Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Dead-end of Language


I was trying to read the paper today, but I found myself skipping article after article because everything I read seemed to be everything I knew already. Not perhaps in terms of fact, but in terms of expression. For instance, an article on the Mangalore attacks will more or less follow the same pattern of an article on dalit women being raped. An article on Vajpayee on the ventilator will more or less dance along the same tune of Manmohan Singh's operation. So familiar is the pattern that my eyes automatically skip whole passages- the only thing that still retains my interest is the Calvin and Hobbes strip. This doesn't happen because we are so used to such news. Because we still feel a little angry, a little sad, a little hurt, a little horrified, when we see atrocity on camera (not in films anymore because the screenplays follow patterns just as the articles do), but we've stopped reacting to the description of atrocity in the Print medium. Everything is starting to sound like the same old story over and over again. Trite.

The secret of good writing is to speak a strange language that only you can speak and yet be understood by whoever is listening. Those describing atrocities, however, despite their impeccable grammar and punctuation skills, commit the fatal error of speaking in a tongue that is so common, it passes into the air unheeded. It's like yelling 'Wolf!' in a place where the wolf is part of the landscape and not an intruder. So when you tell me that a woman was beaten, or raped, or murdered, or tickled to death, mummifying your narration with bandages of phrases so old, I sit like a fat crab inside my carapace of insularity. We become- you and I- writer and reader- two beings in two boxes, happily apart, content in our inability to connect. I already know what you want to tell me- and you become the classic definition of a bore.

In our BA class, we had this great essay by George Orwell on our syllabus. I can't help but notice how increasingly relevant his words are becoming as the days pass. We have created such hideous phrases in our idiom that all we need to do to escape the brutality of seeing things in flesh and blood is to put out a hand and pick up a dead phrase from the freezer, like a cold fish, and lay it out on the table. The cold fish will not struggle, its eyes remain calm, the scales betray no secret, and its tail will never swish. You are in control of this cold fish and you make your offering to your readers who are more than willing to accept it because it's easier to handle than a leaping, angry, writhing fish alive with the surf of its being. The cold fish only inspires a faint sense of nausea. It goes away soon if you muffle it beneath layers of the everyday. Its gills will not haunt your mind because you never heard its last dying gasp. So much of news reporting resorts to picking cold fish off the freezer. And as a reader, all that I feel is a vague sense of guilt for being so bored at someone's funeral.

What then, should a writer do to unsettle his/her readers? How does one write the everyday without camping in the graveyard of phrases? It isn't easy, certainly. Most people find it difficult to write a text message that makes sense. Most people cannot write emails that are neatly divided into paragraphs. Most people are so inarticulate, it is astonishing that they are not dead already. But we're not talking about most people here. Most people are not writers and they are happy not being so. There are only a few who are so narcissistic that they believe the world is at the edge of its seat to hear what they have to say. And they still treat the world with condescension. Here I lay my pearls before thee, swine. So if you've chosen to be a writer, you bloody well make sure you work at your art. All good writers are good readers. Not only does reading stimulate your imagination, it also teaches you languages. And by that, I don't mean languages of countries. I mean the languages of people. The languages of love, anger, hate, bitchiness, devotion- whatever it is that you wish to write about. The more you read, the more words fall into your brain like snow, blanking out the mundane, creating an expanse, a canvas, where you as the artist, suddenly discover that you can now speak the language you had been forlornly searching for, for so long. Because this is your land, this is the kingdom you've dreamed of when you had read what you had written and been disappointed by its jadedness.

The more you read, the more you know about your own skills to write. The more you know, the more afraid you could become about what to write. Because we have our invisible demons that whisper in soft strains about how far we can go. How frank your writing can be. How much you will let your words reveal about you. It is this fear that once again drives us back to the comfort of platitudes. It is always difficult to be the only voice of dissent in a birthday party. If you draw a line that keeps your reader away from you, this much and no further, if you decide to be the stowaway in your own ship, then your reader will walk away from you because all there is to see is the steel and skeleton of a machine.

This is true of not just writers writing about atrocities but writers in general.A lot of Indian writers for children, especially, are so painfully imitative of their western counterparts because of their fear to take the plunge and be original. They'd rather be derivatives of Enid Blyton or Rowling because they are safe zones. Happy to be the Indian Blyton, the Indian Rowling. It is this dead-end that must be clawed open to reveal new worlds. Or all you can do is to hopelessly throw yourself against the wall and wish for Platform 9 3/4 to open up.

I'd love to open the newspaper one day and feel scared. The way it's going now, I think I'll read my own obituary and stifle a yawn. I want the writers who are penning their reports to wake me up with their rage. I don't want to read what I already know. Please tell me something new or am going to break up with you.


vishesh said...

in the starting of the article or post or whatever I was planning to ask you if we should start a newspaper :P Now I do think we should,let us do it...You have the experience,I have got the macabre to scare people into reading it...we will find good is so damn boring to sit in front of a screen,pretend that I am studying and so nothing except play on the comp and read and write...

Karthik Sivaramakrishnan said...

I read this article too in 30 secs ;)

Anonymous said...

cant believe i found the world's only blogging brownie after about a year i think..glad to stumble upon the new blog-was wondering if u had gone missing in the UK! keep rocking gb! and may the squatter not live forever >:(

-fellow local-madrasi-mallu penkutti and BIG FAN

Anika said...

you know, i've realized that with me, stories that i care about, feel for, i can write so much better, and i'm not just talking in terms of language. there are a lot of times, when i don't care, not that i don't know what i am talking about, but i'm not that into it, i just can't make it work like other scripts.
i know people who work day in and day covering beats they don't give a shit about. and i think that's where the problem lies. whether it's a woman being raped or india winning another cricket match, it all reads with the same amount of indifference. but i guess that shouldn't be an excuse.

The Visitor said...

Hmm... this post does inspire... me at least.

The Visitor said...

this post does inspire... me at least.
An example of 'verbal false limb' ?

My writing is full of all the faults that Orwell points out. (You cannot imagine how hard it was to construct the previous sentence). :(

I'm now giving up any intentions to write. My writing is full of pretentious words.

Vinithra said...

Here I lay my pearls before thee, swine.- hahaha.
I love how sarcastically you get your messages across. I searched so hard to find your blog after someone told me they'd read it a long time ago. Now i'm addicted to it.

GB said...

@Vishesh- :O

@Karthik Sivaramakrishnan- :(

@Anonymous- :)) :D

@Anika- :@

@The Visitor- :)

@The Visitor- :(

@Vinithra- :D :))

Didelphinus said...

Haha I remember getting excited about that essay - I had an excerpt from it in BSc as well. It was the time when 'euphemism' became a bad word!It came with renewed awareness of my everyday use of language and renewed cringing, especially in retrospect. But then, I have always cringed when looking back (old emails/blog posts/chat conversations scare me).

We do tend to lapse in to indifference/redundancy I suppose, like Anika said - even if it isn't one's job... and once in a while someone comes up with a wake-up call :) One of the reasons I read.

Anonymous said...

Are newspaper reports allowed to be impassioned?

Anonymous said...

GBS - Thats a load of bull. extremely well written but still bull.
Firstly, if any journalist or presenter is presumptious enough to think that they can unsettle a reader or viewer with a non flowery neo-style, then that is at best narcissism and at worst an usurpation of the subject story for self aggrandisment. That i think is a job we should entrust our politicians with.
I have come to accept the world, warts and all, the last thing i need is someone who can decide for me which story should send me into an incandescent rage purely because they have chosen to garnish it with phrases unencumbered by prior usage.

Lest we confuse storymaker with the story teller...

Let me remind you of a few people who wanted change

1.Byzantine iconoclasts (sorry Orwell, will keep it simple next time) - they went around destroying religious symbols. "what is more important matter or creator of matter?"

2.Damien Hirst's pickled shark exhibit (sorry GBS - no disrespect to your frozen fish analogy) so called art which sold for 6.5 million pounds. The fish is now decaying and all that the buyer is now left with is a very expensive aquarium. So they have decided to fill the aquarium with formaldehyde and drop a shark into it. Will it still be worth 6.5 million pounds?
"Which is more important the idea or the exhibit"

3. Steve irwin the wildlife presenter who jumps into the water and wrestles with 12 foot crocodiles.
"In wildlife programmes who are the stars the wildlife or the presenters?"

Secondly Orwell will always be right he is making a case for change,you could read him 50 years from now and still nod in agreement (if you dont nod off before the end). Humans crave change.

Thirdly i must make a distinction between journalism and fiction/movies. I expect the first to be a dish served cold and the second to be an explosive fusion of spices that challenge existing mindsets.

The only way a newspaper is going to wake me up with rage is if i find a TOI delivered at my home instead of my beloved Hindu.

vishesh said...

copycat! copycat! that way of replying is my style! don't think becuase you are a brownie means i can't sue you :P lol,how about trail by media,they will launch a commenting vest campaign ;)

Imran said...


Imran said...


Karthik Sivaramakrishnan said...

@GB:Why no post?

Anonymous said...

swomi (for recognition purposes)..clap clap for the post..

also N, clap clap for that reply..

i'm torn between the two :)


Srinivas said...

"The secret of good writing is to speak a strange language that only you can speak and yet be understood by whoever is listening." - brilliant and that sums up the post for me.

And the thing about your yawning if you happened to read your own obituary... ahem... that should probably be part of the GB masterclass for the sheer nonchalance with which you - seem to - come up with such things.

As for your take on sharpening the skills at the art - if the choice is writing - I am with you although perhaps I do not express myself as strongly as you do!