their bio—the editors of Granta, The New Yorker or The Paris Review are not interested in their poems. When I was in school and teachers spoke of America as if it were a tasty cloud, I would think of the flavour of the word ‘international’, for that is how I imagined the word. I wondered—and still do—how ‘international’ felt about the taste of my world.
A bio is a terribly adult thing. In it, life begins after eighteen—the colleges and universities one went to, the scholarships and fellowships one has managed to get, the jobs held. One is not free to be a child in it
I wonder whether anyone wakes up feeling like their bio, and, if there were to be such a situation, what would be its consequence and cure. A bio is a terribly adult thing. In it, life begins after eighteen—the colleges and universities one went to, the scholarships and fellowships one has managed to get, the jobs held. One is not free to be a child in it, not just mention one’s childhood, but not be a child at all. Just as the bio likes to pretend that childhoods were useless and perhaps also non-existent, it has no space for dreams either. I recently argued for the inclusion of dreams as part of what is nowadays fashionably called ‘critical thinking’. I will argue for its inclusion in the bio as well, but before that I will argue for freedom from the bio.
The bio is, in the end, a lie. We use the word ‘whitewash’ for others even as we continue to portray a one-dimensionality about our own lives: of our so-called successes. It privileges a monumental or ‘eventful’ understanding of life without showing any respect for the moment and the momentary, to the harvests and delights of dailiness. It is perhaps this that I dislike most about it—its epitaph-like nature, as if the book was my grave and the bio my cenotaph. There are also the invisible bits of author bios that are never uttered: we might not know where she was born and how she came to poetry, but we know of two nouns in her bio, one proper, the other common: Ted Hughes, and an oven.
The bio is, without a doubt, analogical to the caste—or class—mark. In the adoption of the bio as the primary self-promotional tool, writers and artists, no matter what their politics, have remained politics-agnostic. The writer who rejects the monumental in their writing will highlight the monumental in the bio. The scholar writing against power will highlight the power of their bio, one that entitles—and legitimises—their power-decrying voice. As much as we recognise the extra-textual nature of the bio and the displacement of attention it causes—so that the wah-wah moments come when one encounters the ‘achievements’ of the artist, and not, for instance, as expression of delight during the reading or listening of a poem—there is no resistance to it, such is the voltage of our self-interest.
The bio is a marginalising catapult. Sapna Didi, who has cooked and cared for me for the last twenty years, has no bio. She wasn’t educated in a culinary school, and so there is no possibility of that being highlighted in her list of achievements. She has previously worked at Chhoto’s house and Sheela boudi’s, but that too would not find place in her bio—they are not marks of distinction. She ‘lives between’ her home and ours—this is so obvious that it doesn’t even need telling. Her life—and her having got by without a bio, and not for having, as sociologists will remind me, worked in the unorganised sector alone—reminds me of the difference between Robinson Crusoe’s life and Friday’s. The white man’s bio is the first sentence of the first novel in the English language: ‘I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho’ not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull: He got a good Estate by Merchandise, and leaving off his Trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my Mother, Relations were named Robinson, a very good Family at Country, and from whom I was called Robinson Keutznaer; but by the usual Corruption of Words in England, we are now called, nay we call our Selves, and writer Name Crusoe, and so my Companions always call’d me.’ Friday has none. Also, Sapna Didi is no Baby Halder, whose author bio mentions the fact of her life as a domestic worker, not trusting the text of her book Aalo Aandhari, reading which we would come to know of this fact. The bio is thus distrustful of the reader.
Is the bio a footnote then? In paperbacks, though, it appears as the first page of the book, thereby dismissing the idea of it being relegated to secondary knowledge, as might be the case with a footnote. Wherever it might be positioned—and no publisher, as far as I know, has put the author bio in the middle of a book, just so that the reader is reminded of the greatness of the person whose words we are reading; nor has any artist put their bio in the middle of a canvas—the biosphere (which is what I call this genre of the bio) allows no space for humour. Some writers and artists, to show their resistance to the bureaucratic nature of the bio, insert unexpected details about themselves: a tic, a fetish, a line about the colour of their house, a detail about their old life as pizza delivery boy. These details, instead of revealing idiosyncrasy, when brought into the inert space of the bio template, becomes a performance.
What the bio does is instill awe, and following that, fear. It is meant to keep the reader’s rebellion— just in case they don’t like what they are reading—in check. In this, it is a comrade-in-arms to the blurbs that praise what one is about to read, so that any disagreement one might feel with the blurb-writers, usually people with well-fed reputations, is prevented. The common reader is bullied into obedience—if they fail to like the book, it becomes evidence of the reader’s lack of taste or intelligence. This is the invisible terror unleashed by bios and blurbs—it decries and disallows independent reading and judgement. Readymade reputations, produced and repeated in bios, transform lies into truth.
Freedom from the bio—and its attendant props: blurbs, stickers on book covers mentioning shortlisting of awards—is one of the very few means that remain to protect whatever survives of literature and the honesty of reading.