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Shashi Deshpande

The Writer as Activist

Of what use is creative writing? The general understanding is that it comes under the umbrella term of culture – something you enjoy when you have time, money and nothing more important to do. But there is also the idea of the writer as a thinker, an intellectual; a shaper of opinions. In India, especially, because of the long connection between literature and religion, writing has been imbued with a special aura, and writers with a greater wisdom. So here we have two completely different pictures of the writer’s work and her role.

But the writer looks at herself differently. For one thing, writers, like all artists, find great joy in their work. This is something denied to most people, for whom work is drudgery. This joy may mean a sense of guilt which raises questions: Why am I so privileged? And what makes me deserving of such a privilege? But it is during times of crises, of national or international turmoil, that writers confront a more fundamental question: Of what use is my work? At times, there is a sense of being a bumbling amateur among soldiers –like Tolstoy’s Pierre in War and Peace. Pierre knows his curiosity and questions to be futile in the midst of savage suffering and death. In the same way, writing seems a self-indulgent activity. What I am doing is of no use to anyone, perhaps not even to me, because there is always the possibility that I may not earn any money from the work. I am then forced to ask myself, Of what use am I? Do I have any role to play in society?

When we talk of the writer’s role, we have to bring in the intent, because you can’t have a role unless there is an intention to play the role. Therefore the question becomes why do you write – a question often addressed to writers, but rarely, I think, to other professionals. If a writer asks herself this question, an answer would be impossible, since the urge to write comes from some unknown source. Writers, however, do try to explain themselves. And when they do, various interesting reasons emerge: that they write out of anger, out of curiosity, from a desire to create order out of chaos, to escape from this world, or to create a world over which they have more control. Let me give a personal view: when I look back to the beginning of my own writing, I see that it came out of both anger and confusion. Something, I felt, was not right with the world, with my world. It was hard to get a clear sense of what was wrong; there was only confusion and anger. It was only much later that I was able to connect my anger to the sense of denigration I was made to feel about being a female, about the roles that my gendered identity seemed to have locked me into, roles I often chafed against. Worst of all was the idea that this gendered identity, and the roles that came with it, seemed to deny my intellectual self, a self which was as important to me as my emotional self. It was out of this turmoil that my writing was born.

There are, however, a few common threads that run through the fascinatingly diverse and contradictory statements that writers make. Almost all of them refer to the mystery of the time when they began writing; they often admit that they don’t really know where the writing comes from. Writers also speak of finding meanings, of learning things in the course of writing; the word ‘discovery’ resonates in most accounts. In other words, you don’t start off from a position of knowledge; writing is a process of discoveries, often serendipitous ones, a groping in the dark, during which unexpected gifts fall into your hands. And since, most often, you write to make things clear to yourself, it is mainly a process of self-learning. One begins with questions; in fact, sometimes, even the questions are formulated only when you start writing. The questions are then pursued, not theoretically, but through human lives.

The third common aspect is a love of words, something that is inextricably linked to the urge to say something. Ideas and words are yoked together; it is a symbiotic relationship; one cannot exist without the other. And the love of words goes beyond linguistic pleasure, beyond a need to communicate, or an aesthetic need to communicate as perfectly as possible; it is a love of words for their own sake. When you look for the right word, you are in fact examining the soul of the word itself. Only when you discover this will you know whether the word is appropriate, whether it conveys exactly what you want to say.

Now, what place is there for the social role of a writer in all this? If, when you begin writing, you don’t know where it comes from, if you don’t know where you are going, how can a purposeful role be a part of writing? In fact, amazingly, writers very rarely speak of wanting to play such a role. It all seems an entirely self-contained activity, work pursued for its own sake. Writing, it seems, is the thing. Nevertheless, the fact remains that writers have written to express their anguish about social evils and human problems. In our country, writers in the latter part of the 19th and the early part of the 20th century were preoccupied both with social evils and the enslavement of the nation by a foreign power. Religious orthodoxy, the problem of child marriage, of widowhood, our enslavement by a foreign power – these formed the subject of the literature in many languages. Coming into contact with another nation, with another culture, one which believed in individual liberty and individualism, sparked off a great deal of introspection about what suddenly looked like flaws in our own social structures.

Undoubtedly, a writer writes not only out of herself, but out of the society she is living in as well. But the basic focus is always the human being; it is the individual’s response to society, it is what society does to the individual that the writer is really concerned with. People are both complex and complicated, and therefore writing, good writing that is, ultimately provides a complex complicated picture, not the simple picture that would emerge if the writer was writing with the intent of speaking against social evils or in favour of social reform. In Tagore’s Binodini, for example, even if Tagore gives vent to his views on the unfortunate plight of widows, Binodini is not portrayed wholly as a victim: she is manipulative and flirtatious, she is a temptress using her charms, very skilfully, on men, and she almost destroys a marriage. Ultimately, this is not a novel about widows, but about one woman, Binodini. And, as it always is with creative writing, characters take on lives of their own. In fact, they take over the story, bringing in complexities which have no place in a merely moral narrative. In a novel, human truths emerge and artificial constructs fall apart. Almost no creative writer is interested in conveying a message, whether political or social. Nadine Gordimer, whose work is so closely connected with apartheid, says: “politics influences my work only as it influences the lives of people”. And even Tolstoy disdains the idea of writing a novel to express his views on social questions; his aim as an artist, he says, is not to resolve a question, but to compel one to love life in all its manifestations. The truth is that the writer is not writing of social evils, but merely expressing a personal, an intensely personal anguish sometimes. It is difficult, almost impossible I would say, to control the flow of creative writing within the narrow banks of political and social reform, or of any message at all.

Where is the reader in all this? Does the writer never think about the reader? Surely, even if the writer is not thinking of reforming society as a whole, she is thinking of a reader whom she can influence? But many writers, or most writers, deny that they think of a specific reader, or even of a species called readers when they are writing. For some reason, this seems difficult for the world to understand. The writer writes to communicate; surely, then, the writer cannot be satisfied with just writing? But as I see it, the reader enters the picture only after the writing is complete. Before that, I am my own reader. When I write, I split myself into two: there is the writer who is writing and there is the other self who is the reader. In fact, when I am writing, I am telling myself things. But to say “I am my own reader” is not enough; the matter is slightly more complicated than that. Since an important aspect of the urge to write is the desire to communicate, it presumes someone who will receive this communication. It is only with this connection that the writing becomes real. Borrowing Shankaracharya’s terminology*, there is a chain: vak-speech, sphota-apprehension and dhvani-meaning. Without the apprehension, there is no meaning and without meaning, speech has no existence. In fact, again using Shankaracharya’s idea, words are transient and ephemeral; it is the meaning which makes them eternal. And therefore the enormous importance of the reader, because it is only when the reader apprehends the word that it is invested with meaning. But, if writing is to communicate with a reader, the question is: communicate what? No, not a message; what the writer is trying to do, rather, is to make sense of life – for herself and, incidentally, for the reader. It is a kind of self-communing, of which the reader becomes a part. What is ultimately communicated is a picture of the world as the writer sees it, a picture that comes out of somewhere deep within, often taking even her by surprise. It is almost like hypnosis: things one didn’t know were there, things one wouldn’t have expressed in ordinary life, emerge. It is also a little frightening, almost like an emotional and intellectual strip tease; there is a sense of standing exposed and bare under the spotlight.

Once again there is nothing in this picture that speaks of the writer as one who wants to play a positive role in society. In fact, it is clear to me that rarely, almost never I should say, does the writer set out to achieve something. What the writer is doing, instead, is to set out on a very personal quest, one that leads her on to wholly strange and unknown paths. It’s a solitary quest, involving, at least in its intentions and its beginnings, no one else. Nevertheless, the idea of the writer as some kind of an activist, as a social reformer, is very strongly entrenched in our minds. It is because of this belief that the writer is often criticised for not performing such a role adequately. I myself have often met with disapproval for not adhering to some standards of feminism – the message I am supposed to be conveying through my novels. The presumption is that I am writing to solve women’s problems, or, at the least, I am dealing with these problems. And therefore, my novels need to be faithful to the feminist agenda. That, as a writer, I am interested above all in an individual human being; that her understanding of her own self is, for me, the real goal, is rarely understood. In our country, the idea that the writer should adhere to a cause, is, actually, a pointer both to the importance of the writer and the need for social reform. Certainly, no one, least of all a writer, who is supposed to have a greater sensitivity, can ignore the social and political realities of our lives. And most writers, good writers, that is, do not ignore them. But once again, I have to emphasise that it is the effect of these things on a person that interests the writer. Nevertheless, the idea of committed writing is one that refuses to go away. Any writing that espouses the cause of the downtrodden, the poor, tribals or women is much applauded. It gains in significance because of this alone. In fact, a great number of writers, especially in the last century, were activists. But their activities were part of their personal agendas; they did not make these issues the subject of their work. And if they brought any issues into their writing, it was indirectly and through human lives.

Nevertheless, there is a deep suspicion in our country of what is called “art for art’s sake”. Of what use is art if it is not wedded to a social purpose? To my mind, this whole argument does not understand that the artist is committed to the art itself and that any purpose will be achieved only if it is good art; whereas, if the work is flawed artistically, it will not reach anyone at all. Good art is powerful and can communicate much, whereas bad writing, even if carefully structured for a purpose, will fail to move a reader. To me, the writer’s integrity is far more important than any avowed purpose. The word integrity, as applied to writers and writing has a special meaning. Virginia Woolf expresses it best when she says that integrity is “the conviction that the writer gives the reader that this is the truth”. But I see it as something more: it means believing in what one is saying. Clearly, if I do not believe in what I am saying, how can I convey any conviction to the reader?

It is important, I think, to understand the way a writer works before giving the writer the role of a social activist. As I have said earlier, it is not the events per se that are of interest to writers; it’s what events do to people that really interests the writer. Secondly, writers need to distance themselves from events before they can make them part of their writing. Facts are stored, they are sifted through memory, transformed by the creative imagination and articulated in a way that expresses best what the writer wants to say: this is how the writer works. Certainly there is a problem if the writing in this country has not taken note of major events, like the partition of the country, for example. But, if this has happened, I would rather be interested in knowing why, than use this lack as an accusation. And in any case, the accusation may only mean that the writing has not dealt directly with the event. Because, even in the course of my own severely limited reading, I have come across excellent creative writing which deals very skilfully with contemporary issues: a Hindi story which brings in the issue of reservations for women in the panchayats, for example, or a Kannada story that centres round the Babri Masjid demolition, or an English one that takes in the rise in fundamentalism. Nowhere in these stories is there a direct comment on these events; they are concerned, rather, with the involvement, or even the chance or tangential connections of the people to the events. One needs to understand that basically the creative writer works very differently from the historian or the social or political analyst. The writer explores the gaps, the silences, the ambiguities, the complexities, the contradictions – and this, is not done to get to any kind of a conclusion, because often there is no conclusion. As far as a writer is concerned, what matters is understanding and reconciliation; this is what human life is all about. And when it comes to activism, I am on the side of those who declare that writing is the writer’s form of activism. Centuries ago, a writer named Kalidasa declared that “drama is not a popular method of preaching. Drama, he says, is the study, not the moral of life”.

However, there is no doubt that writers can play a role in another way: they can make an impact on the social and political life of the nation through their ideas by using their reputations as thinkers and writers, a reputation which gives them a privileged place. Have our writers done this? Have we made any impact as thinkers and opinion makers? I am forced to admit that writers in our country are, unfortunately, not playing the role that they should be playing; perhaps I should say, the role we should be playing, for I have to associate myself with this failure. When I look at the contemporary scene, it seems to me that nowadays, writers make no impact at all. Of course, there are many reasons for this, some of which are outside the writers’ control. One of these is that there are too many voices speaking out today: the voices of politicians, journalists, celebrities, the media, of the many specialists in each field. There is nothing wrong with this; on the contrary, it is a good thing. But it does mean that it is hard to hear the writer’s voice in this cacophony of voices. Also, the writer’s words and opinions, being one of many, no longer carry the authority they once did. There’s this too- the mystique surrounding the writer has all but disappeared. This is inevitable in an age of enormous media coverage; it is, in fact, the flip side of publicity. Writers are now seen at so close at hand, that there is no longer any awe surrounding them. In fact, by making the writer a celebrity, the media has weakened the writer’s role. The media has also taken away, to some extent, the writer’s freedom: to want to be known and to be known – both these erode the writer’s freedom. Sadly, to be known, to become a celebrity and be constantly in the public eye, seems to have become a much-desired role for writers. But fame brings about its own pressures which are hard to cope with. Virginia Woolf’s words about Shakespeare say it beautifully: “Now I think Shakespeare was very happy in this that there was no impediment of fame, but his genius flowed out of him.”

But the media is not the only instrument that puts pressure on the writer. There are many others pressures. The myth of the writer’s freedom is as strongly entrenched in human minds as that of the pen being mightier than the sword. “Behold there is no calling without a director except that of the scribe and he is the director” – these words come from ancient Egypt and tell us that the idea existed even then. However, I am sure they were as little true then as they are now. Freedom comes only with money – and no writer can be free if she has to depend on someone for money. In earlier times there were patrons who helped writers to survive, to live. This did, perhaps, curtail the writer’s freedom, but only to some extent. A small acknowledgement, a salaam, was enough to keep the patron happy and the writer could go on with her work; I’m quite sure a clever writer was able to write what she wanted. But, today, the writer has to please many more people – publishers, readers, journalists and reviewers, etc., for writing is as much a market-driven profession as any other. In addition, there is also an urgent need to be on the right side of the government. For, to write, to be published and to be read is not enough; these are no longer the only ambitions of writers. There are prizes and awards to be won, committee memberships to hanker for, political appointments, possibly travels abroad – all these benefits depend on pleasing the right people. I spoke earlier of writing being a self-indulgent activity; now I am afraid it has become a self-promoting activity. To see writers hankering for rewards is to lose faith in their ability to play any role beyond a selfish one. I must say that I am extremely suspicious of awards – especially government-sponsored ones. I see them as a kind of slow poison destroying the strength of literature, which comes from the direct response of readers to the writing. When awards – which are always subjective and too often political and biased – mediate between the writing and the reader, this necessary connection between the two is destroyed.

But, to me, a problem greater than all these external pressures is the way writers have lost confidence in themselves, in their ability to play any role at all. I myself am consumed by enormous doubts about my writing making any impact, or influencing anyone. Does anyone read what I write? Does it mean anything to a reader? I remember my own anguished helplessness after what happened in Gujarat. What could I say? Who would listen? In any case, how often do we hear writers speaking out on major issues? Individual voices may speak, but does it make any difference? When I see a letter to the editor signed by a list of august names, I am filled with despair; it seems to spell out the pathetic limit of the writer’s role. Politicians have, I think, very accurately gauged the impotence of writers; they don’t give a damn for their opinions. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that there is no place for the intellectual, for the reasoned balanced opinion in a democracy. A single voice has no value; only numbers matter. Appealing to passions works; reason and sense stand no chance. In our own country, we are seeing how gradually and insidiously the fabric of our society is being damaged by dividing people on the basis of caste, religion and language. What have writers been able to do about this? I am frightened by the way the idea of this country as one of multiplicities is being eroded, of how slowly the idea is being circulated of a country of one people, one religion etc. I am frustrated too by the inability, the impotence of writers and intellectuals to contest this idea.

In any case, I doubt whether writing can change anything. For example, even after so much has been written about feminism, people still equate it with hating men, abandoning families, lesbianism, etc. Nevertheless, only a cynic would say that writing is totally impotent. The truth is that writing by itself, a writer by herself, can achieve very little. Nothing, in fact. Virginia Woolf, speaking of masterpieces, says that they are not solitary births, but the outcome of many years of thinking in common by the body of people; the experience of the mass, she says, is behind the single voice. I know how true this is when I think, once again, of the feminist movement. It was the effect of the voices of writers, academics, journalists, lawyers, activists, and ordinary women speaking together, that finally made some impact. One Simone de Beauvoir, one Germaine Greer, could never have done what was achieved by so many people coming together. The writer matters as part of a group and in the group the role of a writer is a very important role, because the writer can spearhead a movement. By articulating ideas with great clarity, she makes it possible for others to identify with what she is saying. And often, the writer, by first articulating an idea, builds a platform on which others can stand. The writing may give expression to a very personal emotion, but when readers identify with it, it becomes universal and symbolises human emotion itself. It is through giving expression to human feelings that the writer becomes part of a movement for social change. However, there is this too: unless the time is ripe, unless people are ready to hear what is being said, the words make no impact at all. Over two centuries ago, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote `A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’. But her plea for women’s rights remained unheard. In the last century, however, such voices fell on fertile ground. The world was ripe for a change and therefore feminism gathered strength. A writer’s role, then, is to work as part of a community, to be part of a body of voices. It happened in our country in the dalit movement, where the writing kept pace with the general trend of feeling; it happened with the women’s movement, where the writing by women became part of a whole movement. But these are rare examples. Writers have not been able to use their stature as writers and thinkers to form a collective voice and speak on important issues, a collective voice that carries weight. There is no forum in which writers come together and make an impact. The trouble is that the writing community in our country is a splintered group – caste-ridden, as well as language and gender divided. Yes, sadly, writers too look upon women’s writing as being less significant, less intellectual.

However, I do believe that there is a role which writers continue to play, a very important role which is not connected to society as a whole, but to the individual human being. For one thing, a writer gives voice to the voiceless and speaks on behalf of people who are unable to articulate their ideas, their thoughts, or their fears, the way a writer can. I don’t think a book can change a person’s life, though blurbs often make this grandiose claim. But sometimes a book, through a kind of identification, can spark off an understanding of herself in the reader which becomes part of the process of healing, of moving on. If writing is a quest, the reader is part of the quest, a partner who travels with the writer. The reader may diverge at some point; nevertheless, it is that book it is which started the reader off on the journey. As Kafka puts it, “A book ought to be an axe to break the frozen sea within us”.

I have no doubt that no writer sets out to actively play a role in society through her writing. For a writer, as I said, writing is the thing; in fact, it is the only thing. But in exploring ideas, in teasing them, in stretching them and trying them on, the writer helps others to open their eyes to what they have not been able to glimpse on their own. The writer’s imagination is a very powerful tool; it has both muscle and vision. I would compare it, not to the butterfly’s flitting, but to the eagle’s swoop and soar in flight. There is something daring about imagination, about the way it can go into the dark, leap over a yawning abyss and make connections which never seemed to be there. It is imagination that allows the artist to get to the inner truth, which goes beyond the facts, behind the presumed reality.

How do we live? This is the question which, above and beyond all questions, has plagued the human mind. We have found answers to a great many questions, but this one continues to elude us. This is the question all serious writers address; there is little hope of getting an answer, but to pursue the question itself is to understand a little more of life, to get some glimpses of possibilities. To me a writer’s main role is in providing these glimpses. And there is this too, that a writer is different from all others in that at the moment of writing, she steps out of the room, so to say, stands at a distance, a little away from her own humanity and sees the world from a vantage. This gives a unique perspective, the larger picture which is closer to the truth than anything else. This perspective also allows for much to fall away – our accepted ideas about ourselves and the world, for instance. It also lets us see clearly our strengths and weaknesses, our flaws and follies, our dreams and nightmares. This is what the writer has to offer a reader, this, perhaps, is truly the writer’s role.

I have used information from Ganesh Devy’s After Amnesia and Adya Rangacharya’s Drama in Sanskrit Literature.