Inner Understanding

It’s almost like a leaf straight out of The Naïve & the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk or Preoccupations by Seamus Heaney at the 4th Mussoorie Lit-Fest held at Woodstock campus, Landour, Mussoorie, on 5th & 6th Oct’11, where the writers, editors, poets and publishers delved deep into the art and craft of writing and publishing; into what they call finding the center or spirituality that the process of writing leads to.

The cynosure of all eyes at the fest was David Davidar whose third novel Ithaca (Fourth Estate) has just hit the bookshops. David has started, post-Penguin scenario, a publishing company called ‘Aleph’ in collaboration with Rupa Publishers. David is often asked this question: How to write a best seller? According to him, the best-selling status belongs to the hallowed one percent only. Nobody can predict the vagaries of the market. Today there’re more writers than readers, but printing of books, despite digital revolution, will continue as long as people want to read stories, he said. Speaking on editorial role, he held forth: “The role of editor in a newspaper office and in a publishing house is quite different. No book is perfect. The best editor is invisible, and the book always belongs to the author.”

As per Palash Krishna Mehrotra, the short story writer, the basic difference between fiction and non-fiction is that getting imaginary stuff into shape takes a long time, whereas in non-fiction the element of surprise is less. It’s the participant-observer approach, basically straightforward. In both the genres, however, there’re scopes of thought experiments. “Fictional writer feel now the need to research, but should the story writers need to do any research”, he wondered. “For me stories happen accidentally”.

“Behind every good book, there’s a good editor”, said Raj Kamal Jha, the editor and novelist. Raj hoped that some day every book would carry the name of the editor along with the author’s byline. “I wish”, he said, “I could show you how they worked on my books”.

The poetry reading session was excellently introduced by the English teacher Dr Anderson who said: “Poetry is so much more than prose because they defy gravity with their movements…”

Foremost a poet, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, read out from his recently published translations: Songs of Kabir. “The only reason I want to read my Kabir translations is that they aren’t my own poems. My own poems are out of print and this book has just come out. I thought I’d rather read from something you could go out and buy than something you won’t even find in any library.” The essence of most of the poems is that one ought to cut the throat of desire because one day ‘all bundled up one’ll be delivered to Death’s will’ and that ‘the noose of death hangs over all’ and only Ram’s name will save one. The last poem he recited touched the heart of the audience: “I won’t come, I won’t go / I won’t live, I won’t die / I’ll keep uttering the name and lose myself in it … / I’m man and woman … / I’m Hindu and I’m Muslim … / I’m fisherman and I’m king / I’m nothing, says Kabir / I’m not among the living or the dead.”

Eunice de Souza, novelist, critic and a gifted poet of Goan Catholic origin, recited a few interesting poems from her collection A Necklace of Skulls (Penguin). One of the poems she read out called ‘Sweet Sixteen’ drew cheery appreciation. Talking about the origin of the poem she said: “When I was growing up in Pune no respectable young woman was supposed to know anything about sex. The word ‘sophisticated’ had a negative meaning which meant ‘one knows about things nobody should know’”! The poem goes like this: “Well you can’t say/they didn’t try/Mamas never mentioned menses./A nun screamed: You vulgar girl/don’t say brassieres/say bracelets./She pinned paper sleeves/onto our sleeveless dresses./The preacher thundered:/Never go with a man alone/Never alone/and even if you’re engaged/only passionless kisses…”

Talking on writing and spirituality, travel writer of repute Bill Aitken said that pursuit of inner understanding can be personally rewarding. It demands conscious efforts and voluntary suffering on one‘s part. Without untiring work on the self, ‘we remain what comes out at the end of the donkey’. The spiritual streak in us manifests itself when confronted by the elemental forces as we find in King Lear / Preludes. Bill’s initiation into writing came when Ruskin Bond took him under his wing during his editorship of the literary magazine ‘Imprint’. According to Bill, Winston Churchill’s delectable and sonorous prose constitutes good writing of a spiritual kind. “When you become aware of the wonder of life, you become one with the universe. True love comes silently”, he said.

Then Arvind K Mehrotra asked the audience (that comprised mostly the students) if they’re familiar with the work of Arun Kolatkar, one of India’s greatest poets, known quite well in other countries. It’s a great tragedy for India, he felt, that his poems are not in the school or college syllabus here.

‘Jejuri‘, a sequence of poems, which Kolatkar composed after visiting the place of pilgrimage of the same name, is not a work in the obvious devotional sense and yet it’s deeply spiritual. The poet speaks of a religious practice in a single place Jejuri in Maharashtra. But he observes the scenario so intuitively and with such great detail that the reader cannot but recall the experience of his visit to any religious place. The poem thus summons up the temple-scene prevalent all over the country. Kolatkar is deeply attached to the place and yet could see through the hocus-pocus, and that is exactly what clarified for Arvind what’s religion and what’s spirituality. But the Marathi critics took Kolatkar to task because they thought that he was making fun of the religious place.

Speaking on ‘Science & Spirituality’, Alan Lightman, science-fiction writer, advised the budding writers to have a deep understanding of material, to put science in human context, and to use marvelous metaphors to give an idea of the universe expanding with no center. For that one needs to read writers like Richard Preston, Annie Dillard, Michael Ondatjee, the writer of The English Patient. “Don’t always define a technical term. You must know what to define and what not to define”, said he.

The Parker Hall & Hanifl Centre where all the discussions took place attracted a lot of enthusiasts. Writer Steve alter, the man behind the idea of lit-fest at Woodstock, who just returned from a trip to Kailash, Manas Sarovar, played as usual the role of a creative compere throughout. “It’s great to have a full house. You may have to sit in someone’s lap (That’s exactly what happened with the students of journalism and creative writing). It’s better to have a crowded room that empty chairs”, said Steve. Along with Steve, Krishnan Kutty and Lalitha Krishnan organized the fest with practiced ease.

First published in The Statesman

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