Time, the World and the Word

By Anjum Altaf in the Economic and Political Weekly

These days, though I am reading as much as ever, I am reading much less fiction. My children tell me a person who does not read literature is as good as dead. I am touched they wish me to stay alive and want, in return, to measure up to their expectations, but try as I might, I can’t.

I have lost patience with story and plot and character. Ideas, on the other hand, fascinate me: I want to get to them as quickly and directly as possible. Could it be that at some point I shed the need for a character as an embodiment of an idea, a plot as a vehicle for its development, and a well-crafted story as the medium to sustain interest in its unfolding?

Reading for me was as natural as breathing. I was born in a house overflowing with books and magazines in Urdu and English, to all of which I had unhindered access. For a child, everything is new, a revelation, an input into an unformed mind. The stories were windows into the world, the characters lending eyes through which events beyond my own experiences were seen and connected in some inchoate manner to my thoughts – perhaps devices for ordering ideas without being aware of it. For me, the stories I grew up on might have been like the training wheels I used to learn to ride a bicycle.

My predicament falls into place in this perspective. I have retained an abiding interest in making sense of the world, something at an early age I could neither have known nor satisfied for lack of tools to do so. Education at home and school got me to the point where I was able to transition from stories, first to the long essay and then to non-fiction in general.

I must confess I am disappointed at not being the type who can enjoy literature for its own sake, but I am less agonised now that I know myself better.  It is just that all fiction does not attract me equally; I still engage with a story if it promises to challenge my world view, and there remain works of fiction I am drawn to repeatedly because they yield something new with each reading. But this set, of necessity, is smaller than the set of all fiction, and it continues to shrink as the blank slate of the mind gets written over with time.

This could explain as well my reading preferences and the way they have changed over time. I believe I was attracted early to literature about South Asia because it connected me most directly to the world I wanted to know. South Asian writing in English is now most completely displaced from my reading because, barring exceptions, it fails to sustain my interest – the windows are different but the landscape remains familiar. I continue to seek fiction in Urdu more, probably because it references dimensions of life my education has failed to connect me with, but new fiction in Urdu is limited and of uneven quality.

I wonder if an appetite for fiction could be revived by learning a new language to enter an unfamiliar world. Reading translations has not helped; people think differently in different languages, and while one can convey the gist of a story, too many of the social and cultural intricacies that shape ideas and drive actions elude capture. I sense this from reading South Asian fiction in English, much of which comes across now as translation from another language, the very edges one seeks as a mature reader flattened.  Perhaps, the picture being painted is for eyes other than mine.

What might lend the freshness of new vistas to South Asian writing in English could be the democratisation of reading. The storehouses of books in a few homes if matched by even richer ones in school libraries might bring forth writers with quite different lives to share.

Every journey is unique, but they do have aspects in common. In this case, it is that stories provide windows into the world, giving it form. That world, peculiar to every individual, needs to be negotiated and understood and enjoyed, and people do so in myriad different ways. For every path that is taken many others are given up. That much I understand. What remains less clear is the difference made by the variety of stories we encounter and the set of people we share them with. To what extent are we the stories that we read or did not read together?

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This essay was published in the April 5, 2014, issue of Economic and Political Weekly and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission.

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  • Shreekant Gupta
    Posted at 18:16h, 31 March Reply

    Remarkably insightful and thoughtful essay.  One could not agree more.  Its as if Anjum took my very thoughts and penned them!   Shreekant Gupta


  • Vikram
    Posted at 18:20h, 02 April Reply

    One may say that an “identity is ultimately a memory, a story you feel you were or are, a part of.” It is remarkable how important stories are to humans, despite (or perhaps because of) their simplicity.

    In the context of our last discussion on the matter of ‘Southasia’, for there to be a Southasian identity, there would need to be a Southasian story. What could this story be ? Or is it fruitless to look for one ?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 05:58h, 06 April

      Vikram: The first part of your comment is correct, the second problematic.

      If you agree that there was an India, then it must have had a story which became memory which became identity – one with many dimensions.

      Now just because fate drew two lines through the body of that India, the stories and memories do not disappear – and therefore the identities do not disappear either, they just add other layers.

      South Asia is just a forced name that has become necessary because the name India is now restricted for attribution to one part of that old India. South Asia is just a new label for the same old contents.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 20:17h, 08 April

      SA, I agree. New layers have been added on both sides of the border. On the Indian side, the new layers have manifested as increased and historically unprecedented (at least since the late first millennium) contacts between Indo-Aryan and Dravidian India, and a steady resurgence of Buddhism with Dalit assertion. On the Pakistani side, the new layers manifest as a pronounced shift towards a more West/Central Asian influenced Islamic cultural milieu.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 04:06h, 18 April

      If there is agreement about the shift in Pakistan towards the West Asian cultural milieu, then can one think about which entities resist such a shift ?

      It appears that the Sindhis and Karachi Muhajirs do put up a fight against this West Asianisation. On the other hand, I am not sure about whether populations in KP and parts of rural Punjab are inclined to resist such a project.

      From the Indian side, does sharing the border and national life with a non-Muslim country, and the popularity of Bollywood play any part in resisting these impositions ?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 07:19h, 19 April

      Vikram: I can think of the case of the two Germanies – one was oriented towards the West, the other towards the East for a considerable period of time. Yet, an essential Germanness remained unscathed. Culture is rooted in the soil and although influences from outside may hold sway for periods of time for political or economic reasons the natural tendency is for systems to revert back to their roots.

      Sometimes shared external influences also become rooted in culture. Take cricket, for example. In a sense, it gives a certain unity to South Asia that transcends all other divisions. And within countries, too, it is one of the few factors that brings together people who otherwise would have little reason to engage with each other. In that sense, it is perhaps bigger than Bollywood.

      I feel the generalizations about sub-nationalities in Pakistan are too broad. Most people are comfortable with aspects of both cultures. But put them in a group with Arabs, Persians, and Indians and observe how the sub-groups form – that would be an indicator of the affinities that are rooted in culture,

  • Vikram
    Posted at 17:52h, 20 April Reply

    I do agree that basic cultures do not change, although am not sure about the particular example you have given.

    I also agree that a passion for cricket is something that clearly distinguishes South Asians from other populations, but this effect may not be as widespread as we think. In marked contrast to Pakistani women, Indian women show very little interest in cricket. I am not sure why this is, but empirically this seems to be true. I also feel that Pakistanis are not very interested in test cricket.

    The reason I feel cinema is a much stronger connection is that it actually has been a far stronger glue within India itself. It tells stories and thats what eventually creates identities. Movies, even those as crass as Chennai Express, do make you familiar with someone else. I am sure if Bollywood started making movies set in Lahore and Karachi, it would greatly improve relations.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 06:15h, 26 April

      Vikram: In general, your observation is valid – movies are more powerful than sports because they work on the imagination while the latter only enable shared activities.

      I think your specific empirical observations about differences in attitudes to cricket are too broad and are unlikely to be borne out.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 03:49h, 23 April Reply

    Fiction on the other hand fascinates me, always has. Nonfiction that endears me is about science and philosophy but not about the dynamics of mundane world. Sometimes I ask why I need to read essays and articles about people, politics and social issues, the answer I get is because the anomalies in the world disconcerts me. Will a correction in these anomalies give me satisfaction, no but the disconcert part will evaporate.

    Fiction and poetry is about creativity and looking at the world from different angles. We are humans not machines existing to fulfill a single point agenda to set the world right. Unfortunately a fair and equitable world will be a boring place. Where will be those pathos and wails of discomfort? A bit of masochism is also expression of art.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:56h, 26 April

      Anil: I agree with most of what you say. It is to be expected that people would have different interests and would therefore engage with fiction and non-fiction differently. Where I am less certain is your comment that “a fair and equitable world will be a boring place.” Here we would need to see who we are speaking for. For those at the wrong end of the unfairness, the boredom might be an acceptable price. In any case, personally I don’t believe that outcome is likely – human beings will invent reasons to make themselves miserable even in the best of worlds. There is no reason to prefer the status quo over fairer alternatives.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 15:58h, 26 April

      Anjum your comment about people on the wrong side is paradoxical in the sense there will not be anyone on the wrong side in a mythical fair world. The point is will there be Les Miserables without injustice? Sure there will be stories like L’Etranger and massive surge in suicides and lonely gunmen spraying bullets on school children out of boredom. Without the angst there will not be Guernica and movements like Fauvism and Dadaism …

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:11h, 27 April

      Anil: You misunderstood my comment. It was in response to your statement that “Unfortunately a fair and equitable world will be a boring place.” My comment was not about the “mythical fair world” but the present unfair one that you prefer to the former. In this unfair world, some people are on the wrong side of the unfairness. My point was that they might not be averse to having more boredom and less unfairness.

      I am skeptical about your premise. England today is much less unfair than India but India is not producing much greater literature or music or drama or film than England. Nor are people doing much crazier things out of boredom.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 04:48h, 28 April

      There in lies the paradox Anjum. Supposed preference for a fair world over boredom is a consequence of being on the wrong side of disadvantage, this is nullified when the the wrong side part vanishes.

      I would rather cite case of Scandinavia and Singapore as boring places where world is nearer fair. Although nothing like mad gunmen going berserk there but isn’t rate of suicides quite high there? Anyway I am just speculating, if you have better arguments I will change my opinion.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 11:43h, 28 April

      Anil: I don’t see why it is nullified. Suppose I prefer boredom to being on the wrong side. When the wrong side vanishes, I still have the boredom but I am better off by no longer being on the wrong side.

      There are thousands of farmers committing suicide in India. Do you see that kind of thing anywhere else?

      In any case, I can’t see how I can prefer excitement at the cost of other people. If one were so committed to the benefits of unfairness, one should demonstrate that commitment by being part of those who are on the wrong side. Let someone say I prefer being kicked around because that gives rise to great art. That is different from saying I am okay with some people being kicked around because that produces great art.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 13:27h, 09 June Reply

    This essay by Amitava Kumar adds a lot to the discussion of this topic:


  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 07:07h, 14 July Reply

    An interesting discussion on the relationship between writer, reader and context:


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