Essay: Where does a writer go when the streets are stolen?
Author Saikat Majumdar wonders if the experience of living confined by Covid will make the real more magical in the writerly imagination
Where does a young writer – say someone in their late teens or early twenties – go for inspiration today? If you’re in that age group, write in English, and live in one of India’s major metros, there’s a very good chance that you are an OTT(Over-The-Top media ie streaming television)-addict, and in particular, a fan of a show such as Black Mirror. I single out Black Mirror because of its peculiar blend of the fictitious and the possible, and its setting in the “near” future, as opposed to an impossibly distant one. The idea of building a credit history through social “likes,” experiencing non-heteronormative desire through video-games avatars, the persona of a dead loved one reconstructed from their history of online behaviour – all seem out there but not quite, absurd-but-on-the-verge-of-the-real, a world not even 50 years away but perhaps 10 or 12.
Effective art is but a teasing play or the alien and the familiar – alien enough to intrigue you but familiar enough to comfort. When both tug at us simultaneously from opposite directions, we are sold.
The venue of this world-building inspiration is just as crucial for the young, Anglophone, metropolitan Indian writer today. Having taught creative writing at a university, and held writing workshops in high schools across the nation these past four years, I sense a major drift of the imagination of young people, especially those of a certain class and education, away from the immediate sensory reality around them and into the mystical space of the virtual. Childhood and early youth are often times of fantasy and magic, and even those of us whose lives precede the digitally-mastered childhood recall the mesmeric power of myth, magic, and fairy tales, whether from books or stories heard from our elders. But for the post-millennial generation, the world of Hogwarts makes an unnoticed transition to the hyper reality of Black Mirror. This is so especially if you belong to the air-conditioned class of Indian society.
The contrast becomes clearer as I conduct writing workshops in the community, organized by publishers, literary festivals, and writing groups in different cities. When older adults write, they create the reality of their workdays, the intricacies of family life, the banal excitement of everyday life – a wholly different intersection of the alien and the familiar. Young adults of a certain class haven’t yet gathered the beautiful debris of this crushingly quotidian workday, whether in the kitchen or the office – but neither do they seem particularly interested in it. Why would they be? Reality is always boring when you have the option of unplugging it, on the move or in bed.
I remember speaking at an elite school in Mumbai, where the classroom window opened onto a busy street. After discussing a couple of thrillers set in a techno-futuristic world, I just had to ask them: “This is good work, but have you even thought of looking out of that window?” Watching the micro epics of Indian city streets?
There seems to be a slight gendered pattern in the evocation of techno-fantasies, but that’s a different issue. Also, the closer the writer is to a vernacular tradition and a rural/suburban location (sadly, these days, the two increasingly imply each other), the deeper the work’s rootedness in the atmospheric present of the here and now. These are general observations, and there are exceptions, but the see-saw between the real and the hyper real in young adult writers is hard to miss.
What happens when the streets are stolen by a virus?
In the 1960s and 70s, postmodernist writers faced a strange problem. Linguists and philosophers argued that there was no organic relation between a word and its corresponding reality; that such a relation was purely a matter of social consensus and would crumble without that agreement. That there is no reason why a creature cannot be called “God” and the Creator, “Dog.” Even onomatopoeic words do not actually reflect reality; the dog barks differently in each language.
Under this skepticism, many postmodernist writers gave up trying to capture a sensory reality, rich with smell, sound and touch, as their modernist predecessors had done. If you lose faith in the signifying power of language, why bother creating a physical world? It was time to be metafictional, or loop and re-loop into the endless circuits of simulation, be it television or advertising.
Realism has since then made peace with the arbitrariness of language. But 2020 has enacted almost an exact reversal. Rather than a loss of faith in the representational power of language, now it is reality that seems to have disappeared.
I see Facebook posts and Instagram stories of friends hugging friends, having dinner and drinks, tagging those memories as relics of another time. They are now fiction. Posts asking people what the first thing is they’ll do once “this” is all over have now given up – when, if ever, will we get our lives back?
“Please don’t fall in love,” says a caveat “with the first person you get to hug after all this!” My ten-year-old daughter asks me, “What does it feel like to step outdoors without a mask?” I believe she has truly forgotten the feeling.
While the non-AC class of Indian society fights the immediate nightmare of crumbling livelihoods, the air-conditioned class becomes – or seeks to become – a microbe-conditioned class. Parties are forgotten, so are rock concerts and mass protests. With masks on, we say no evil!
Less reality, fewer hugs (and punches), more text and digital media, some books and a whole lot of Netflix?
What does this robbed reality mean for writers? A greater refuge into the virtual? Wait, wasn’t that already the case?
Will the real become more magical in the writerly imagination? Like sitting in a crowded metro coach and watching the shape of a stranger’s bare mouth?
Or kissing someone who’s not cleared by blood kinship and microbe tests? Someone whose lips you’d like to know better than their job and family history?
Is reality the new exotic? Yet?
Saikat Majumdar ’s novels include The Firebird (2015) and The Scent of God (2019)