Words are what I do. I have lived by their promise for the majority of my working life. Like so many writers, I began as a reader and as a reader, words seem transparent. They had something to say and as I read them, the world began to take on a new colour and a new texture. My experiences, I felt, had a new depth and a new richness because of my reading. To me, words were then our willing allies in the process by which we civilised the world, one word at a time, one naming at a time.
Of course, this was the prelapsarian phase of innocence. It seems sometimes as if one can only use a word like innocence in order to predicate a fall from it. I do not know when this happens, when you begin to realise that you have placed your faith in the intangible and the volatile. Is it the moment when you thought you knew what a word meant and you found that it meant something quite different when you looked it up? Is it the moment when you begin to realise that what you took the poet to mean and what he said he meant were two different things? There is a moment when words begin what will be a lifelong cycle of betrayals and fresh seductions.
Perhaps it is when you actually begin to use words to communicate that you begin to think of words as translucent. They refract your meaning because as soon as they pass from you, they are received and the story of their reception is the story of the receiver. In toto. No one receives a word but she has a history to bring to bear on that word.
The perfect receiver
For everyone who has worked in words, there is a perfect receiver. This perfect receiver is someone who can see exactly what we mean. There is never any misunderstanding because the perfect receiver can do everything that we did not do. She will imagine the characters in the way we imagined them, she will hear their voices in her head as we heard them in ours, she will put in missing colours and shade in backgrounds with the right emotional tonality. She will receive each word in the exact same way as we planned it. Need I say therefore that she has the same political colouring, the same life experiences, the same, the same, the same? Need I say therefore that she is impossible?
There was a time when I believed that I was the perfect reader of my own work. And it is possible that in the time of writing, I am. In the moment of taking an evanescent and fast-changing thought and pinning it to paper, I accept defeat. I know I will never capture what I wanted to say because what I want to say is specific to me and language is not specific to me, its magic is its generalised meaning. But when I am putting a word down now, I know what it means and why I am saying it.
The problem is that I am not a single unchanging entity. I am subject to the passage of time, I am subject to the pressure of new information, I am therefore changing, I am growing, I am degenerating… it all depends on who is doing the looking. So I often cease to be the perfect reader for my own writing. I come up against it and lament at its lack of precision, its deficiencies in clarity and compassion.
Now I have abandoned the attempt to characterise words and I accept reluctantly that the gift of language is one of the greatest we have given ourselves but it is labelled Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. Let the receiver beware, these words are dangerous.
To fear is to be human
Which brings me to the word “danger”.
The word danger is a strange thing. Most of us learn of it at the time when we are children and it jumps out at us from posters where a memento mori in the form of a skull and crossbones is placed to remind us of our mortality and frighten us into inaction. But slowly we come to see danger as one of the necessary concomitants of living and certainly one of the most important negotiations we make in our march to civilisation. If we are always to be safe, we will stagnate. I think of the great pioneers of food when I consider the Hindi muhaavra: Bandar kya jaane adrak ka swaad. How can a monkey appreciate the flavour of ginger? And how could the first woman who bit into ginger know that it would be so magical in tea and in cookies, so effective in masalas and tinctures?
Being human therefore means we must take risks or we will begin to degenerate and our language will also degenerate with us. That is why we have made a pact with fear. I should like to look at the anatomy of this emotion, probably one of the most important that we have developed in our repertoire of feelings. If evolution gave us love and language so that we should build families and societies, I suspect fear was put in so that we should learn to be able to take steps to defend ourselves from those who should like to do us harm.
We will always need fear. It is part of what makes us human. But did evolution also give us hate? Or was it simply another name for fear? If as we developed a sense of self as composed of two parts, of the self as one knows it and the self as one sees it mirrored in the eyes of others, we must have decided that we were not capable of fear. That was for the weak. The strong would therefore hate and turn it into violence.
From fear to hate
So whom do you hate?
Forget for a moment the hatred that is outside you, the hatred that is aimed at you. Whom do you hate? Why do you hate what you hate?
Perhaps it is out of a sense of injustice. X behaved unjustly to me and so I hate him. I am entitled to that hate.
We all feel entitled to our hatreds because only we know what we have suffered. We all feel entitled to our emotions because they are our emotions. It is just those others who should not hate because it vitiates the atmosphere and makes things terrible for all of us.
It is not easy to talk about hatred but it is even more difficult to talk about fear. To admit to fear is to admit to vulnerability. It suggests someone huddling in a cave, paralysed by the terror of the night and the glint of canines. So by the alchemy peculiar to the human being, we reinvented fear and made it hate.
Hate now has an active feeling to it.
Fear seems passive. You have no choice but to feel fear.
But hate? Hate seems like something you would choose to do and then you can gather around you some more fearful people who want to hide their fears and you can form a mob and raise your mashaals and go after the source of your fear.
So why do so many people fear writers? What were MM Kalburgi and Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar and Gauri Lankesh doing that they were so feared?
I think we have all begun to understand now how powerful words can be. As children we had a chant, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” It was used whenever an insult was hurled at us but I suspect we spoke out of hurt, thus proving we knew already that what was being said was potent, was powerful, and had the potential to cause pain.
In college, it became fashionable to end those long discussions on the comparative merits of Marxism and capitalism, or the agrarian crisis, or whatever it was that we were debating on those long slow afternoons, with the remark, “This is all talk. What we need is action”. This seemed unanswerable then because we were not voters and so could not make much of a change and we were not in charge of the price of Kalyan Sona.
I wish I had known then what I know now. That we use words because they are one of the best ways to communicate the thoughts we have, and are therefore potent magic. That those actions not based on thought will only lead to further problems. But in the silence that fell after the call to action, we were colluding in demeaning language and those who use it. We were not guarding the gift we had been given.
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” we have been told endlessly. I wish that were true. I think we have a lot to fear. It is rational these days to be afraid but it is also difficult to be able to acknowledge that fear and accept it for what it is and not to turn it into hate.
We can be human
We are always going to walk among people who are not like us. The world is diverse. This diversity is also a gift. If we were all the same, there would be no one to write for, nothing to write about. The perfect reader would become the monster reader because he would know everything you had to say, he would feel all that you were feeling and writing would indeed become a solipsism.
But we live in a world in which there will be people who will be different. Some will celebrate difference, some will ignore it, some will try to make light of it, some will work to eliminate it, some will be afraid of it, and some of those who are afraid will hate.
I come back then to another question: what do we do about the situation we are in? I suppose we can only do what we have always done. We will continue to write. Because we consider risk important. Because we consider language important. Because we consider each other too important to allow someone to go without criticism.
There is no way to mandate bravery. Nor is it useful to say something on the lines of: If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. In our age, it is impossible to say what might cause offence, what might anything from death to trolling and all the unpleasant things that could happen in between. So what if you want to be a cook, and you must suddenly confront a furnace instead of a stove?
I get the feeling I am preaching to the converted. You would believe in freedom of speech, you would believe in the importance of the word, you would believe in the value of dialogue or why would you be here? But perhaps it is important to say it again: we have no choice but to do it afraid.
Outside the world is dark but it is not completely without light. We still have books, we still have the law, we still have readers, we still have festivals, we still have royalty cheques and awards but most of all we have each other.
We can do this thing. We can be human. We can deepen our sense of being human through literature. We can offer this gift to others though they may refuse it, reject it or return ashes for our beauty. We can do this because we have no other choice.
And so I make a commitment today to listening to you, ma soeur et mon frère, mes semblables. I will try to listen to you even if I do not like what I am hearing. I will try to listen to you even when you are shouting at me. I will try to listen beyond the percussion of your rage, the hammering of your words, the quick and savage responses I am capable of. I will try to see that if you are my imperfect reader it is because I am an imperfect writer and if we cannot do this for each other, we can do nothing together.
This is the full text of the keynote address delivered by writer and translator Jerry Pinto at the ninth edition of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival on Thursday.