In September-October, 2017, Coldnoon celebrated six years of publishing, and travelling with you. To mark our anniversary, we got together with writers, intellectuals and stalwarts of the art of thinking (and travelling). Here is an interview with Gayatri Jayaraman.
We believe, in making travel arrangements, we subconsciously tend to eliminate possibilities which we deem unfit to perceived etiquette, or norms or occasions. Our understanding of travel is based on premises that define what traveling is not. Is writing for you a similar activity, where you are conscious of what writing is not? If so, what according to you is not writing?
Life itself is defined by what it is not. Neti (‘Not this’) philosophy was first expounded by Adi Shankaracharya, one of the foremost Advaita Vedanta philosophers. Its purpose is not negation as much as it is to whittle away the superfluous until you arrive at the truth. In Herman Hesse’s Siddharta, it is the process of elimination the prince takes on his journey to being the Buddha. What of life do we who have not lived renounce? Seekers, Hesse will tell you, end up being obsessed with the goal: ‘But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.’ As writers, the seekers, unidirectional, fixated, focussed, almost always end up lost, burdened by a dead weight, however complete. In following the idea of the book, you surrender to thought, perception, imagination and reality. If what you end up with is what you began with, then you are poor writer indeed. If you attempt to control the narrative, you will find yourself in battle with the manuscript. If you are open to what wants to be found, you must be willing to question yourself, erase and rewrite what you were certain were your most brilliant lines. The multiple drafts, the entire pages deleted, the manuscripts in the dustbin, the long self-indulgent sentences that got trimmed down — Neti is what chisels an author out of a mere scribe. People speak of rejections — beyond yourself, there is the publisher’s and beyond the publisher’s there is the reader’s — as somewhat of a horrific baptism. Yet, it is necessary to be so baptised, to acquire revelations at all. Rejection is an arriving at. Without it, there is no writing. Just self-indulgence.
Besides writing what would you most like to be known for?
A sense of humour. By which I don’t mean that I would like to do stand up, or, as my son put it, ‘if you must fail at being a writer, at least be meme-worthy’. But I would like to be known as someone who didn’t take herself too seriously. That’s the problem with half the world today. Everyone believes they are some sort of oracle. They hold everyone around them to those standards too. These words will boom from the cloud on top of the mountain when it is too late. No, it won’t. History decides that. None of us has a say in it. For all you know, history will make an obscure selfhelp writer the voice of our age. Everyone decrying religion is turning themselves and their idols into temples of their own. If I were called in/ To construct a religion/ I should make use of water. (Larkin). One of the first books I read and re-read was The Little World of Don Camillo. It was a slim book in my father’s bookshelf by an Italian journalist, Giovanni Guareschi, about a Catholic priest on the banks of the river Po, who has ongoing conversations with God. In one, the Lord tells him his hands were made for blessing, not revenge, so he may not strike back after an assault. Ah, but he realises his feet were not. So, he is able to land a kick on the behind of Peppone, the leftist leader, as he kneels at the altar. The Lord is pleased. I’d like to think if I was ever a priest, I’d be a priest like that. But for now, a writer like that will do too.
In 1794, the French author, Xavier de Maistre, wrote the renowned book, Voyage Around my Room, during a month and a half of solitary confinement, in consequence of a duel. Besides being a satire on the contemporary literary culture of voyages and adventures of colonial sailors to prospective new worlds, the book proved to be a demonstration of how an individual is almost always travelling, but perhaps does not recognize the value of their domestic travels, mobility or even touristic acquisitions. How do you see or understand travelling? Do you think it is a necessary activity for a writer?
Immanuel Kant never travelled more than a few towns away from his native Konigsberg, and yet he too knew the value of travel. He devoured travel reports. He is said to have known his way around London and Italy, and he reportedly said he had no time to travel because he wanted to know so much about every country. I think about this a lot when we see what commercial travel has become. We are no longer in an age of Xuanzang where the unexplored reveals itself as you amble. Almost too much is written about everything. The modern travel guide has disembowelled the selfrevelatory relationship of newness every location shares with a first-time traveller. Most people are so burdened by their own expectations of a city or country that they demand, they rarely receive. They come burdened with pre-set frames and filters of vacation pictures that they see themselves in. I don’t see how this kind of travel helps anybody. It merely is the framing of self-image in images they have seen others framed in. There is no authenticity to this movement. The greatest writers, or their characters, were amblers. They walked, or ran, even if they didn’t travel. Whether that’s Mrs Dalloway or Murakami. The purpose of travel is to exit the frame of the mind that has been preconditioned by society and experience. To walk into other pre-existing frames is self-defeating. It is also why several today find themselves exhausted by travel, and need a vacation from their vacations. The question is not so much ‘where do you travel to?’ as ‘what do you travel away from?’. A writer who must benefit from travel, or a run, or a walk, must leave himself behind. Finding oneself is just nonsense. You can do that in your armchair. Travel must relocate you, broaden your experience, push at your comfort zones, and force you to question some, if not all, that you think you know. If you’re looking for affirmation, please stay home. You have not travelled at all if you came back more you than you were when you left. “There is the city where you arrive for the first time, and there is another city which you leave never to return.” (Calvino). Return altered, or don’t travel at all.
Your favourite or most striking lines by another author; or if you will, any composed by yourself?
It is hard to play favourites, but these lines from Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (Act V) ring to me from behind the words of my book, Who Me, Poor?:
DOOLITTLE: [softening his manner in deference to her sex] That’s the tragedy of it, ma’am. It’s easy to say chuck it; but I havent the nerve. Which of us has? We’re all intimidated. Intimidated, ma’am: that’s what we are. What is there for me if I chuck it but the workhouse in my old age? I have to dye my hair already to keep my job as a dustman. If I was one of the deserving poor, and had put by a bit, I could chuck it; but then why should I, accuse the deserving poor might as well be millionaires for all the happiness they ever has. They don’t know what happiness is. But I, as one of the undeserving poor, have nothing between me and the pauper’s uniform but this here blasted three thousand a year that shoves me into the middle class. (Excuse the expression, ma’am: you’d use it yourself if you had my provocation). They’ve got you every way you turn: it’s a choice between the Skilly of the workhouse and the Char Bydis of the middle class; and I haven’t the nerve for the workhouse. Intimidated: that’s what I am. Broke. Bought up. Happier men than me will call for my dust, and touch me for their tip; and I’ll look on helpless, and envy them. And that’s what your son has brought me to. [He is overcome by emotion].
Do respond to the following words:
“It’s much better to do good in a way that no one knows anything about it.” — Leo Tolstoy.
If you did good, you would know about it and you are not no one. Perhaps, in this world of conscious ills, a visible and aspirational good is now our only counter.
What do you think of Coldnoon?
A good poem is like finding a hole
in the palace
never know what you
see (Sant Tukaram)
Some places are like that. Yours is.