Category Archives: Literature

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It’s an interesting relationship that book lovers have with the Internet: most would rather read a physical book than something on an iPad or Kindle, and even though an Amazon purchase is just two or three clicks away, dedicated readers would rather take a trip to their local indie bookstore. Yet the literary world occupies a decent-sized space on the web. Readers, writers, publishers, editors, and everybody in between are tweeting, Tumbling, blogging, and probably even Vine-ing about their favorite books. In case the demise of Google Reader threw your literary Internet browsing into a dark void, here’s a list of 25 book sites to bookmark.

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Rediscovering Hindi literature

In the past couple of years I have read five Hindi books and considering I may have read 10-15 Hindi books in my entire life, this can easily be termed as an impressive number. I am not counting the scores of pocketbooks (remember those detective novels you would get on platforms and but stands?) that I read in my early teens.

I remember we were browsing through a bookshelf in Om Book Shop in NOIDA and just like that we went to the Hindi section. We bought three books that day, all recommended by my wife. One was Karvat (turning over – literally, a change happening over a period of time) by Amritlal Nagar and two additions of Abhyudaya by Narendra Kohli. In Abhyudaya Kohli has rewritten the Ramayana epic from a human perspective – there is no magic and there are no miracles and everything that happens is humanly possible.

Up till now I had read writers like Munshi Premchand and Mahashweta Devi and had also toyed with Agyeya, but I wasn’t much impressed. These writers are basically the vestiges of the socialist era writings in which you are either continuously ranting about poverty, hunger and superstition, or romanticizing these afflictions. There was no sense of pride. A perpetual gloom is always hanging over your head when you are reading these books. Recently I purchased Premchand Ki Hasya Kathain (Satirical Stories by Premchand) from Flipkart and even in that book he cannot shake off the judgmental tone that these writers had. But I must quickly add that Premchand is far better than all those writers constantly peddling India’s poverty and backwardness while writing in English. At least he means what he says. He actually feels the anguish of the rural India. Agreed that more than 60% of Indians languish in poverty and illiteracy, it doesn’t mean that it represents the length and breadth of the country.

This is where writers like Narendra Kohli and Amritlal Nagar differ. I’m not as well-read a person as many people I know, but I can easily say that Amritlal Nagar can be easily compared to the best international writers, both classical and modern. Of course poverty and superstition is a dominant aspect of the Indian society, but they coexist with other aspects. For instance, in various Amritlal Nagar novels his characters go through a multitude of existential qualms with poverty and superstition in the background. They have love affairs, they have fights, they have feelings of jealousy, they are both faithful and disloyal, entrepreneurial and passive and healthy and ill. They are not constantly dealing with their poverty and being hounded by the upper castes and the powerful, although I’m not saying that these things don’t take place. They’re just not at the center of the novel. Karvat, the first ever Amritlal Nagar that I read, is about this young man who leaves home will leave his house to make a life. This story spans multiple generations starting in 1957 and ending in 1947. The other novel, the story of Goswami Tulsidas, is an exceptional book that gives you a clear glimpse of those times. Even the current one that I’m reading – Nachyo Bahut Gopal – is about a Brahmin woman, who in the heat of passion elopes with a younger boy who is the lowest among the lower classes (people who cleaned latrines) and how she deals with the repercussions of what she has done. He has written that even among the poor and the lower castes, given a chance, they can be as cruel and oppressive as the upper castes. These stories I’ve totally changed my view on Hindi, and other indigenous literature. These days I’m constantly seeking new Hindi books to read.

Talking about vocabulary

These days I am reading On Writing by Stephen King. Like any other contemporary writer he advises aspiring writers not to go overboard with difficult words and you don’t need a comprehensive vocabulary in order to write a great book. I totally agree with him despite the fact that I love reading and using words that are not used in day-to-day interactions.

But yes, you can easily make out if a writer is simply being superfluous or he or she actually means to use a particular word. It also depends on your general style and your audience. You don’t need to tone down your language just because some people won’t be able to understand it. If painters started worrying about whether people will be able to decipher their paintings or not, they won’t be able to paint at all, especially the exponents of modern art. The empty paper or the blank screen in front of you is your canvas, the words are your brush and paints, and your sentence formations are the strokes that you use to create your masterpiece. In case they complain that you are hard to read, you should either change the way you write, or you should target a different audience.

I have no problem if occasionally I have to use a dictionary in order to understand what a writer is trying to convey. I don’t hold this against him or her. In fact I love learning new words so much that I consider it my own drawback if, while reading a book, I have to refer to a dictionary repeatedly.

Language is a tool and you use this tool to make an impact. While writing you should keep this in mind. What is your objective? Is your message important or the words you use to convey your message? Of course a certain degree of erudition is important because when it comes to dumbing down, there is no stopping to it. The language you use for the college going audience, or even banking professionals, is going to be quite different than the language you use for 5th graders.

For me, and I’m sure there are many people like me, good literature is like classical music. In order to appreciate it, you have to spend some time to understand it. You cannot appreciate Dhrupad without knowing its intricacies. Similarly, simple text devoid of captivating words can be a drab experience.

Can you express complex thoughts in simple words? Yes, you definitely can. Read Milan Kundera to experience that.

There was a time when I used to use a thesaurus a lot. My main aim was to find alternative words, not necessarily difficult, but that sounded good to me. Even these days I occasionally use a thesaurus, but not in order to find words that I don’t know, but in order to find words I’m somehow unable to come up with. For instance, all of a sudden I cannot remember a word I would like to use to express something, but I know a similar, related word. So I start with that word – and thanks to hypertext thesaurus tools these days – I start drilling down until I come across the word I want to use.

Somewhere in the book Stephen King says, “Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes.”

While I totally agree, sometimes when you simply appear in your undergarments, it becomes a bit odd.

Talking about sentimentality

Here is a nice essay on how sentimentality is frowned upon by writers, especially male writers, as well as literature critics. Men don’t cry, they say.

Does being sentimental mean giving in to your weak emotions? Does it mean crying? Does it mean effusively lamenting something or praising something, or admiring something in all naked profundity? What exactly is sentimentality?

There are many people who confuse simple thoughts with sentiments, as you often come across phrases like “my sentiments” or “oh don’t be so sentimental”. It is not like that. In terms of literature, it means not minding what language you use while expressing yourself. It means focusing on the message that you convey, rather than worrying about whether it is manly enough or womanly enough. It means exposing yourself to ridicule, sneering and judging. Sometimes it also means, annoying your core audience.

I read this essay with a tinge of self-analysis. Of late I have been expressing my political opinions unabashedly. I have noticed, I don’t often do that. I try to be, how to put it, as impartial as possible, as a distant observer and a commentator. I try to be analytical. Agreeing to disagree was my unexpressed motto – “Working together with our differences intact” reads the banner at the entrance of my alma mater. Philosophically I agree, but in the current political scenario, I don’t. That’s why, my writing appears a bit sharp, a bit opinionated, and to those who cannot get a grasp of it, even tottering on the terrains of communal bias. Yes, I have grown sentimental when it comes to my political opinions and inclinations, even if it means using abusive language sometimes (on my blog, after all, I don’t have an editor to breathe down my neck).

Lack of sentimentality, objectivity and “unbiased opinion”, as I have come to observe, have become the tools of political scoundrels and what Kanchan Gupta often calls, intellectual charlatans. In the guise of being objective, they simply try to confuse the readers. Not having strong political opinions, as far as it comes to our country, means sustaining the vote bank of the ruling Congress. People who are sentimental, less analytical, and less the so-called objective, are the ones cheering for alternatives like the BJP. So in that sense, we need more sentimentality in the country. Be sentimental. Feel outraged. Cry out loud (COL in the Internet language). This is how social and political changes manifest.

The above-mentioned essay ends aptly:

Critics, how I would love if you could clear the word “sentimental” from your minds. And readers, if you could let down your guard to feeling something. For writers: don’t hold back. Be weird, be sentimental, be melodramatic. Take the risk of being not-cool, not-hip. The risk of being laughed at by the in-crowd; they are on their way out, anyway. Tear out your guts and put them on the page, with scrupulous, faithful, unromantic honesty. And, all right, I’ll say it: with love.

Correlation between money and quality of writing

I was just now reading an interesting take on the relationship between quality of writing, or for that matter any art, and the amount of money a writer makes.

Art and money, although coexisting since the times when people started appreciating art and paying for it, have had a somewhat inwrought relationship. Being an artist of exceptional talent doesn’t mean that you’re going to roll in money all your life. Vincent van Gogh is a very good example. He killed himself due to overwhelming poverty despite the fact that these days his painting can fetch millions of dollars per piece.

So does it take money to make a good writer? In order to understand this we first have to understand why someone writes. There are some people who just write and do nothing else and there are some for whom writing is just an outlet and they are not specifically out to make money off writing. Some write for social change and some are political writers for whom it’s not the money that matters but the impact their writing makes.

So for those whose sole activity is writing, money makes a difference, definitely (right now I’m not talking about whether money affects the quality of their writing or not). Simply because you are writing all the time doesn’t make your daily needs vanish. You still need to pay bills, you still need to take care of your family if your family depends on you financially and you still need to save some money for old age. Without basic needs being taken care of it can be very difficult to cultivate your artistic side. The sundry winds of your daily needs can easily excoriate the landscape of your literary aspirations.

There are always prodigal exceptions. I totally believe that there might be many unknown writers doing outstanding work without making both ends meet. They simply cannot survive without writing. This can be true for any passion and for the sake of discussion we should avoid referring to such exceptions.

When commercial interests come into the picture we have to approach everything methodically. Not everything can be about just passion. In today’s world you cannot be called successful as a writer unless you make good amount of money. Money is not just “money”; it’s an endorsement. It is something like, your work is so good that people are ready to pay for it. It is so good that publishers are eager to invest in your capabilities expecting future profits.

But the existential paradox is, since they don’t want to take risks, they normally don’t want to invest in unknown writers. Then it becomes a vicious circle – you cannot become known unless you’re published and people can access your work and it is very difficult to get published unless you are known.

This is the reason why many writers cannot grow into full-time career writers. They’re constantly bogged down by lack of money. This eventually begins to affect the quality of writing. You cannot write about a romance blossoming in the swaying meadows while you constantly wallow in the abyss of deprivation, unless of course you can pour your simmering frustration and anger into a truculent, but brilliant work.

Initially you need to strike a balance. I think the famous Indian writer Munshi Premchand is a good example. By definition he was never a rich writer but then I cannot think of any Hindi or for that matter any regional writer whom we can call “rich” like Salman Rushdie or Vikram Seth. This can also be attributed to the fact that regional publishing industry is not as commercially mature as the English publishing industry. Anyway, coming back to Premchand.

He always had a day job. He worked in various schools under different categories. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, he resigned from his government job but then started his own printing press. Although a renowned writer, he could never earn enough and always lived on the verge of poverty. Nonetheless, he could prolifically focus on both writing and earning a living. He had a great tendency to switch on and off his various states of mind. This tendency helped him survive. Despite not earning enough, he could keep on writing and getting published till the end of his life. That’s what he wanted.

In today’s world just writing well doesn’t make you a successful writer. Unless you have a strategy, you will be simply laying down senseless pathways to oblivion. Your name, your reputation sells more than your ability to write well. Of course this is not an ideal situation but this is how more or less the industry works. That’s why, if a famous porn artist decides to write a book, he or she has a greater chance of obtaining a lucrative contract compared to a writer who’s nights and days are imbrued with excruciating literary slogging.

Solution: do something that makes you money and make writing a daily part of your writing. If from the beginning itself you start dreaming of making money off your writing you are immediately put at a disadvantage. It becomes a do or die situation and this is not an ideal circumstance to let your creative juices flow. This is difficult, in fact very difficult (speaking from personal experience) but this is the only way to go unless you can stumble upon a serendipitous opportunity. You will end up extremely bitter and somehow you will blame your desire to write for all the mess in your life. You will neither become a successful writer nor will you be able to eke out a living for yourself.