Myriad identities

Myriad identities

It’s simple. “If you can’t jostle your mind into imagining living characters to live the story you want them to, you take up writing about real people, their stories and somehow, yours as well,” this on-the-border-case-of-cynicism-journalist told me. “It’s virtually a fine balance between playing peek-a-boo and spilling the beans — this writing of the self business,” the cynic added. For one, we each tell stories that matter to us. We take in the world, and tell it back in a way that creates meaning. The self transforms in every telling, given the fact that no two people tell the same story. We each have our own truth, our many selves.

It’s fascinating to see how many ‘selves’ of the same person get projected in the media at the same time. In  a review of Atlas 02 in The Independent (September 2007) which carried my interview of Salman Rushdie, the reviewer said, “The collection opens with an interview with Salman Rushdie. It’s an unexpected delight. The man who emerges bears little resemblance to the haughty, rebarbative figure of popular imagination. Here he is on the success of Midnight’s Children: ‘What it confirmed to me was that I could write books — a huge relief!’ I loved, too, this thought: “A lot of writers have the child in them alive. It’s not the innocence of not knowing things. It’s the innocence of being open to things.” It’s important to recede into the background to let the self of the other emerge as it were in that moment before you. The immediacy and the continuity of existence must be summed up.

In the same interview, Rushdie said, “There is no such thing as a writer without influence. Those influences are very important; they help you define yourself, with them and against them. As you write more, the influences fall off. When I was younger, I thought of Kundera, Calvino, Marquez — great writers of that period. Now, when I try to find out how to write what I want to, I think only about what I don’t want to do. To place a writer within the tradition of writing and to find oneself as an individual writer, is to start with building a “scaffold to launch a rocket. When the rocket takes off, the scaffolding falls away.” As a writer, you try to find out what kind of writer you are and “how not to be other writers.” The easiest way for writers is to lean too heavily on other writers they admire.Everybody does that.”

 Writing the self as a paradigm is doused with contradictions and paradoxes, which within a text, you try and draw to a conclusion because you have to have a closure. A lot is left unresolved because the bottomline is that you can’t fact check the soul. Writing a biography objectively is possible but total objectivity is impossible. There is an angle even to that objectivity. How can you write the whole truth about anyone when you can’t write the truth about yourself? There are silences within the text, there are things that are left out and it is these silences that complete the text, that speak more about the self who is the writer, rather than only the typefaces. While reading, read into the unwritten to complete the book, it always helps. As someone said, “if literature absorbs the real, it does so in order to reconstruct it.”

Ira Pande dealt with the self in Diddi — that was a case of literary trapezing. Ira re-read Shivani’s work, wanting to translate her “short stories which I like the best.” It struck her there was much more embedded in there than just stories and “I didn’t want to write a biography. My husband suggested that I treat her like a character in a book. That gave me a distance and a perspective. The book grew and it worked well as a genre, going well with mom’s chameleon like personality.” Working on Diddi, Ira wrote simply, lyrically, “It was more of a confessional for me, an honest admission of my feelings like how I felt when I saw my father’s photo with his first wife, not my mom — the poignancy of the situation came out because I wrote honestly.”

A writer like Shobhaa De has expressed her ‘self’ as a writer. A writer can’t write ‘for’ a target audience. A book, for Shobhaa is an expression of a part of herself, it can never make her achieve a sense of closure. It’s not like a costume that one puts on or a mask. One can’t hide behind a mask all your life. People will see through the real you and say ‘oh you just dropped your act’. The real Shobhaa, as a person? “Who knows? A person is constantly evolving, all I know is that I am myself. If someone likes me, that’s wonderful and if they don’t it’s fine with me. My literary leanings have changed and will continue to change. I have the freedom to explore so many creative areas of myself and of the world. If I don’t, I will be short charging myself. This is a strong message I want to send out to all women — you define your own parameters, do not let society define them for you.”

Namita Gokhale spoke of the self being reconstructed, “The danger of being a writer is that people start reconstructing your life for you. I keep reading about my obsession with life and death; that it comes from my life’s experiences. I am an obsessive person. I obsess over alu ka paranthas and how perfect the shalgam, gobi ka achaar was. Every time I write a book, I feel I’ll never write again. But before I know it, I’ve begun again. The Book of Shadows was a strange book. I was a bit of a ghost myself. A lot of the book wrote itself.” As a woman, Namita recalls Freud’s belief that all human beings are androgynous. “We all carry a lot of men and women in ourselves. Every marriage has two men and women in it.”

Talking to Shabana Azmi about the concern with identity and the self was like seeing the progression of the self from the woman to an individual, only a human being.”What worries me is the concerted effort being made to compress identity into narrow confines of religion. You ‘become’ a Christian, Muslim, Hindu at the cost of all other identities. India’s truth is our composite culture. A Kashmiri Hindu and a Kashmiri Muslim have more in common than a Kashmiri Muslim and a Kerala Muslim. Despite a common religion, cultural identity is much stronger than religious identity. The greatest freedom India allows is a pluralistic identity. We’re grappling with multiple and shifting identities in today’s world as it is.”

The larger picture of the self gets defined here. Ian McEwan said very simply,”I write myself into it... it never quite goes out of my life.” What is often viewed as detachment from one’s creation is looked at with pragmatism by Ian. “I’m very good at detaching myself from a novel. I don’t find it a problem and can turn away from it.”

These have been some of my experiences when I observed the myriad ‘selves’ dealing with writing, whether it was fiction or non-fiction. To quote Naipaul— “all details of the life and the quirks and the friendships can be laid out for us, but the mystery of the writing will remain... it will always have this incompleteness.”

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