Writers Manjiri Indurkar and Rheea Mukherjee took a weekend to ask “that” question. What does it mean to be a writer in an era where self-promotion is often considered the only way to kick-start and then sustain a writing career? When does a writer stop being a writer and become a shallow self-promoting hustler? Do such binary labels help make us more aware or do they just invite more judgement? Excerpts from the conversation:

Rheea Mukherjee (RM): Okay, I am going to jump right in. In the age of social media being a writer also means being a brand or at the very least seizing the opportunity to be seen as, uh, a personality? My educated opinion is that if you’re interested in getting more books published in the world, the onus to be visible is on you.

Manjiri Indurkar (MI): I agree, you have to cultivate a certain image, you need to make your presence felt. You can be a great writer but until and unless you are putting your work out no one will notice. And I think some form this has always existed. When Amit Chaudhuri met Arun Kolatkar in the early 2000s he told him your books aren’t available anywhere outside of Mumbai and Pune, from what I have heard, and Kolatkar didn’t seem to care. Kolatkar at this point had already won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, but he still wasn’t internationally known. Which changed and NYRB brought out Kolatkar’s poetry collections because Amit Chaudhuri worked on that. But most of us aren’t that lucky. Our work might even be at Kolatkar’s level, but if the aspiration is for it to get the attention it deserves, it won’t happen unless we make it happen.

RM: Yes, there are other anecdotal stories from the past that allude to talented writers only “making it” when some other writer pushed them through to a new audience. But here’s the thing about the present; social media is the most visible way for writers to promote their work. The question then becomes, how do we stay authentic to the story we are telling? I just have to bring in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk on the danger of a single story (which I think every storyteller and reader must watch if they haven’t). She talks about the danger of reading one story as an all-encompassing answer to its theme. Yes, readers have to be aware of this, but I think writers ought to be as well.

Today, I see a lot of authors seamlessly transitioning into talking heads for specific thematic things they write about. These themes cover things like women’s rights, politics, gender, caste, etc., in both fiction and nonfiction. I think this can be a good thing as well. If you can use your gift of writing and articulation to promote more dialogue, that’s splendid. But there’s a blurry line here. When does a writer cease to be a writer and instead become a brand or a personification of a cause or theme? A hustler, that is?

But, let’s back up. What is a writer supposed to do in the first place?

MI: I think at the very least the writer has to be honest about the experience they are writing about. If I step out of my house and experience something that I feel compelled to write about, because we all are finding stories at all times, what I want then is some authenticity and transparency. Where is my position in this story? Am I just an observer? Are my observations then coming in the way of the agency of the subject? Am I in any way trying to romanticise their situation? Also, when I write about things from my observations, what are these observations? Am I, for instance, assuming their socio-cultural reality? From someone’s clothes can I in all sincerity decide what their class is? Are my observations putting them in certain boxes? And to what end? What does this story mean to me and to my readers?

RM: Yes, when the experience is yours and it’s clear that the observation is only your perception of it, then as a reader I am compelled. But when a writer uses their theme to manipulate people into their brand, that’s where I get ticked off. I mean we could point at Chetan Bhagat here as an obvious choice, but he’s quite transparent about the fact that he is more brand than writer. What the audience perceives is another matter.

MI: Yes, absolutely. It is quite obnoxious.

RM: Ok, well if we’re going to comment about the culture of promotion and books and our honesty to the experience, do you worry that your own book (which has a clear mental illness theme) is going to put undue pressure on you to be an expert about it? Are you anxious about how you will balance your own career promotion?

MI: No, I don’t worry about that. My book is on mental health but it is a memoir of a survivor. And I have always been very clear about my position. I am not a mental health expert and I will never claim that. All I can do is stay true to my experiences and say this is what happens to me, and if then someone can relate to it, great and this doesn’t change even when I am promoting my book. If a reader comes to me for advice with the misguided notion that I might have answers I am going to listen to them if I can, and ask them to seek professional help. My role will end there. I need that clarity for my reader and for myself.

But I do think a lot of writers purposefully put themselves in that position where readers end up idolising them.

RM: I think it’s a slippery slope. Suppose you wrote a book that has themes that talk about political minorities, and doesn’t shy away from the politics of gender, then you can expect social pressure to keep writing about these things to keep that “social thought leader” image going. In theory it’s great, if you are self-aware. But I don’t see that happening much in our era. I think we’re at risk of becoming caricatures for causes. Using our characters, themes or experiences to make it about us while tearing off the agency that people have when they experience these things we write about on their own.

MI: While non-fiction is hard in terms of writing, it has a certain clarity to it. If I am writing a book about my life, people close to me know they will be in it, I have warned them about it. But of course they don’t know what is going into the book, but these experiences aren’t theirs alone, I was an active participant, so I get to say my piece, it is my perception of a certain event that matters to me. And of course then the onus is also on me to write with empathy and as much fairness as I can muster.

However, I would feel cheated if someone took an incident from my life and used it as a social media plug to self-promote in ways that I look like a passive participant and they, the hero. My story is not mine anymore, which again is fine, I suppose. One is allowed to take away whatever one wants to, but is it happening at the cost of my dignity? That tends to happen a lot. We write stories where if we are to emerge as heroes/heroines we reduce the ‘subject’ to a trope, whatever suits our needs in the moment. This I think is morally reprehensible.

RM: What about audience responsibility? Does any responsibility lie on them too? Or do they get to create the writer heroes because they have bought into whatever a storyteller is telling them?

MI: I think we are all complicit here. The problem with branding and social media is also that people turn into icons way too soon. There isn’t enough time to offer critique. The writer as the hero is a major issue because we are now celebrating almost anyone and everyone and buying into their stories without giving it much thought. The quality of writing then obviously goes for a toss. This lack of scrutiny is the reader’s doing. How is it that you keep reading the same stories with minor details changed and not see that the writer is taking you for a ride? You are an enabler then. The reader and writer are in a codependent relationship, we need each other equally.

RM: Yes! At its best, the writer is someone who can narrate a single perception with great power, one that can inspire more discussion. But at its worst, this kind of storytelling can create lazy heroes.

Places for the public to quickly look up their hero’s viewpoint on Twitter or Facebook and then quickly align with it without thought.

MI: My mother for instance thinks if you went to an IIT you have to be super intelligent. An IIT here is an authority figure. So, see how easy it is to fool us? Because you cracked the IIT JEE exam, which is difficult, now you can do no wrong. She doesn’t believe me when I say I know a lot of idiots who went to an IIT. We are gullible, to say the least, and too amenable to popular narratives. And the writer who is a hustler knows this.

RM: I think it’s safe to assume that if you are writing in English and have been traditionally published, there have been some social privileges at play here. Perhaps that needs to be thrown into the mix of being a writer today. Being forthcoming with how privileged you are. There’s a trend of dismissing the super-rich or not aligning with their aspirations, but at the same time be stunningly unable to discuss that we (or a good number of us) are a generation of privileged writers fuelled by capitalism. In this very complicated web we can’t assume, romanticise, or offer whole truths about the rich, poor, middle class and everything in between. I actually think it’s more productive to be honest about what you have and articulate where you have social myopia. I’ve never slept with a woman, but I have written about it – now that’s just my perception of it, I can’t claim to have anymore or any less authority on it. I am responsible for what I write.

MI: Absolutely. I am caste and even class privileged, and whenever I write I have to write with that consciousness. I cannot be the voice of the Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi community, I cannot romanticise their struggles. But I can own my part in their oppression and write about caste from that point of view (if I am writing about caste).

But no matter what story I tell, my privilege is intrinsic to that, I cannot avoid it and I shouldn’t.

RM: Well, most of us get butt-hurt when we acknowledge our caste privilege. It doesn’t mean we (within the framework of privilege) did not work hard. I think being a writer is very hard, it’s a lot of rejection, it’s an invitation for people to dismiss your views and your understanding of things. But it’s also a privilege, and I have had a lot of it, right from the invisible ones of caste and class right down to the more tangible ones ( a result of class and caste) like my education and my network of social capital.

MI: We have a lot of anxiety and we are too quick to claim that we also struggled. Well sure, no one is denying you your struggles, but they weren’t because of your caste or your class. I, for instance, did not grow up with a lot of culture capital. And I think it is okay for me to say that I was in a largely conservative set-up and this was at the very core of my struggles, not my caste and not my class. You cannot claim to understand what a person who is struggling to make ends meet goes through just because your parents had limited government job salaries while growing up and could not afford to buy you Toblerone. It’s not how it works.

RM: That’s important – especially when we as writers write about classes and castes outside our own. Why do we tend to romanticise it? We assume more of the grit and hardship (that we’ve never experienced) but rarely see the joy, boredom, happiness that also resides in their context, outside of the “light” the writer shines on them.

MI: That we cannot. The other, the one who is not us, is always suffering in the most gruesome ways. Look at the popular cinematic examples, Sunny Deol films like Ghayal and Ghatak. The bad guy is always walking all over the poor (Bollywood only has casteless poor people) and the good guy, their saviour, is always going to be an upper caste guy. Not that they tell us his caste, it’s just that we more or less know his surname and we can make an educated guess.

This is something so visible in our writing circles as well. The Brahmin as the saviour is a trope I see in social media posts of the writers writing social welfare narratives from observations. People writing “brave” stories about their domestic staff, for instance. You call them brave, but did you ask them if they even want you to write their story? And, more importantly, did you tell them what your role is going to be in their story? Because who are we kidding? These stories aren’t for them, they are to make you look good. So again we come back to this, where is their agency?

RM: We as readers are very keen to take credit for something we can better relate to. And here’s where I think real public debate and dialogue happens, when we can see each rhetoric, story, experience for what it is. A chronicle from one person. And then, if we can go one step further and be world-aware enough to take in the other factors that could influence this story we’re reading. But that’s too idealistic.

What do you think is the simplest thing to do is as a writer in our times?

MI: Just don’t try to control the narrative. That is what I think it boils down to.

RM: Writers should embrace the fact that at best we’re the master of our own story and not how others use it or take from it. Do all this while still trying to be true to our experience and imagination, even when we’re promoting our work. Whew.

MI: Yes, exactly. You are a chronicler. So, stay true to that role. If we are to archive a period of time we have to remember that archival work demands authenticity. .