Writing fiction amidst headlines
NEWS WAS SOMETHING that always happened to others, in other places. Growing up in Siliguri, whose name I first heard mentioned on national television in 1988, that was my working definition of news. I still remember the evening: my brother and I, 10 and 12 years old respectively, sitting in front of our Telerama (which my mother continues to mispronounce as Tell-Rama) television set, waiting for Gitanjali Aiyar to tell us about something we’d watched just a few hours ago. Siliguri was hosting the Nehru Gold Cup in 1988; it was the first time we’d watched White sportsmen in action. Quite often, there’d be remarks about the ‘white legs’ of the footballers, nearly as frequent as about the skills of their limbs. There was the smell of roasted peanuts and the sense that everyone in the stadium had their fingers stained with rock salt from eating those peanuts. How would all of this, along with our enthusiasm, and the paper caps, their elastic strings always in need of adjustment, look at the television? When the news report appeared at last, it was Gitanjali Aiyar’s face, unmarked by emotion, that left my brother and me disappointed. The number of goals scored, the names of the scorers, and a character certificate on the nature of the match, the sweat and salt of two hours had been condensed into a bland statement. The things that had given us the greatest pleasure had been left out of the news report.
That’d have been the first time I’d encounter the raw material of news and seen the difference between it and the finished product. I’d, of course, seen the difference between raw material and a work of art before, in drawing class. But even at 12, I was intuitively aware, as most children would be, of the differences in the process of selection and exclusion between art and news. The serious and the important were the spine and flesh of news (there was almost nothing to separate the bones from the flesh of news, such is its aesthetic). The seemingly unnecessary is from where art— and poetry—derives its juice. I wasn’t able to formulate any of this at 12, of course. All I knew was that the news hadn’t been able to hold the pleasure, the delight, even the nervousness and disappointment I had felt on the football field that afternoon.
That did not prevent me from reading the newspaper or watching the news on television. This was because the Indian middle-class had become addicted to news in a way that determined the choice and quality of their lives and careers. In school, news was GK, General Knowledge, and we gulped and swallowed all kinds of information to pass exams; soon, it metamorphosed into two branches: the quiz, a supposed pastime, and a genre called ‘competitive exams’, that ruled the destinies of those aspiring for government jobs. That must have conditioned us to two kinds of things: an appetite for information, and a training in bureaucratic seriousness, both of which seemed to direct the shape of our interest and the morality of our adult lives.
What exactly was news? Was I interested? Not really. Through the 1990s, however, I began to notice changes in the character and consumption of news in our small town. The national newspaper, in English, gradually began to lose its monopoly. Uttar Banga Sambad, a Bangla daily that collected, as its name suggests, news from and about northern Bengal, entered households. It was cheap compared to the English language newspaper, as if national and international news were more important and expensive than local or regional news. Such a turn was simultaneous with the rise and growth of regional parties in India’s polity; the days of the dominance of one ‘national’ party were perhaps over. Soon—though that would happen after a few years—a figure like Mahendra Singh Dhoni would emerge, a cricketer from a small town who’d go on to captain the Indian cricket team. Sometimes it seemed almost out of fantasy fiction—a boy from Ranchi, then in Bihar, in a team that had historically been ‘ruled’ and bullied by the ego and power of Bombay, its cliques and its cricketers. (The structuralist tendency of my mind wants to imagine that it might have something to do with the wicketkeeper’s position, for, a few years after Dhoni, a young man from Siliguri would be selected to play for India; his name was Wriddhiman Saha, and he was a wicketkeeper as well.)
Like photographs cannot reflect souls, news does not carry the spirituality of daily living, moment to moment. There is also the exhaustion of news, one that comes from its speed
Around the same time, Hindi films— I’m tempted to use the word ‘national’ somewhere here—began to be made about lives lived in smaller towns in the country, and they were written and made by people who’d grown up in such places themselves. All of this was symptomatic of the character of news in these non- metropolitan centres.
News, so long about other people, taking place elsewhere, would have to change. It was too hierarchical, too centrist and exclusionary. The notion and concept of the ‘event’ would change with this too. No longer would news only be about important people doing important things. The modernist debunking of greatness—and seriousness— would topple over on the other side, so that journalists would spend their energy on reporting, studying, and analysing the clothes that film actors would wear at airports. A cow falling into a well would be news worthy of column inches; a 15-year-old boy going to take his exams on elephant-back would be worthy of television time, too. News had changed—we didn’t want to hear about others, we wanted to be news.
The first English novel was written by a journalist. Daniel Defoe created a figure based on a real-life person, but the reader’s interest at that time was in the far-away, the distant, the unknown, the elsewhere—the island. It satisfied the curiosity that programmes on Travel and Living do for us now, for instance. But the direction has changed. We know too much about the world and too little about ourselves. Along with the desire to be news, indulged by social media of course, was the impulse for self-documentation. This, as we know, is not the same curve as self-awareness, but it pretends to be so.
One was, of course, not aware of living amidst news. Until this moment, when we seem to be generating news about ourselves. This brings in the question of agency: whose news?
A girl was molested in Guwahati in the summer of 2012. I followed news reports about her. Then the region called Bodoland, in Assam, had to face days of communal riots. I followed those reports too. There were the floods, which, because of their annual regularity, had been mentioned only occasionally in them. In spite of the availability of information, I felt like I had on the evening of 1988, while watching Gitanjali Aiyar on Doordarshan —that I actually had no sense of the life there. I was in Siliguri then, a town where I’ve lived for most of my life. Sapna Didi and Bimal-da and Shibu and Bani, who came to our house for work, carried news of how their lives were changing with the influx of people— refugees—from lower Assam. Relatives had arrived with no plans to return, there were too many people to feed, they had stopped eating fish, and so on. In their stories I heard, as if like an epiphany, the difference between life and news, and consequently, between news and literature; there were too many mosquitoes, they complained, showing me mosquito bites on their arms. The news, I realised, would report only the malaria, the end, never the process.
Poetry, because of its reliance on metaphor, was considered by Plato to be twice removed from the truth. News, I thought, was thrice removed from reality. It is bodiless
I began thinking of the Lyrical Ballads —no lecture or literary criticism allows us to forget the relationship between the French Revolution and Wordsworth and Coleridge’s collection of poems. And yet, the connection isn’t visible in a straightforward manner. At first I used to think that they were related because of the dates, 1789 and 1798, the year of the French Revolution and the year of publication of the Lyrical Ballads respectively, but that, of course, wasn’t the case. What was so revolutionary about the book? Who were the people in it? Revolutionaries? No. A ‘solitary reaper’, an ‘Ancient Mariner’, a leech gatherer, an ‘idiot boy’, a ‘mad mother’, ‘idle shepherd boys’, the ‘Old Cumberland Beggar’, and so on—in other words, people who had never been the subjects of literature. What the French Revolution had done was to democratise the space of literature, to include themes, subjects and language that hadn’t been allowed into it before. In the ‘Advertisement’ included in the 1798 edition, Wordsworth wrote: ‘The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purpose of poetic pleasure’. As I look back to the impetus that made me begin writing Missing, I think of how similar my ambition had been—I wanted Bimal-da and Shibu and Ahmed to speak in it as they did in real life. I was aware of two moral problems, of course—the first has to do with translation; the second is an old problem: to write about Friday knowing that Friday would never be able to read what has been written about him. And yet, I wanted them to belong to the novel in English. It was an emotional urge more than an intellectual desire. The life I lived was the life of mosquito bites—I wanted that blood in its pages as I’d once found a dead mosquito inside Crime and Punishment.
Like photographs cannot reflect souls, the news does not carry the spirituality of daily life, of daily living, moment to moment. There is also the exhaustion of news, one that comes from its speed—the difference in speed between the lives we live and the lives condensed to news-time. When I reproduced passages from an English language newspaper, I wanted the reader to feel exhausted, the kind of exhaustion that news causes in our lives. The ‘Again?’ that drives the news cycle, of print and audio-visual and now social media. For news survives completely on the idea of the ready-made; it’s been decided, on the principle of hierarchy and exclusion, what constitutes news, the repository of the serious and the important, and what doesn’t. Apart from the blind poet and his wife and son, I did not invent a single character in the novel. They were—and continue to be—an important part of my daily life in Siliguri. I did not change their names. At first I thought it was a part of the writing process. It became difficult for me to write about them if I changed their names. Soon after, it became an aesthetic and political choice; the names of people and places are not changed in news reports, why would I change them in my novel? It was this then—and this came to me only during the process of writing—that I was trying to do. The lives of these people, lived away from the gaze of the media, constituted news too. Its pulse and its language were different. The vocabulary of broadcasting had not been able to find a place for it.
As I wrote—I began writing in July 2012, as things were happening around me—I gradually grew more conscious of the different kinds of sounds around me. Bimal-da, the carpenter, would use the saw and hammer all day, and he’d often sing kirtans in between. From the neighbouring flat of a retired man who sat by the window all day, and whose wife I’ve never had the chance to see, who I think cooks all day, there’d be the sound of television news and of things being fried in hot oil. In my own house was the sound of clothes being washed, spices ground on the shil-nora, the calling bell, mobile phones, and incessant conversation in dialects that I sometimes did not understand. When my closest friend called sometimes, he’d ask, “What news?” or “What’s happening?” and I’d inevitably say “Nothing.” This nothing was my news, and it was the difference in language between life and news, its language and its speed, that I eventually set out to communicate. There is, for instance, no place for metaphor in news. But our lives and the language in which we live our lives, both the verbal and non- verbal, are metaphorical. For life—and death—is a metaphor. Poetry, because of its reliance on metaphor, was considered by Plato to be twice removed from the truth. News, I thought, was thrice removed, from reality. It is bodiless.
Literature is news that stays news, said Ezra Pound. Even a shorthand understanding of the difference between news and literature and the medium used in both tells us that it is primarily a difference created through form and language. As I see the difference between journalism and writing blur today, and form being rendered a senior citizen-like figure in a world of youthful content, I return to a line I use almost every day: ‘I love you’ is both news and literature. It might not be a waste of time to ask ourselves why.