04 January, 2014

On Writing and Identity

The first time I encountered Orwell I was 13 years old. I picked up Animal Farm thinking it was a story of a farm and finished it with that notion intact. All undertones, subtle and otherwise, were lost on my teen brain. Thankfully, over the years I revisited Orwell and unpeeled layers, igniting my fascination with his writing and person. 

Why I Write is an intimate book in which he elegantly elucidates his motivations to write. It is a collection of essays, but I will talk of two here: Why I Write, and England on England. In a manner so honest and personal, the reader is almost apologetic for being allowed into his mind, Orwell questions what it means to belong to a country - what does it mean to be English - he reasons that belonging to a country is so closely tied to one's identity that it naturally affects any artistic endeavour. I pause to wonder whether such an exercise is possible for me, or even prudent? But as Orwell says:
'Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle? 
But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.
And above all, it is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillar-boxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.'
He goes on to talk about 'emotional unity' in the face of moments of 'supreme crisis' and my thoughts turn to
Republic Day in 2001. I had, the night before, painted my keds with white paint. It had dried unevenly and in places, the paint had cracked mournfully. We had gotten up early and prepared for the parade. Left right left. Left right left. After marching in the sallow winter sun, we got the standard treat. One besan ka ladoo, one soggy samosa (I only ate the cover, Lee faithfully ate the aaloo for me in exchange for her samosa cover) and a handful of ber. We hurried back to our hostel, planning to while away the rest of the day. I was at my cupboard when I felt the tremor. 'Did the ground just shake?' I asked, excitement making my voice quiver. 'Eeeeeeee earthquake!' someone screamed and we ran out of our rooms, shocked and suitably awed at the possibility. Later, we sat subdued, as news of death tolls trickled in. Next days papers narrated tales of destruction and loss. We contributed money, clothes, and we made cards, unable to understand the import of losing one's home, loved ones and all possessions to an idiosyncrasy. We heard of people coming together from across the country, united in grief and comrades in compassion. Yes, Orwell's words do make sense in retrospect. 

He ends the essay in a subdued yet hopeful tone, 
'It needs some very great disaster, such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national culture. The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children's holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.'
My mind turns to the transitions and transformations shaping India. The plough giving way to the tractor and Ladakh becoming 'the' place to travel to, Nana recounting the lost glory of Allahabad University and mountains being mined of their serenity, never learning how to make Ammaji's famous हड़  का अचार  and clothing becoming homogenised - Delhi or London, boots becoming ubiquitous. But like Orwell, I am naive and optimistic enough to believe that India will still be India - an everlasting consciousness in my identity. And as I change my shape with it, I remain who I am, and yet so different.

The Next Big Step is coming to a close. I'm looking forward to a homecoming : )

1 comment:

  1. India will certainly be India. We would always see aunty jees wearing global brands like Nike and Reebok, under their salwar suit for their morning walks. We would always see suited men in their multinational offices taking roti and sazi out of the lunch box and eating with their hands. It was always a blended civilisation and would always be.

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