A Writer's Life

Must writing be the only profession of the writer?

The conflict between the expert and the generalist is often played out when defining a writer.

A conceit that we often come across is that we live in the “Age of the Expert,” a formulation that is often followed by dire, and often fairly accurate, diagnoses of how the arrogation of authority by carefully chosen experts helps a dominant discourse assert itself, and sometimes by folksy bewailings of the end of the era of the amateur. But alas, that forlorn figure, the amateur, has been at the receiving end of it for quite some time.

…Master of none?

Let me adduce one of Mir Taqi Mir’s “witty tales” from his “autobiography” Zikr-i-Mir. The story relates to the famous Sufi and Farsi poet Mirza Bedil who once used a particular compound word that the part-time poet and full-time (as evinced by his title) doctor Hakim Shaikh Husain Shuhrat found objectionable. He took this objection to the Mirza who immediately recited a qasida by some older master that used the same compound repeatedly.

Seeing the Hakim rendered speechless by this incontrovertible evidence of his ignorance, Mirza Bedil delivered the killer blow – a line that has often haunted me, stuck as I am between a “day job” as a computer scientist and my vocation as a novelist. “Hakim sahib,” the Mirza said, “Before poets, you are a physician, and before physicians, a poet. Before neither you are both, and before both, neither.”

Read the story up to the end of the last paragraph and ask yourself, reader: did you naturally assume that the Hakim was an upstart, a dabbler whose hubristic attempt to challenge the expert, the full-timer, the nothing-but-a-poet, met with an appropriately crushing response? As it happens Hakim Shuhrat was not a minor poet of his time. He had several disciples, some of whom Mirza Bedil had also tutored. Mir himself provides examples of the doctor’s felicity with language and even today Shuhrat is noted by scholars as a major, if forgotten, contributor to the Indo-Persian tradition of poetry at the the turn of the 17th century.

The Hakim’s story contains several of the prejudices that have ossified into truths in our times. Professing more than one vocation automatically makes all the professor’s vocations into avocations. Re-read the story with Hakim Shuhrat replaces by just Husain Shuhrat, add the knowledge that Shuhrat was some year Mirza Bedil’s junior, and you will find the story is not even worth telling. It’s a minor infraction by a less well-informed poet. But the moment Shuhrat’s other job comes into the picture, his specific lack of knowledge of one small and obscure aspect of Persian poetry is immediately attributed to his possession of a more-than-ordinary knowledge of the deep and not widely known science of medicine.

Professionalism and insecurity

For those of us who, like Hakim Shuhrat, have an emotional investment in more than one form of professional practice, this inability to put all our eggs in one basket comes with several issues. Let us forgo here the discussion of the divided self of the individual who has to, for example, rest on the certitudes of science and technology one moment and switch next moment to the criticism of certainty that is the hallmark of a certain kind of fiction. Let us also ignore for now the fact that life in its domestic avatar presents another field of activity where a complete immersion is unavoidable, and not only for women, although they, undoubtedly, carry a larger burden of responsibilities within the home.

Instead let us focus on the thought that to be considered an expert in one thing, it is considered necessary for an individual to be ignorant of everything else. Could it be that the idea of professionalism posited on an absence of expertise in other spheres is the product of a kind of insecurity? Can we turn Mir’s story around and speculate perhaps that Mirza Bedil felt uncomfortable at being faced by a man who knew a lot about something the Mirza himself knew very little of?

There are several deep questions worth investigating here but unfortunately I lack the expertise required to investigate them. For myself, I find that I am stuck with my two vocations, novelist and computer scientist, having applied Rilke’s test – can you live without doing it – to both and having come up with a negative answer in each case. I try to keep them as separate as possible from each other and this helps me in both. Away from the overheated atmosphere of lit fests and social media, my university job keeps me grounded. As evidence, the following story:

Colleague: Hey, Bagchi, I was in a bookstore and saw that there was a book by some Amitabha Bagchi and I thought let me check and there was a photo of you in it!Me: (Giggles sheepishly) Colleague: Congrats, man! That’s great. Me: Thanks.(Colleague turns to leave.) Me: So, did you buy it?Colleague: No, I am more of a non-fiction kind of guy.

Amitabha Bagchi is a novelist and an Associate Professor in the Computer Science and Engineering department at IIT Delhi. He will be chairing a talk by Sunetra Gupta, Sahitya Akademi Award-winning novelist and winner of the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Award for her contribution to science, at a symposium on “de-professionalisation” at IIC, Delhi on January 8 and 9. Other speakers include Ashis Nandy, Jeremy Deller, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Nikil Saval, Raj Kamal Jha, Jon Cook, Rosinka Chaudhuri, Peter D McDonald, and Amit Chaudhuri. There will also be talks in Calcutta on January 5 and 11th January. For details of the full programme, see here.

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