It is almost a modern rite of passage for a writer– especially, male novelists– to come to doubt the power of their words to grasp actuality. There is much self-flagellation. Nausea. Logorrhoea. The German sprachenkrise cult in the 19th century is a case in point. But similar whinging about the inadequacy of words can probably be found in any age, any civilisation.
In modern times however, writing has become identified unequivocally as a force for good. No sane mind would advocate illiteracy. The link between writing and its dark potential for violence is nonexistent for most of us.
“Most” isn’t “all”, however. The narrator of this subtle and gentle story is one such exception. The great narratologist Dorrit Cohn insisted that writing was the only art form capable of representing consciousness. Rege’s story justifies Cohn’s categorical claim. It describes a mind feeling its way to an understanding, not of any definite solution, but of the boundaries of the problem. It is not often in fiction that we find an author who is the equal of the profound questions their story raises. We have such a story here and such an author. Enjoy!
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
How to Write Without Violence?
You are a writer and you have got away with your life. You know from the start that you will write about your experience and it will not be in the form of an image. What happened to you is happening everywhere to a greater or lesser degree in your intolerable society, and you do not want to add to the glut of images that leaves readers satisfied with how bad they feel. Instead, you want to write something that gets to the marrow of the atrocities you read about each morning, a response to which, even before this trigger, had been building in you like a thunderous shout for non-violence. Of course, there are many reasons not to attempt such a text, not least your eligibility. You are neither academic nor preacher nor politician nor judge. A few of your poems have been published locally, but you are little more than a somewhat articulate and ultimately ordinary citizen in a fading, once-colonial town. You cannot afford the fees on the latest scholarship from the West, you have not the education to interpret the august thinkers of the East, and while you spend your evenings at the public library, that stone building full of editions printed shortly after the Second World War, you have the humility to recognize that you are in no position to forward a commentary on non-violence that has not already been made by those of great learning on those of greater learning still, and the last thing you want to do is to add to the noise that keeps this world in discord. So you suppress the urge to write, and the result is a restlessness that makes you irritable with not just yourself but others too, like your still beautiful mother or the children outside the library whom you buy milk for on days you feel magnanimous. Then one evening after your mother and the street children cursed you, you take your restlessness to the library’s shelves, where you come upon a slim volume of Krishnamurthy’s discourses. The line that arrests you is: violence is the imposition of what should be on what is. That’s right, you think, in suppressing the urge to write, you have been violent against the what-is of your psyche, and yes, you have noticed how quickly personal frustration translates into social injury. So you return to the tube-lit study hall and open your laptop, but soon a doubt more sabotaging than the first arises. Each time you reread your precursory thoughts, lines typed in much heat and earnestness, you are put off by the tone. To censure violence by being censorious betrays a froth of emotions that comes suspiciously close to those you wish to condemn. Krishnamurthy, to whom you return for help, claims that all the major religions of the world tell us that man is naturally violent and violence is a shameful tendency to overcome, which is why you are anxious to dismiss the aggression within you. Promptly, you jump to the opposite for a solution; you replace violence with non-violence, and with this imposition of what should be on what is, you are violent again. What is the way out? You read the slim volume to the end. Krishnamurthy’s argument builds to a point you stop breathing in anticipation of the resolution to this paradox, but the discourse is in the form of a dialogue recorded in Bern, his line of thought is waylaid by a questioner less intent on a conclusion than to make an impression before the symposium ends, and you watch in dismay as the wave that had built so magisterially breaks on contact with shallow water and is reduced to a ripple as it reaches the shore. You put the book down so hard, the students who use the hall to prepare for exams in courses like medicine and accounting look up from their tomes and blink. You raise a palm in apology. On the busride home, you suffer the limits of your library, that the ‘librarian’ is a poor peon who cannot read beyond the date on the entry cards, and that you have no teacher to point you to a trusted source online or the precise text that might further your enquiry. You thumb the slim volume you have checked out despite the let-down at the end. You want to have it on your person should an erudite stranger look over, ask what you are reading and say, ‘But the answer is in chapter x!’ You look at the worn faces tilting forward or tipped back against the seats. An old woman is so tired that although she is awake, her mouth hangs open like in sleep. You feel astringent for blaming your resources. After all, what library, however high its shelves or rich its scent, is not bounded? You thumb the pages again, and in a chapter nearer to the start than the end, you find … not an answer, but the dim outline of the next step. Krishnamurthy recommends that you forget the ideal of non-violence and your desire to be good or appear good by its coin, and you will be better equipped to understand violence. The next evening when you sit to write, you ask yourself: why do you impose this text on the world, this what-should-be on what-is? At a safe distance, is the event that nearly took your life the only thing to which this text is a response? Perhaps you also need the money. Perhaps it is for the vanity of your name in print. Perhaps, as a writer, to not broadcast your thoughts or synthesize and critique those of others is not to know who you are and this is terrifying. Perhaps this is retaliation for an abusive encounter years ago that the present one recalled, or of reckoning with your complicity in an abusive world. Perhaps you write because you cannot write once you die and you may well have died last week. All logical possibilities, and to make a thorough job of the inquiry, you shut your eyes and go further. As the nib touches the page, is a part of you forcing another part to do this, say the part that would rather spend the evening idling on a bench in the red sun? Is there a release of some built-up helplessness and irrelevance; is the heart lifting in the hope of sympathy or admiration; do you feel the euphoria of communion with some god or values that reach beyond you towards some greater good? What is the nature of the tumult when you set the first word down; is it any different from the one in the mind of the crusader, the terrorist, or the rioter bringing down his shining cleaver? Is there an ecstasy in your rage and can you see either clearly through the tincture of your anxiety to dash out an eloquent critique? You pen the first word of your title: How. Not by way of instruction as it stood in previous drafts, but as a question. And having written a few honest lines into why you might be moving your pen to inflict this what-should-be on what-is, you are getting somewhere; you are beginning to understand what motivates and gratifies violence. You have not rejected the impulse in you but are viewing it with tender eyes—this is a compassionate inquiry, even if all you can do is witness the agitation since you do not have a language to speak with it yet. You observe the violence move like dust clouds through your body, a fission here, a clamp there, a skein darkening the blood, a twinge in the gut, the mild static at the extremities, and as you keep observing, you notice it change its shape, its texture, its hold; you notice it, however imperceptibly, morph. The last word you have written in your notebook is morph. It felt inappropriate to use subside, since you hold yourself on the side of good and are nervous about letting go of your outrage. Is it not a disdainful privilege to be calm and objective when the world is so far from ideal? Would your answer be the same if it was over you the cleaver dangled, and not just on the day you strayed beyond the safe gate of your housing society, but every minute, like for those hungry children you shooed away? Are you failing Ambedkar, whose portrait hangs on the library wall an inch above and to the left of Gandhi, and assuming you have not yet, is a hasty response the only recourse, or should haste be distinguished from urgency? Of course, you are in no position to judge anyone who feels haste—to do so is to fall into that tonal trap from another direction—yet you accept that what you feel is urgency. You do not wish to idle in the red sun; you have checked in with every part of you and no part has expressed such an intention. Your commitment is sincere. With utmost urgency then, you persist in this first, crucial step of your inquiry: that of witnessing with full attention the violence in yourself, and the effect of such an exercise on your mind. By now, the librarian is closing the doors, and the creaking latches tell you that it is time to leave. You have not finished your text, but the pause feels like a step in the right direction. As you pack your bag, you recall a quote by Frankl, whom it is safer to quote than Jung although there are echoes between them, since he (Frankl) was at the receiving end of the concentration camps. Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. Yes, you agree, much can be achieved in this pause if we are alert and attentive rather than stupefied by the world, indignant, and in a panic to distance ourselves from our baser instincts. All through that night and the next day, your other labors and responsibilities, your meals and your tea, you hold on to your pause. By now, you wonder if the shout will soon become inaudible, and you, inert. And the stakes shift from the term growth to a word further along Frankl’s quote: will the outcome of this experiment be entirely a reaction to the incident, this library, and your gut, or is there something else here, some delta, that will announce your freedom? Krishnamurthy, who was born two decades after Jung and a decade before Frankl, would argue that perceiving is doing: these are a single biochemical movement. Indeed, at the moment you got away with your life, you would not have debated this; your perception and action were as swift and perfectly aligned as that of a mouse sighting a serpent. And now, as an ordinary citizen, you are at pains to soothe your psyche, whether it is a week or generations later, from the fear of meeting the fate of the mouse unless you call up your tribe, fraternity or nation. But this approach has got us nowhere in ending violence, so you looked for another way. And regardless of Krishnamurthy’s notion that you have acted all along, was the result of your experiment inaction in the everyday sense of the term? No, because to be alive is to act one way or another. Here you are in the library again, and you have finished your text, but it is not the text you intended to write. Whether its utility is greater than that of the unwritten work is a judgment the well-meaning reader may make upon undertaking a similar experiment when they are on the precipice of imposing what should be on the what is of this page.
Image Credits: Vasudeo S. Gaitonde
Untitled, 1986, Oil on canvas.
Devika Rege was born and raised in Pune. Her debut novel will be published by Fourth Estate in 2023. Website: https://devikarege.com