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 Kushanava Choudhury.
We believe making travel arrangements, we subconsciously tend to eliminate those possibilities which we deem unfit to perceived etiquettes, or norms or occasions. Our understanding of travel is based on premises that define what travelling 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?
Writing means getting your butt in your seat for a few hours each day, five to six days a week, 40 to 50 weeks a year, every year for the rest of your life. This is what writing mean for any writer working in any language, anywhere in the world. Any young person who wishes to be a writer should understand this as early as possible.
If you spend a few thousand hours writing, you will become a writer. If you don’t you won’t. There’s nothing more mystical or charming about becoming a writer than there is about becoming a painter, or singer or a footballer, for that matter. In fact we have the same discipline and dedication to craft of all good artists and athletes.
I love traveling and seem to have been born with wheels on my feet, as we say in Bengali. But traveling is a dilettante activity, something we do for short stretches of time, which really has nothing to do with the daily discipline that it takes to write.
Besides writing what would you most like to be known for?
I hope that I’m a good father and a good friend.
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?
Voyage Around my Room is a charming novel in the great picaresque tradition of Tristam Shandy and that other classic, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, which I also highly recommend. All are about loafers and good for nothings, basically.
But if you’re a young writer in India today, I think you need learn to get out your house, and your comfort zone. Most Indian writers, particularly those working in English, come caste and class backgrounds where all they have done in their lives is go to school, mug up, pass exams, and then get through the next hoop, and that too in private schools where their fellow students all came from more or less the same caste and class backgrounds. So you reach adulthood without having learned how to interact with people who are not like you, without understanding what it’s like to make things, or to do work with your body, which is what most of the rest of your fellow citizens do in this society. These are enormous handicaps for a writer. What material do you have to write about?
The Pakistani writer Daniyal Mueenuddin once remarked that Indian English fiction writers seemed to be “lying in sort of a bath of warm water and reflecting upon, you know, our sort of quirky funny families.”
In other words, you become De Maistres by default.
The first thing to recognise is that while your education may have taught you how to write grammatically correct English sentences, it has failed you in every other way if you wish to be a writer. You need to pick up other skills, and quickly. I think it’s a good idea to pick a profession that enables you to encounter a wide range of humanity, and travel to as many places as possible. In Herman Melville’s or Joseph Conrad’s time, which is what de Maistre mocks, that meant becoming a sailor and seeing the world. In India today, that could mean being a traveling sales representative, or a general practitioner or a criminal lawyer, or an IAS officer, or a businessman. There are a lot of ways to do it but you need to get that education quickly as you start writing. In my case, I worked as a newspaper reporter, and that was an excellent way to get an education about the worlds outside my house, my community, caste and class.
Do respond to the following words:
“If there is one person I do despise more than another, it is the man who does not think exactly the same on all topics as I do…” ― Jerome K. Jerome
I’d much rather write about Uncle Podger or Mortmorency the dog!
Your favorite or most striking lines by another author; or if you will, any composed by yourself?
“The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” That’s the first sentence of VS Naipaul’s novel Bend in the River. It’s sentiment is a bit extreme but it’s a great line, in a great book. Patrick French used it as the title of his biography of Naipaul: The World Is What It Is
What do you think of Coldnoon?
It’s important to have spaces like Coldnoon where people can experiment, try out different types of writing, and see their work published. It gives you a boost, and helps you to keep going — to not give up — which is the most important thing for a young writer.