Tag Archives: Writing

Disability in literature, mythology, folklore and films

Captain Hook

Have you read Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham? The central character of the novel is a young man with a club foot. If you haven’t read this book do read it not just because it has a character that has a disability and has something “different”, it is a story that tells you how failure and success, sadness and happiness and intelligence and stupidity go hand-in-hand and despite that, we move on. The disability of Philip Carey affects every part of his life and it doesn’t allow him to live his life the way he would have liked to live, but that is not the central theme of the story. These are the problems that he has, but aside from these problems, the major problems that he faces are quintessentially related to the volatile human nature that is extremely unpredictable. He can be mean and judgemental just as people can be mean and judgemental to him. His disability doesn’t necessarily make him sensitive and if he is sensitive compared to his friends and colleagues, it is because that’s the way he is and it has got nothing to do with the way he walks. The greatest thing about this novel is that Philip doesn’t have to prove anything because he has a disability. He just tries to live his life the way he wants to live irrespective of the fact whether he succeeds or not.

These thoughts were triggered while I was reading this blog post that was published on the occasion of the Blogging against Disablism Day. I never knew that the word “disablism” existed, but it has a nice sound.

The author rightly says that people with disabilities are often depicted as vile, scheming and demented characters in various works of fiction:

There are far too many books out there that portray characters with disabilities and chronic illnesses in ways that are deeply destructive and have a seriously negative impact on the understanding of disability in general. However (and this is a big however), most of these books are clearly written by authors who have not considered their portrayal at all, and who clearly fail to respect experiences that are different to their own. These are the authors who fail to realise that disabled people are also, actually, people. These are the authors who consistently portray disabled characters as, for example, useless and/or monstrous. But these aren’t exactly difficult tropes to avoid if you treat disability as a genuine character trait, part of the full colour of your character’s depiction, rather than an easy symbol or device for your plot.

This problem arises from the fact that disability is not mainstream. You don’t see disabled people roaming around in the streets, catching public transport, getting into arguments with other people on the street, fighting elections, watching movies, doing shopping at a grocery store, visiting prostitutes, getting married, becoming successful professionals, going on dates, going to office and doing all sorts of things that people are seen doing matter-of-factly. Coming across a person with disability is always a special occasion.

Whereas situation in the comparatively developed countries might be improving and you may come across persons with disabilities more often than not, in less developed countries like India, they’re mostly seen when they are struggling with basic necessities. A visually impaired person is totally at the mercy of someone who can see especially at public places like roads, stations, stairwells and markets. A person with physical disability is often seen being helped with climbing stairs or walking across the road or something like that. Worse, you see disabled persons begging. You never see a disabled person simply going on with his or her life without having to bother about getting some sort of help. This is the problem with the environment, the infrastructure. We haven’t reached a state when public places, offices and institutions are made in such a manner that they can be universally used rather than just by people who fit in a conventional box of able-bodiedness. Once this happens, we will see persons with disabilities depicted just the way they are in literature, hypothetically.

Another problem is that we take visual cues as behavioural patterns. We have a very strict definition of what is pretty and what is not, what is beautiful and what is not and how good people look and how bad people look. For example, in most of the TV ads you will never see an intelligent person taking intelligent decisions despite being on the heavier side. He or she is always shown fumbling, unsure, doing stupid things. And then there is this slim, fit-looking, preferably taller person who has a very confident expression about him or her and takes the right decision at the right time and solves a problem that a person on the heavier side does not seem to be able to solve. It’s not just shape, even the colour matters. A darker person is shown to be under confident and not doing much in life. And then he or she suddenly uses a face cream that makes him or her fair and lo and behold! The world is nothing but a plethora of successes and happy moments.

This stereotyping is also extended to ages, social backgrounds and professions. Younger students are always making fools of their teachers and professors. In mobile phone ads, people in their 40s and 50s are often shown fumbling with their gadgets while their teen kids are shown totally cool about the latest features in their mobile phones.

Recently I saw an awareness ad in which a person from a socially disadvantaged background is shown to be gawking at a good-looking girl in a public transport vehicle. A college going well-off-looking yuppie sort of a youngster notices that and comes stands between the girl and the gawking guy. The stereotypes would have totally gone topsy-turvy had they shown a well-off guy gawking at the girl and the dark looking person from a socially disadvantaged background feeling offended and coming between the girl and the guy.

So I think more than disability, it’s the perception that is at work. You want to show a bad person or an ill-mannered person in the visual form and because you’re not very sure of your writing abilities, you use disabilities like a crooked eye, or a stuttering way of talking or walking with a limp.

As I have mentioned above, to a normal (read able-bodied) person disability is quite alien. It’s like for the directors of art movies, especially in India, depicting poverty used to be an exotic activity. That is why people like Satyajit Ray would make voyeuristic movies about how poor people live, how they dress up, how they eat and procreate. Then these movies were shown to foreign audiences because they had never seen such glaring poverty and the behavioural attributes attached to it. That is why when there is a disabled person in a movie, the highlight is his or her disability, and not what sort of life he or she lives.

Even in Indian mythology and folklore, disability is used to exaggerate villainous as well as saintly characters, or they are used symbolically. In Mahabharata, you have a limping uncle (Shakuni mama) who is the most scheming person in the entire plot. Then you have the visually impaired Dhritrashra who can see nothing and he is totally indecisive as well as impotent. Ashtavakra (having 8 physical deformities) in Ramayana had to prove his worth by showing exceptional intelligence. The jealous and evil uncle of Heer, Kaido, also had a limp and walked with a stick, but his character is a bit complex because his evil and jealousy originate from the raw deal that he gets from the society for having a disability.

Anything that is not ordinary becomes a stereotype, and I think in most of the stories, disability, whether depicted in good light or bad light, is used as a stereotype rather than making a statement. So when a writer writes about a villain who has a limp, he or she is not trying to say that people with limps are bad, he or she usually just wants to express it stereotypically. I’m not saying this is right, but this is how stereotypes are used.

Will this change once disability becomes mainstream? I don’t think so. Things will surely improve, but do you really think people who create stereotyped characters using race, color, regional accent and body shapes will be open-minded enough to depict persons with disabilities in a non-stereotypical manner?

Do the writers you read influence how you write?

I once read somewhere – and I don’t know whether it’s true or not – that the renowned writer Vikram Seth never reads lest he gets influenced by the other writers’ writing style. On the other hand, in his autobiographical book Salman Rushdie says that he has always been a voracious reader.

To an extent I do agree that you tend to write like writers you like. There was a time I was really influenced by writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Charles Dickens and Dostoevsky. Back in those days there wasn’t much choice available. There was no Amazon.com, no Flipkart.com, and to be frank I didn’t even have much money to buy books. So most of the books I read were either given to me as gifts, or lent to me by friends and relatives or I got them issued from some library, mostly the British Council. So it was mostly the classics, and that’s how I wrote in my initial days. Obviously the writing was constrained, full of long, antiquated words and I spent more time trying to imitate my favourite writers than actually telling stories.

Letting yourself be influenced by your favourite writers isn’t as bad as it may seem when much stress is put on being unique. If writing like a particular writer gets your literary juices flowing, then why not? Actors acquire the demeanour of their favourite actors (have you ever noticed the similarity between Amitabh Bachchan, Dilip Kumar and Al Pacino? Even Gregory Peck and Dev Anand?). Singers imitate other singers. Even painters imitate the painters who influence them. Remember that initially it’s not important whether you’re copying somebody’s style or you’re creating your own style, what matters is how much you write. Many writers don’t succeed because they don’t write much. And eventually, as you keep on writing, you begin to find your own voice.


Do writing classes help? Can you “learn” to write?

Taking writing classes

In India I don’t think we have this concept of taking up writing classes or writing courses to improve one’s writing as an aspiring writer. In the West, they not only have university level writing courses (I think, if I’m not wrong, we have some creative writing courses offered by some schools and universities) they also have “writing retreats” where aspiring writers (who can shell out a hefty fee) go to these exotic, picturesque locations and work on their manuscripts under a famous writer’s guidance.

This Guardian essay talks in favor of taking up writing classes and how they may help a writer. Here is a quote that justifies, rightly, taking up a professional writing class or course.

What lies, or ought to lie, beneath the growth of creative writing as a subject is the conviction that a good deal of the best writing derives from conscious craft, if not all of it. Commentators sometimes say that writing can’t be taught; that beginning writers either have “it”, in which case they don’t need to be taught, or they don’t have “it”, in which case money and time is being wasted by the exercise. But writers can perfectly well have native ability, a feel for language, an inventiveness and a keen eye towards the world and still not quite understand how they can do something well, not once, but repeatedly. A good creative writing course will explore underlying principles of good writing – not to impose invented “rules” on writing, but to introduce ways of thinking about writing that are strong and purposeful. You could teach yourself how to make a chair by taking a lot apart, and experimenting with joists. A furniture-making course might school you in some unsuspected skills, and save you some time.

A lot depends on, as the above-quoted text says, whether you consider writing an inherent talent and skill or a craft that you can develop. It is a mix of many factors. Once you have realized that you have a talent, you want to improve it under the guidance of someone who knows how to channelize that talent. You may say that the greatest writers in the history never attended writing classes. Did Dostoevsky or Leo Tolstoy ever join a writing course? Did Agatha Christie? Charles Dickens? None of them. Still, they can be considered the masters of their craft.

You can also say that there are 16-year-old hackers who can give MIT software engineers a run for their money when it comes to creating the most intricate pieces of code. This is true in every field. Still, we have software engineers who cannot compete with amateur but motivated software programmers. There can be a singer in a remote village situated in a jungle who sings far better than a classical music maestro.

Still, why do people join institutions for learning and acquiring skills?

There are many levels of talent. Having a talent doesn’t mean you can make use of that talent. In its raw form even a diamond has no value – it needs to be cut and polished before it can be used in jewelry.

In the same manner, some writers can simply write and awe their readers and some writers need some guidance, some direction and some peer support before they can really express themselves. When you attend a writing class you are made to do many things that you otherwise won’t do, such as explaining various scenes, expressing thoughts, describing facial features, reading and interpreting literature and writing book and film reviews. You normally don’t do these things on your own. You are also constantly exposed to various writing forms of your classmates. You also get direct feedback and if you can use that feedback positively and constructively, it helps you become a better writer.

But do we actually have a famous writer (writer who has published many books and earned lots of money) who came from these classes? Although there are many highly known writers – both fiction and non-fiction – who never joined a writing class, do we have examples of writers who had joined writing classes or a writing course when they were young?

Writing a facial description

Describing a face

Update: When I published this blog post and posted the link on Facebook my brother-in-law thought I was going to describe Morgan Freeman. Here is my effort:

I was caught by surprise when the face behind the black, newly purchased fedoro hat suddenly aligted. Either he expected me to react in that manner or he was used to such reaction, whatever it was, he sat there with an air of non-chalance, looking sideways through his spectacled, droopy eyes, acknowledging my presence with a slight flourish of the unlit cigar he held in his right hand that bore a ring with strange insignia, on the little finger. I was expecting someone younger, as had been the impression on the phone. When I reached the seat closest to the coup-de-sac of the restaurant street, he seemed to be sleeping. There was no extra chair so I had to drag one from the nearby empty table. I had to shoo away a dog sitting under the chair and this had made him raise his head. I sat facing him without saying a word. For a moderately cold weather he seemed a bit overdressed with an overcoat and an Armani muffler.

“You look surprised,” he said, putting a German-language thick hardcover book he held in the left hand with a thud on the table and scratching his white but sparse balbo beard.

“Yes, I am,” I said.

“Weren’t expecting a black man?” his tightly defined oblong face seemed to be going through an imperceptible chewing motion.

“Was expecting a younger man,” I paused, “and yes, a black man in a laidback Indian town trying to decode an ancient Sanskrit hymn isn’t a profile you can just simply ignore.”

Update ends

For the first time in my life I wrote a facial description while working on my book. Describing a face can be a bit tricky especially when you want to mould the description into the narrative you have been following so far. You don’t want to sound too mechanical. You may like to interpret the facial characteristics according to the worldview of the person (another character in the book) looking at the face being described. I mean, if A is introduced to B and if you need to describe how B looks, you don’t just start describing, you describe it according to how A sees and interprets B.

Why do you describe the face? Why not simply introduce a person as a name and then go on with the plot? Why linger upon the details?

Describing a face achieves two things: it helps you visualize the character and hence, get more involved with the story, and it also tells you what effect the facial features are having upon the person looking at the face and absorbing the facial characteristics. Suppose A likes chubby people and B is quite skinny. Suppose B has a stubby nose but A likes sharp noses. Maybe B has tied his or her hair into a tight knot while A loves free flowing hair. You know A is not going to feel attracted towards B, and if later on A gets attracted to B and they end up being together (in whatever form) some other factors need to be introduced.

You also describe a face to paint a particular picture of the person. Many writers take an esier route. A vile person normally has unpleasant features. A good person has pleasant features. You will rarely encounter a person looking like Snow White turning out to be a witch (unless it’s a horror story).

Writing isn’t always about working against the odds

Here is a nice piece on how sometimes people assume that in order to become a successful writer one has had to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and whatnot whereas the truth might be totally different. The writer cites examples of two “successful” authors who pretended as if they had to make great sacrifices in order to create their works of art. This writer herself lives a comfortable life and hence is able to become a satisfyingly successful writer and when she was struggling to meet both ends meet she could hardly write.

May it be any field, when it comes to success and failure, nothing is written in stone. It depends on the individual. Many people say that they would have done something great had they not been hard pressed to make a living for themselves as well as their families. I think to an extent it is unfair, although not always, to blame your family members for your failures, or lack of success, if not out and out failures. Sometimes yes the difficulties ARE of such a scale that one doesn’t get enough time to concentrate on writing but then, there have been many successful writers who became successful not because they had enough time to write, but somehow they could find time to write.

Personally, I hate to put blame on people and things for whatever I do or don’t do. I have always wanted to be a writer and to a great extent, I AM (I write content for business websites) but in its true sense it’s not the writing I want to do. I want to be successful as (success means getting published and people purchasing my books) a writer. Does something stop me? Not at all. Yes, I need to earn a living, but fortunately I’m self-employed and I’m spared from many plebeian difficulties that people need to go through in order to earn money. My work comes to me rather than I have to go to work. Get plenty of time to write. I believe that even if I can devote 60 minutes to my literary writing I can really write some neat stuff. The problem with me is regularity rather than lack of time, and I think THIS is the case with most people. It is not that life doesn’t give them chances, the problem is that they don’t use the chances life gives them. By making literary writing an integral part of my daily scheduling, little by little I’m trying to make some progress.