In recent years, two of my viewpoints about life and about writing have changed. I don’t believe that we must stick to our viewpoints without ever changing them. In fact, it is nonsensical to defend staunchly the understandings and perspectives we develop at a given moment for the rest of our lives. Water is better when it is flowing rather than confined, where it is prone to stagnation. Our spines are meant to be flexible; an inflexible spine is a sign of disease. The problem is where and when it flexes.
The first thing that changed was my perspective on the times we live in. I had always assumed that the graph of human history, by and large, was on an upward curve, meaning that we are able to live a better life than our ancestors. As human beings, we have been on the path of progress ever since the scientific revolution. The circumstances of our lives have improved. Poverty is declining, gradually, and so is our fear of various illnesses. Countries in Europe that fought with each other in two world wars have formed a union. The internet has brought people closer together than ever before. By the time my generation finished school, the Iron Curtain had collapsed. In one of his books, an erstwhile member of the Naxalite movement in Kerala, K. Venu, had expressed the hopeful sentiment that China too would soon choose the path of democracy, and that India was successfully trying out the most superior of all human systems – parliamentary democracy. We watched, happily, when South Africa came to play cricket. It was a sign that the Apartheid had ended. We rejoiced when across northern India, governments with Dalit leadership and participation came into power. But now, as we watch things fall apart right in front of our eyes, it is becoming clearer that my generation, too, would experience the worst of what humanity has suffered historically.
We did not expect, even a few years ago, that the button to activate the world’s largest collection of nuclear weapons would be controlled by someone like Donald Trump. Nor did we expect that people of one religion would dismantle another’s house of worship and build their own in that site with the collusion and support of the highest court in a democracy. We watch, without any feeling of amazement, multitudes celebrating the utterings of a thoughtless, communalist ruler even as they go hungry in the midst of grinding poverty. As I sit in lockdown, cowed by covid-19, I remember my middle school science teacher, Mathayi sir, telling us how lucky we were to be born in a time when human beings had overcome epidemics such as malaria and small pox.
The second thing that changed was my views on the politics of writing. "The politics of writing" – the phrase itself is somewhat embarrassing! In Kerala, it has been the clichéd subject of essay writing and elocution competitions in university cultural festivals for many decades, especially in universities where leftist students’ unions had prominence. An artist does not need to strive for political correctness in their art. No one in the whole world lives a life that is entirely politically correct. The anti-women, anti-Dalit, anti-Muslim sentiments that are prevalent in the society are bound to be reflected in storytelling and writing, and when they do, readers have the right to tear them apart. There is little difference between the call for political correctness in writing and fascism, a fact that becomes apparent if one asks the question whose political correctness is being called for. It is also true that we live in times when writing, all writing, is politicized whether one likes it or not.
There are many reasons for this. It is not easy these days to differentiate between democracy and autocracy, nor is the difference between secularism and theocracy easily apparent. People who live in democracies are calling for autocracy and for martial law. They celebrate undemocratic ideals of toxic masculinity such as fifty-six inches, aggression and unilateralism, and consider tolerance, peace and co-existence embarrassing and shameful. In the interactions between nation states, hard power is taking over from soft power. To put it in the language of our countryside, it is not the well-mannered, scientific-tempered school teacher who is venerated in our junctions, but the thuggish caste leader who lends money as well as faith on interest. There are those who compare the first half of this century to that of the last. Then, too, there were mesmerizing spectacles organised by autocrats, cheered on by hordes of hypocrites. But there was also the hope provided by dissenting voices of growing democratic values, of new thinking. Things are different now. That history repeats itself is only a comforting myth. If the last two centuries saw the resistance and resurrection of the oppressed, this century is well set to belong to those who organize around religious fundamentalism, anti-scientific temperaments, and clannish sentiments. These were groups that had felt embarrassed and side-lined after the scientific revolution, who, feeling ill-equipped to challenge the constant ridicule, had withdrawn to the periphery.
This is a time when they are coming back, and this time, they are well-equipped to utilize the mechanisms that the Enlightenment provided humankind. The tools to dismantle a system are inherent within it, and it is from the inside that democratic values are being dismantled. We can dream, hope even, that there will be a resurrection of feminism and its principles to replace the performances of clannish/religious fundamentalisms and toxic masculinities. The four countries that completely folded before covid-19 were all ruled by fifty-six-inchers, while those who managed it well were all headed by women.
Storytelling and writing are the highest forms of democratic acts. They are the manifestation of the impulse to reveal oneself to others, to pay attention to what others have to say, and to engage with each other, an impulse that is an inherent human condition that will never disappear from the history of humanity. That is why autocrats and fundamentalists target books. Given the times we live in, writing will become even more political, a feeling reinforced by two of the books I read recently – Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The first invokes, like George Orwell’s 1984, a palpable fear of the future, and the second talks about the continuing trauma of the fears of the past.
As we live in complex times, our writing and modes of storytelling are bound to be complex. Even Kalidasa was the dasa of kaal – servant of his times – as Joseph Mundassery, the first minister of education in Kerala and a renowned literary critic, has said. Writers look for new and different ways of storytelling in order to record the complexities of the times they, we, live in. Dostoevsky was the product of a complex Russian agrarian mindset. Simple, transparent storytelling is only possible in peaceful times. The novel, as a literary form, was a means to reach beyond such simplicity, and it will continue to be the primary mode of storytelling in our times. In the last century, there were those who were convinced that the time for grand narratives was over, but this conviction was born out of the belief that the time of grand men and grand nation states was also over. But mighty gods and big autocrats are on the return, and so will grand narratives that engage with the complexity of these times.
The position of a writer, or an artist more generally, will continue to be an uncomfortable one to inhabit. Those who are able to write bowing to popular perceptions and demands will be given the position of the court jester in the old palaces. When they die, they will be venerated with gun salutes with the same guns that were used to shoot at the people. We can guess what awaits those writers who refuse to kowtow to popular demands, we only have to look at Arundhati Roy and the way she has been treated by the Indian media from the time she received the Booker Prize until now. In the heady days of the Booker win, for the media in Kerala, she was the epitome of the young Malayalee poised to occupy their rightful place on the international stage. But from the moment she began speaking up about Kashmir and about Hindutva nationalism, the media had enough. Ironically, it is her international reputation that assures her precarious safety within India.
The novel is undeniably a European literary form, but the roots of grand narratives are everywhere. Notwithstanding their poetic form, arguably a more conducive form within an oral tradition, Indian and Greek epics are, in fact, novels. Novel writing has its own trajectories in Japan and in Latin America. It is possible to conclude that it will find a different path, or several different paths, in South Indian writing too. Asian traditions of storytelling are different from those in other continents, and part of that has to do with differences between written and oral traditions. Our storytelling is supple, lithe, not rigid or static. We improvise as though in music, extemporise in the moment, and this is what has made South Asian literature, in all its nationalities and languages, rich and plentiful.
From Kalidasa’s epistolary poetry to folk art forms and to classical art forms, our storytelling is based on interpretation, on elaboration. It is the variety and variability in extemporisations that make us newly discover the same story and the same song all over again. It is not the story in itself, but the imagination behind the story and its varied interpretation that allows us to enjoy equally the Kerala folk art form of Kurathiyattam and the ancient Sanskrit theatrical form Koodiyattam. Even Vyasa and Valmiki, in writing The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, were interpreting old stories already narrated by many people. Our writing is better served not by a static book, but by a supple book, one that allows its characters to soar, lets them out of the cage that is the book, one that provides ample space to accommodate its readers. After all, it is through the reader that the story grows and finds its relevance. If storytelling is a democratic act, one of its most effective forms is that of the folk tradition.
When I set out to interpret the story of Meesha in Moustache, it was Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Aranyak and the "Chengannooradi" stories about a Dalit folk hero from central Kerala that were on my mind. The former is a book that, rather than paying attention to the story, immerses itself and rejoices in nature. The latter is a series of oral narratives that have not even been collected together into a book. After all, the writer’s job is not to go after the readers’ preferences but to follow, as closely as possible, the literary imagination that is within oneself.
The immediate future of storytelling is not in pursuit of a static book but that of a supple one. Such an approach to storytelling and writing, I believe, is a conscious act of resistance in service of democracy.
This piece is translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil. S. Hareesh is an award-winning author of three short story collections and screenplays. His first novel Moustache is shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2020.