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‘Reading Orwell in Singapore’ or ‘Why this blog?’

September 24, 2010

This piece might as well be called the “Literary Longings of a Bihari Boy” or more provocatively, “From Literary Darwinism to Literary Renunciation”. In plain words, this piece is about turning away from the pursuit of fame or celebrity to seeking ordinariness or even shunya, and to accept “failure as the only true virtue” (Orwell) for a writer. But to give it a context, how this longing or its renunciation connects with George Orwell, who was also born in present day Bihar (in Motihari), I should begin from the beginning. 

After the initial ambition to become a writer had settled in my heart and soul, I had been looking to find my literary loadstar. For a long time, I thought it was V S Naipaul. Coming from a remote “formless, unmade society”, with no living literary tradition, Naipaul’s journey from Trinidad to London, his struggle to become a writer, fascinated me. I saw in his journey the possibility of “making” myself as a writer, of whatever significance or stature, as I also came from a very small, politically unimportant and intellectually isolated place in India. However, even this, the example of Naipaul, came to me much later when I was in Delhi, hopelessly trying to become a journalist to earn my keep and make sense of the world.

In the small world that I came from, the only genuine ambitions to have were to be a doctor or a civil servant. The idea of becoming a writer or a filmmaker did not qualify as an ambition. An indulgence, yes, after your material needs have been taken care of, but an ambition, a goal in itself, no.  An ambition like this would have meant a direct road to a mental asylum after your gentleman’s clothes had turned into rags. On the contrary, one was meant to succeed and flaunt one’s glad rags.

The small town that I came from didn’t even have a proper bookstore, though it had many textbook and stationery sellers and newspaper vendors. This implied that there were not many serious readers, let alone writers, in my town, and if there were any, I didn’t know of them as there were hardly any literary gatherings in public (at most a poetic soiree once in a year). Moreover, I spent the greater part of my childhood in a village which was at a further remove from the district town to which I eventually moved only around the time of my high school years.

In high school, there was no English except for the elementary kind of literature (think of abridged and truncated Shakespeare from Charles and Mary Lamb, stories like In the Valley of the Blind by Wells and some tales from The Mahabharata) that finds place in government school textbooks, and some grammar and composition lessons, taught by teachers who themselves had barely stepped out of the province and might have struggled with the language in their own ways. I say this without meaning any disrespect to any of my teachers for whom I have great regard and of whom I have affectionate memories. I make this point merely to explain to you the setting of my early education–and how it was different from that of giants such as Nirad C. Chaudhari in Kishorganj or R.K. Narayan in Madras in altogether a different time, who might have had access to British teachers or teachers with more literary knowledge and expertise. Here, I am not arrogating to myself the privilege of comparing my writing to Chaudhari or Narayan which would obviously be foolhardy and pointless but to shine light on my background which, given my ambition, was much less favourable, making my dream of becoming a “writer” almost an impossibility (despite their better luck, think of the struggles of Narayan or Chaudhuri when they chased their desire to become published writers). This dream that I talk about did not come to me straightaway–it developed over the years after having gone through a process of elimination. I might have become a Urdu poet or a short story writer had things gone in a different direction.

Talking of languages taught in school, the matter, however, it must be said, was different in the case of Urdu, Hindi, Sanskrit and Persian, subjects that were taught by people in my school who were naturally more competent and at home with these Indian and Eastern languages. Of all these languages, I had the greatest affinity for Urdu which is my literary mother tongue (though we spoke a pidgin dialect at home, known as Surjapuri).

My father, a science teacher, had a love for the language. He would bring home Urdu literary magazines that I read in the hurricane lamp’s shadowy light taking turns with my younger sister (we fought over who would get to read it first; my gentle sister always acquiesced). But more than my father, who meant well for us, my love for Urdu language, especially Urdu poetry, came from an uncle who taught me from an early age. His praise and recitation of Ghalib and Iqbal went straight to my heart. I was amazed to see how poets who lived one or two hundred years ago could enthuse a young man in a village by the sheer magic of their words. I learnt that words and metaphors endure and travel to become part of a cultured man’s consciousness. The idea of writing built up from these little readings and recitations whose force I was to realise only about twenty years later.

Just before I was to leave the town for college in Aligarh, a bigger town in Uttar Pradesh, I was scolded by an Uncle for reading James Hadley Chase in Hindi translation. This Uncle was well-travelled, and was schooled in Delhi and Kashmir. What should I read? I asked him. Read Thomas Hardy, he said. For the first time in my life there was someone who could tell me what to read in English literature.

In Aligarh, after having abandoned the idea of becoming a doctor, I read Hardy and then Dickens and many other Western writers. My world changed. But the reading was still unguided (this was before Internet came along). I read in my own way, reading many books at once, sometimes too excited to finish anyone of them, like a child who is too happy just to touch the toy and not play it to the hilt.  

I soon found out that Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand and R K Narayan were great Indian writers in English. The knowledge that they were taught in classes turned me off—the idea seemed to rob their books off any pleasure. Also, the appearance of their books, with badly designed covers and cheap paper and binding, made them look inferior to the imported English novels in the library. Error of judgment of a young mind.

Among contemporary Indian writers, I began to enjoy Khushwant Singh and preferred him over the gentle Ruskin Bond. Bond came across as a boring grandfather when compared to the bawdy sardar. Singh’s persona as a fearless but witty journalist, a multi-lingual literary man, and his devotion to ‘sex, scotch and scholarship’ gave me a template of success which the rebel in me wished to replicate. It was under this kind of an influence that I started to write my first novel. When it was published in a private edition, the dream of becoming a writer–of whatever significance or stature–was fulfilled in letter. But soon after, I was in the grip of despair. The mission had failed in spirit.

As I discovered more writers such as Marquez and Borges, I began to realise how despicably shallow my achievement was. Though the book got all the failure that it deserved, I became ambitious as a writer. This time the ambition came from reading. I wanted to read all the great writers and I wanted to read everything that was worth reading. It was not always easy. The generally regarded great writers were either too wordy or too elliptical, the wisdom of their words hiding behind the haze of sentences or buried in long paragraphs.

Meanwhile, writers like Pankaj Mishra and Arundhati Roy emerged on the scene, making homegrown success a reality. Before them, an Indian writer had to be stationed abroad (Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, Bharti Mukherjee and so on) to be considered a literary success.  A little earlier, at home, literary stardom in the age of cable TV and page 3 (tabloid) journalism had become part of the pop culture with the arrival of writers such as Shobha De and Anurag Mathur.  A literary rat race began–the Brahma in us was led to go around chasing Lakshmi. Suddenly, the idea that a writer could become a celebrity like a minor film star and could get rich became a popular and acceptable myth. In this scenario, to have the ambition to become a writer and without achieving the literary success of the kind that made to the newspapers was to court failure.

When a draft of my second novel didn’t seem to go anywhere, I decided to kiss failure and embrace it as a mistress. I stopped bothering about it. I decided to read, widen my horizons and hone my craft. I learnt to write short stories. I admired Chekhov and Raymond Carver and immersed myself in their worlds. When I moved to Singapore, I started to blog as well (I was firmly entrenched in the virtual world now).

Between the publication of my first novel and now, ten years have passed. All these years, I have been reading and writing, and dealing with the successes and failures that life heaps upon us everyday.

Meanwhile, I discovered J M Coetzee, the South African novelist and found a kindred spirit in him. I loved some of his novels, especially the later ones, and found his reticence and media-shyness virtues worth emulating. I put him on a pedestal equal to that of Naipaul, and was vindicated in my choice when they both won Nobel Prizes (another rat race; though prizes don’t matter). Coetzee won the Booker Prize twice but never showed up to collect the prize. Apart from Naipaul and Coetzee, I admired writers such as Marquez, Kafka, and Hanif Kureishi. My literary model was a composite of all these men, that swung between Naipaul’s confident self-mythification and Coetzee’s denial of celebrity. But the lust for success, however subdued, remained in me. I was not completely cured of this longing. I hadn’t found the formula, the alchemy that could sustain the writer in me both as Shiva and as Shankar–in a mode of detached attachment. What should that attitude be? Where can I find that attitude, that mental levity that could free me from this disease of longing for the microphone, the lust for the limelight and yet not let the voice die within me?

I began to read George Orwell a few months ago. I had read his two famous novels years ago but not his essays. When I read his essays and non-fiction (letters, diaries, journalism), I got what I was looking for. I found my literary loadstar. I read and re-read his essays, going through them late into the night, fighting sleep and fatigue after a day’s work in office. I was dazzled by his wit, his uncanny insight and sincerity of expression. There was nothing that I wanted to know and he hadn’t said it. Gandhi knew what was the right thing to do for him in life, but it was only after reading Ruskin and Tolstoy that he was emboldened to harden the attitudes of his life. I am saying this only to illustrate my point. Needless to say that I am an insignificant man in comparison to Gandhi but reading Orwell has emboldened me to bring my beliefs in a sharp relief, whose contours can be felt not just by me but also you. Only time will tell if this attitude is a sham, a case of grapes are sour or a genuine belief that shapes and guides me as a writer.

I used to sign off my writings with this line: Zafar Anjum is a struggling writer. Not any more. Not because I am sniffing success round the corner or because I have a literary agent. I am saying this because I have freed myself from the notion of struggle. Struggle smells of failure, or lack of success, which indirectly smells of the rat race that I refuse to be a part of. I should not allow myself to be defined by market’s success or success that is at the mercy of the gatekeepers in the publishing houses. The Internet is quickly changing that anyway. If there should be struggle, it should be about the craft and about finding the right words for my expression. As a writer, I believe that if my voice is sincere and strong enough, if it has some life in it, it will find its readers.

To conclude this piece, I want to make one last point on an Orwellian note. Orwell and Evelyn Waugh’s biographer, David Labedoff in The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War says, while modern technology (digital communication) is demolishing the barriers between readers and writers, it can also have a dangerous impact. Condensation of language–on Twitter or in mobile communication–can be good up to a point but ‘limited language becomes limited thought,’ and under Big Brother, language deliberately becomes smaller (if ‘the vocabulary of dissent shrivels, so must dissent’). Also, in the digital world of computers and iPads, digital text can be deleted: ‘the impermanence of a written record permits a future not only independent from but ignorant of the past’. A writer today has to be mindful of these dangers.

Reading Orwell in Singapore, this blog, is where I will keep posting my thoughts that will be triggered by reading and re-reading Orwell. A tribute to Orwell, it can also serve to like-minded writers as a manifesto, as a guiding post, as a lighthouse, and remind us how to live and ‘write without hope and without despair’ (that is from Isak Dinesen), and how to write ‘from within the whale’ (Orwell). This is not a political blog (that itself is a political attitude, Orwell will tell you that). If you have any thoughts on it or on Orwell or his works, you are welcome to broadcast them through this blog.

Zafar Anjum
Singapore
25 September 2010

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Rituparna permalink
    September 25, 2010 3:53 pm

    A wonderful light read..which is insightful as well. I am so happy that you don’t sign off as a ” struggling writer ” anymore…, wishing you all the best..looking forward to more reads…I love Orwell too.

  2. September 25, 2010 5:13 pm

    Fantastic, you have unshackled yourself from the approval of society, I can’t wait to see what comes of it 🙂

    “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
    — George Orwell (1984)

  3. Zafar Anjum permalink*
    September 25, 2010 7:40 pm

    Hi Ritu and Andrew, thanks so much for reading the piece and commenting on it. I feel so free after putting this down. Thanks for your support.

  4. September 26, 2010 12:15 am

    Great to know that you have discovered Orwell and his connection….I personally feel Orwell is far better choice than Naipaul, whose writings are biased and racial. All the best !
    Good Luck
    AAA

  5. September 26, 2010 2:24 am

    Zafar, thoroughly enjoyed this piece. This takes me to a nostalgic trip, down the memory lane. The bungalow where Orwell was born is hardly 15-18 miles from my ancestral house where I saw first light of the day. It was Orwell who inspired this country bumpkin , way back in 1990s, to write in English.

    Great blog!

  6. Zafar Anjum permalink*
    September 26, 2010 9:15 am

    Thanks Azim and Abdullah. Yes, Abdullah, I remember your Orwell connection and how he inspires you. That’s great. I would also link your Orwell piece in the blog.

  7. September 28, 2010 12:54 pm

    What do you think of Homage To Catalonia?

    • Zafar Anjum permalink*
      September 28, 2010 1:24 pm

      Haven’t read it. Will read and write about it.

  8. Rizwan Mirza permalink
    October 3, 2010 12:54 am

    Zafar, “Animal Farm” was the first satire in my life which helped me to analyse and understand dynamics of global politics and till then I am a great fan of Eric or Orwell. The best line of this satire is -“All men are equal but some are more than equal”, which had really changed my inclination from leftist philosophy to controlled capitalism. I wished I would have been a student of literature and have time to read all of Orwell’s writing. I felt by going through your blogs in general and this piece of write in particular my thirst for my kind of literary works will be taken care of.
    Beside being a great admirer of you as my friend and writer, what agitate and annoyed me about you is your search for loadstar. I wished you would have come with some fresh ideas and philosophy which I dont see in literary world since the start of LPG (Liberlization, Privatization and Globalization) era in late 80’s, where market remains the strongest force and phenomenon. I am just concluding that due to this market force only you once see Naipaul as your guide and wonder you ever read Edward Said- a powerful cultural critque and of Naipaul.
    Moreover, I like your hometown and ‘Maila Anchal’, whose author ‘PN Renu’ comes from your city. Hope to read more and more from you.

  9. Rizwan Mirza permalink
    October 3, 2010 12:59 am

    Zafar, “Animal Farm” was the first satire in my life which helped me to analyse and understand dynamics of global politics and till then I am a great fan of Eric or Orwell. The best line of this satire is -”All men are equal but some are more than equal”, which had really changed my inclination from leftist philosophy to controlled capitalism. I wished I would have been a student of literature and have time to read all of Orwell’s writing. I felt by going through your blogs in general and this piece of write in particular my thirst for my kind of literary works will be taken care of.
    Beside being a great admirer of you as my friend and writer, what agitate and annoyed me about you is your search for loadstar. I wished you would have come with some fresh ideas and philosophy which I dont see in literary world since the start of LPG (Liberlization, Privatization and Globalization) era in late 80′s, where market remains the strongest force and phenomenon. I am just concluding that due to this market force only you once see Naipaul as your guide and wonder you ever read Edward Said- a powerful cultural critque and of Naipaul.
    Moreover, I like your hometown and ‘Maila Anchal’, whose author ‘PN Renu’ comes from your city. Hope to read more and more from you.

    • Zafar Anjum permalink*
      October 3, 2010 8:57 am

      Great comment Rizwan. First on Renu. He was not from my city but from my home state, and it was only later in college that I heard of him.

      As of your comment on my search for a loadstar, every writer looks for one: a writer has to find a literary philosophy and fashion his own going from there. I liked Naipaul’s writings and still do because of his language and power of observation and his critical eye. I don’t have to agree with his findings though. In fact, I have written two essays criticising him for his views about the Muslim world. I have read a few books by Edward Said and greatly admire him and am aware of his criticism of Naipaul, and I agree with him. Hope that lessens your annaoyance with this little friend ofyours.

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