Dr. Nandini Sahu, Academia, IGNOU
Dr. Nandini Sahu is a major voice in contemporary Indian English literature. She has accomplished her Doctorate in English literature under the guidance of Late Prof. Niranjan Mohanty, Prof. of English, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan. She is a poet and a creative writer of international repute, has been widely published in India, U.S.A, U.K., Africa and Pakistan. She is a double gold medalist in English literature and also the award winner of All India Poetry Contest. Presently she is an Associate Professor of English in Indira Gandhi National Open University [IGNOU], New Delhi. She is continuing her D.Litt. on Native American Literature. Dr. Sahu has designed academic programmes, courses on Folklore and Culture Studies.
Of what use is literature during such times of unrest—is the point of debate. Literature is an umbrella term, denoting art, culture, intellect, opinions, ideas and thought. Well, the role is remarkable! It can stimulate thought processes; create sharper opinions against or for the general apathy. I believe that the written word is the writer’s structure of activism. Rather than sulkily returning awards which have already got the writers the desired fame, if they aim their pen radically to form opinions and mould minds, there is some use of their writing. There are too many voices making a chorus now, which leads to pandemonium, mayhem. The politicians, journalists, historians, celebrities, teachers and the new age students—everyone seems to be speaking, loud and clear—which is good indeed. So, is the writer’s voice lost in this cacophony? Yes it would definitely be lost, if the voice is impotent, meek and mild. Euphony is the sound of literature, not meekness. The murky links of politics and literature—power politics, the desire to be politically correct—can make literature impotent. Also, the writer’s desire to please everyone, yearning for prizes and awards, which is subject to political biases, creates ineffective literature, not witness literature, responsible literature.
The first step to overcome this syndrome is self-doubt. The writer has to be critical about his/her pen, and pose the question—does my writing make an impact on anyone at all? During a time when the voice of the mob is overpowering everything else, will my single voice be heard? During an age when the society is damaged by the divisions of caste, religion and class, can my pen contest this and be the fabric to connect the disjointed threads? If yes, I must write. If not, it’s better to be the onlooker. Literature is the “inward testimony” of witness. Witness literature addresses the depths of discovered implications, in the pressure of susceptibility, the passionate kindness and approachability to the lives of the subjects whom the writers bring into play as the source of their art. Kafka wrote that the writer discovers among ruins “different (and more things than the others) it is a leap out murderers’ row; it is a seeing of what is really taking place”.
Britannica.com defines literature as, “those imaginative works of poetry and prose distinguished by the intentions of their authors and the perceived aesthetic excellence of their execution.” And the Webster dictionary defines it as “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest”. As Kafka pens it, “A book ought to be an axe to break the frozen sea within us.” Literature mirrors life—and a mirror doesn’t only showcase beautiful things, it even mirrors the ugly, the not-so-beautiful. Picasso might not be that ‘gentleman’ that a woman would like to spend life with, but he manages to supersede the badness in his temperament, and portray his best. Thus, he manages to write the literature of purpose. Literature without purpose is like schooling without learning. Flaubert had written to Turgenev: “I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating its walls, threatening to undermine it.” How are we to conjure up literature if, as Derrida believes, it is not a form of representation? How shall we envision the poets’ place in our lives as the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”, if literature materializes in a cultural location which is not that of a witness to life?
Definitions of the word ‘witness’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is: “Attestation of a fact, event, or statement, testimony, evidence; one who is or was present and is able to testify from personal observation”—thus giving the witness a very responsible and responsive role in any given situation. The term ‘Witness literature’ was used by Nadine Gordimer. In December 2001, the centennial of the first Nobel Prize was celebrated in Stockholm. On this occasion, the Swedish Academy organized a symposium on the theme of “Witness Literature”. Lectures were delivered by speakers from Asia, Africa and Europe, including three Nobel laureates in literature, Nadine Gordimer, Kenzaburo Oe and Gao Xingjian. It is a reasonably new concept in literature that examines the complex association between the author and reader. Witness literature entails a harmony between the reader, the text and the writer –which is practically not possible in other forms of literature. It creates a genre of events that expects witness, as opposed to simple surveillance, or even simple understanding, from the part of the writer. The writer has the capacity of blending his/her personality with the chronological essentials of an event and creating witness literature. Georg Lukacs classifies it as “a creative memory which transfixes the object and transforms it “and” the duality of inwardness and the outside world”. In witness literature, we reflect on witnessing life in theoretical conditions, and then practically getting involved with the subject, the personae. The writer has the capacity to reflect rationally, decisively, and resourcefully while performing morally, tolerating uncertainty, and of being empathetic, not just sympathetic, to the ambiguity in the alteration of life situations. Because the act of writing is itself a serious responsibility, writing being the most private yet public act. The author has the capacity of this fourth dimension of experience, which no one else has. He/she has to get involved with the subject in a detached way, as that of Eliot’s theory of ‘depersonalization’.
There is an existential condition of the author to witness literature, making the author understand the chain of events like first-hand experience, though with a certain detachment. But the question is how much can the writer be objectively subjective, at the cost of the loss of his/her ‘self’? If given the present political scenario in the country, the involved writer may as well become the victim. Still I would vouch for it, and beseech that let the writer be the protagonist, come down from the ivory tower of a fantasy world, and experience the classic witness literature. WB Yeats lines, “Those that I fight I do not hate, / those that I guard I do not love” manifests that the writer doesn’t have the luxury of being judgmental, subjective, though she is a passionate, involved witness. Anyway, the critics may question, is there a loss of creative autonomy in witness literature? Is it too much of a didactic literature, minus any artistic liberty? Is art only for life’s sake? What about art for art’s sake? What about the cerebral pleasures in art? What is the difference, then, between art and theosophy? I would go with Picasso in response to this, who questions, “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has nothing but eyes if he is a painter or ears if he is a musician or a lyre at every level of his heart if he is a poet? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly aware of what goes on in the world, whether it be harrowing, bitter or sweet, and he cannot help being shaped by it.”
During a time when social media, TV and Internet have taken over – are reading habits still intact with us? Can literature practically help to overcome the chaos that we are facing now? Well, the welcome factor is, kindle reading is upcoming, with a promising present and future for books. Literateurs must convene a common platform and confer about the fading out and gradual departure of the common Indian from the texts. In this situation it is vital to appraise Raymond William’s view of “culture as a productive process” as is evident in his thoughts on cultural materialism. We must also evaluate whether our writing today carries the aroma of the Indian soil as it did in Malgudi Days by R K Narayan. Is writing in English language actually pan-Indian? Is literature bridging the cross-cultural segregation? Why is the uncomplicated country India missing from the literary scenario? Are the writers truly being the empathetic witnesses to life surrounding them?
The food for thought, of course, comes from Albert Camus: “The moment when I am no more than a writer I shall cease to be a writer.” u
During a time when the voice of the mob is overpowering everything else, will my single voice be heard?
Whether our writing today carries the aroma of the Indian soil as it did in Malgudi Days by R K Narayan.