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Honesty in Writing: Lessing, Madhavikutty and more..

I just started reading Francine Prose’s Reading like a writer. It makes me wonder why I choose to read the books that I read.

I read Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Long a Solitude, because the life of a book destroyer in Prague intrigued me, it was beyond my imagination before I read it. I read Briane Greene’s The Elegant Universe because I was in a phase in my life where string theory fascinated me, and thought perhaps that this was indeed the answer to all man’s questions about the universe. I read Waris Dirie’s Desert Flower, because I admire the woman for her grit – how many Somalian women have managed to fight every adversity that fate threw up and go on to become a famous model? I read Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shadow of the Sun, because I was on my way to Africa for the first time, I was alone and a bit scared of what awaited me in the dark continent and I mistakenly thought the book might make me feel better on the flight. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t read book after book about Bengali immigrants in America, but I devour every Jhumpa Lahiri book I can lay my hands on, because every sentence she writes is like a musical note that has been perfected through hours and hours of playing.

I might read for many reasons, but I admire writers for one quality. A rare quality that not even every one of the great ones share – honesty. It is hard to write an honest book. It is hard even to write an honest post. Yet, those are the stories that grip you and make you realize that life is not all pretty and dainty, but you are not the only one confronting the ugliness either.

I recommend Doris Lessing’s Grass is Singing, for anyone who wants an honest read. If you are in a mood for a comfort read, this is not it. But if you are ready to look life in the eye, with its ugliness right there with all the beauty that we like to see, this is one of my favorites.

“When she saw him, she stopped dead, and stared at him with fear. Then her face, from being tormented, became slowly blank and indifferent. He could not understand this sudden change. But he said, in a jocular uncomfortable voice : `There was once an empress of Russia who thought so little of her slaves, as human beings, that she used to undress naked in front of them.’ It was from this point of view that he chose to see the affair; the other was too difficult for him. `Was there?’ she said doubtfully at last, looking puzzled. `Does that native always dress and undress you?’ he asked. Mary lifted her head sharply, and her eyes became cunning. `He has so little to do,’ she said, tossing her head. `He must earn his money.’
(The Grass is Singing, 1950)

Set in Southern Rhodesia under white rule and slavery, Doris Lessing’s first novel is at once a riveting chronicle of human disintegration, a beautifully understated social critique, and a brilliant depiction of the quiet horror of one woman’s struggle against a ruthless fate, and like almost all of Lessing’s work portrays life as it is; no apologies, no excuses and no smoke curtains.

The first writer whose honesty struck me was Kamala Das or Madhavikutty or Suraiyya (I don’t know the other names she goes by). A true icon of Malayalam literature, I have read her works in English or the ones that had been translated, never quite attempting to read page after page in my mother tongue. When she passed away last month, she left a void in Malayalam literature that no one can really fill.

When I was younger, I used to wonder why a woman born to a comfortable life in Kerala would have subjected herself to so much controversy? Wouldn’t it just have been easier to write beautiful stories about pretty things and let the harder facts rest in peace? But then, now I realize, it is not the easier road that is the more fulfilling road, and a writer’s satisfaction comes from writing whatever it is that he/she feels like, the consequences be damned.

But why does honest writing have to have so many consequences? Why is it that if a woman writes:

“Gift him what makes you woman, the scent of
Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,
The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your
Endless female hungers …”
(The Looking Glass, from The Descendants, 1967).

,she is judged to be sexually provocative, not just as a writer, but also as a person. By the time I had reached a mature reading age, I think the literary press was more interested in sensationalizing Kamala Das’ personal life rather than her literary achievements. Magazines printed more of her life’s stories rather than her short stories, which was a real loss for my generation.

But then, perhaps, asking a reader to judge a book without judging the person is hypocritical too. Afterall, there are times when I read Lessing and I wonder whether she experienced any part of her stories herself? Whether it is her opinion or the character’s? How much is fact and how much is fiction? But fact in fiction, or fiction in fact – does it really matter?

I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a yellow sun a little while ago. A haunting book, it has many raw scenes and offers an honest look at the Biafran war that changed Nigeria forever. Towards the end of the book, the narrator opines that the story of a Nigerian war is best told by Nigerians. Why really? What is the point I am missing? A different perspective doesn’t make the story any less honest, it is just someone else’s view point. If we all chose to write stories about the lands we were born to, the literary world wouldn’t be half an interesting place as it is today. Should we all just be reading the story of India by Indians or the story of America by Americans? Why is Nigeria any different? Whatever be the context, aren’t we all better off reading multiple perspectives?

Posted in Books on June 22, 2009

7 Responses

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  1. Divya says

    I agree (to some extent)! But I am not sure if I can read books written by Nazi sympathizers/Rwandan genocide supports- however honest they may be about their opinions. But, there are books that tread a fine line like “Reluctant Fundamentalist” or even “Yacoubian Building”. But on the other hand, I read this book about an African man who has a serial killer as an idol and tries hard to kill his girl friend but fails to (just cant find the name of the book!) and I did like the honesty with which the protagonist is portrayed. So, I guess there are personal lines of honesty for everyone!

  2. Surya says

    Hey Divya,
    I am not sure whether they are lines of honesty or just whose perspectives you are willing to read. If I read a book by a Nazi sympathizer (even though thats very unlikely), I would much rather he is honest and gives me his views, instead of trying to justify his actions to get popular support.

    Thanks for the comment, if you ever come across the name of the book you mentioned, pls do drop me a line. sounds interesting, would love to read it.

  3. Divya says

    > If I read a book by a Nazi sympathizer (even though thats very unlikely), I would much rather he is honest and gives me his views, instead of trying to justify his actions to get popular support.

    Yep agree.

    FOUND THE BOOK! African Psycho –

  4. Mary says

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  6. Suma says

    I loved your posts,especially this one. Perhaps because my thoughts match that of yours about Kamala Das.
    I can so very well relate to her thoughts and as a writer, I think I may ‘shock’ my readers. I am not sure how else to express myself. If I do, then I’m masking myself…

    Looking forward to reading more thoughts from you…

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Remembering a journey | Silent Eloquence linked to this post on September 4, 2009

    […] time to read, and African literature started featuring more in my reading lists and reviews. From Kapuscinski’s Shadow of the Sun, which I read because I was on my way to Africa for the first time, I was alone and a bit scared […]

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