There is national news, international news, local city news—and then there is colony news, news that does not appear in any newspaper, but spreads nevertheless. Though I hardly mix with the neighbours, I get all the news, most of which I have little interest in. Who is sick, who has had a fight, whose grandchild has been born in a far distant city, who has decided to spend some days in silence–this news spreads through the workers, the maids, gardeners, drivers and guards, an integral part of life here. Separated by the great class divide, they have a news network of their own. Who pays well, and who is good to work for, is of course essential for them to know, but there is a lot more–overheard conversations, secret deals, and conflicts; alcoholics and those short of money, who even try to borrow from them; the sale and reconstruction of houses; who exercises, who goes to the gym, and when; in fact practically everything that happens–sometimes I wonder what the rest hear about me, but when I meet them they seem pretty ignorant. The workers network knows I care for animals–that is how I have got Pixie the abandoned dog, and Nandu the black cat. Nandu was handed to me over the gate late one night, a scrawny terrified kitten, with an appeal to take care of him as dogs were after him–he is grown up now and stays with the other outside cats. Pixie, six or seven years old had been abandoned by someone, and was desperate to find a new home. Once again she was brought to me, and stays in the garden.
[An article I wrote, published in today’s [23 August] Garhwal Post]
“In the snow outside my window I see a small green frog, one eye blinking and the other wide open, unmoving, looking at me. I know this is God.” It’s a sentence typical of Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000. Soul Mountain, Gao’s prize-winning book, was first published in Chinese in 1989, with the title Lingshan. His other novel has been translated into English as One Man’s Bible. He has also written a number of plays, including Absolute Signal (1982), Bus Stop (1983), Wild Man(1985), Absconding (1989), a novella, A Pigeon Called Red Beak, (all originally in Chinese) a play in French, Le Somnambule, as well as essays and literary criticism. His plays and novels explore political and personal themes, attempting to understand life against the background of his experiences in China.
Soul Mountain is a journey into China’s past. Escaping from Beijing at a time of political turmoil, Gao decides to visit Lingshan, a remote and small place. He goes to Lingshan, that means ‘Soul Mountain’, only because he heard about it from a fellow traveller in a train. He doesn’t even know if the place exists, it is not listed in travel guides, but somehow, he reaches there. He had been wrongly diagnosed with cancer, and now he feels a need to move out of his book-filled rooms. He knew, he says that literature should be faithful to life, yet he had turned his back on real life. As he travels through China, he records all he sees and learns, as well as his thoughts. The Cultural Revolution has ended, and the old China is beginning to re-emerge, a China steeped in customs and traditions, too strong to be destroyed by the overlay of communism. Its varied nature, the different languages and people he encounters, and the tragedies and absurdities of the past and the present, remind one at times of India. There are passages of beautiful writing, but Soul Mountain is not a novel with a single story, rather a collection of stories, narratives and dialogues with the author’s different selves, forming a base for Gao’s own emerging personal philosophy.
One Man’s Bible is a far more coherent work. Setting aside the distant past, here Gao reminiscences about the Cultural Revolution. Memory is too painful, and so a philosophy develops, of living in the present. To have meaning, life has to bring happiness and a sense of freedom – a freedom which comes from awareness, from the ability to observe, even in the midst of suffering and grief.
The first writer of Chinese origin to win the Nobel prize for literature, Gao’s works are steeped in China’s history and culture. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) he was not able to publish anything, and finally destroyed all that he wrote at that time, for fear of being labelled a dissident. In the 80s his work began to be published in China, but still lacking total freedom there, he moved to France and is now a French citizen. Gao continues to write mainly in Chinese, though he has begun to write in French as well. In One Man’s Bible, he explains what China means to him today. Referring to himself as ‘you’, he says: “You will not go back. Not even in future? Someone asks. No, it is not your country. It exists in your memory only, as a hidden spring gushing forth feelings that are hard to articulate. This China is possessed by you alone, and has nothing to do with the country.”
Though Gao no longer lives in China, his work is appreciated there. It is his intensity of feeling, along with his brilliant prose, and his detached observations, that particularly make his books worth reading. His sensitivity also expresses itself through art and over thirty exhibitions of his ink paintings have been held. His works have been translated into several languages.
[by Roshen Dalal]
Some time ago one of the people here asked me for a method to work on a book of non-fiction.Today the cats wrecked one cardboard box which contained files on which my second book was based. I glanced through them, and remembered the question. The method I use is simple, but it works particularly well if there are a large number of chapters. If there are very few, each chapter should be broken up into sub-chapters.
The tips below are not for established writers, but for those working on a book for the first time.
So here is the method:
1. Choose a topic you know something about or one you are genuinely interested in.
2. Make a list of chapters.
3. Write each chapter heading on a separate sheet of paper. If you want to work on a computer, make a separate file for each.
4. Think of topics that each chapter will contain and add subheads.
5. Add your thoughts or any information you find under these subheads. Read everything you can, and add information wherever possible.
6. Always read the source, think it over, and add the information in your own words, and provide the source. Otherwise you may forget that the words are not your own. For all quotes make sure you have the title of the original book or website.
7. Use authentic sources, books, rather than websites. If you do not have access to a good library check for books you can read online.
8. Don’t write based on one source or book. Read everything possible.
9.You can fill in information on any subhead, you do not need to work in sequence.
10. When all the information is in place, choose from it, and write your book. Keep extra information to use at some other time.
Hope this is useful–let me know!
How does a writer begin each day? Some start writing as soon as they wake. Some write at night. Some start with emails, twitter, facebook– I start my writing day with chess.
As soon as I get to my table, I look at my online chess games and make one move in each of them. During the day, if I am stuck in my writing, I make a few more moves. Most of these are somewhat routine, though they help to focus the mind. Once in a way, I suddenly see a brilliant combination. And that is when the mind makes a leap from its normal level, and becomes different–fresh and sharp.
I have heard the same thing happens to mountaineers, and perhaps to people playing other sports. I think that is the ‘unconditioned mind’, the ‘freedom from the known’, that J Krishnamurti talks about. Applying this to writing, it implies something new. Not the loss of all influences, but based on those, a new insight, a new thought, a new approach.
Perhaps scientists, mathematicians, poets and musicians reach this state more often than prose writers. I can imagine Coleridge’s mind when he wrote Xanadu, or Mozart’s when he composed The Magic Flute, or so many other poets and composers.
There must be innumerable writers who are, in some sense nationalists, or who write about their own country. However, nationalism which leads to hatred of the ‘other’ seems unacceptable in a writer. The best writing, one that is long lasting, can write about a country and place, and yet have a universal theme. The approach ‘My country is the best in the world’, cannot, I feel, lead to good writing. And as I write on history, it cannot lead to good history writing either.
These thoughts were generated by witnessing, on TV, the retreat ceremony at Wagah border, and then listening to a discussion on colonial rule. For those not familiar with Wagah, it is a road crossing point between India and Pakistan. Every evening crowds turn up to watch aggressive posturing, high kicks, and finally a hand-shake as the flags are lowered and the gates are closed. [link below] Of course, I have seen this before, but cannot understand the need for the show of aggression. It is all an act, like a Bollywood film, but why does the audience like it? Why can’t it be entirely friendly? And why did someone in the audience shout, ‘Don’t shake hands?’
As for the discussion on colonialism, most of the Indian historians [not all] were going on about how great India was and would have been without colonial rule. Kanchan Ilaiah put forward the Dalit view but few were listening.
And the young audience clapped whenever something was said about India’s greatness, past, present or future.
Overall, a disturbing evening.
India remembers Mahatma Gandhi, but forgets his words. Gandhi, lived, worked, and died for India, but his views were never narrow or limited.
Here is a quote from him.
‘I would like to see India free and strong so that she may offer herself as a willing and pure sacrifice for the betterment of the world. The individual, being pure, sacrifices himself for the family, the latter for the village, the village for the district, the district for the province, the province for the nation, the nation for all. (YI, 17-9-1925, p. 321)
Today, 15th August, India celebrates 68 years of independence. To what extent does the country or city in which one lives, influence one’s writing?
Much of my writing is specifically about India–India’s history, India’s religions and beliefs–but even when writing world history, India’s influence is there, though subtle and indirect. It is there in my focus on other nations gaining independence after colonial rule, countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and elsewhere. It is there in my attempt to understand how the original inhabitants of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean islands and some other places, lost their way of life, and almost ceased to exist. And in some way it pervades my understanding of wars, of the world economy, of society and so much else.
It is not just one’s country, but one’s family and education, one’s reading, research, study, ideas and thoughts, that create the backdrop against which one writes.
What do other writers think? What are your influences? Are you aware of them?
‘Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow’. [T.S. Eliot]
This is one of those quotes that has always stayed in my mind, and comes to the forefront whenever I complete a book or an article.A very brilliant friend once said that he was writing a book, but that if it wasn’t perfect, he would destroy it. As far as I know, the book was never completed or published.
As I writer I always have a perfect idea in my mind, and try and try to reach that ideal. After several drafts, revisions, changes, improvements of all kinds, I reach a point where I cannot do any more. And the book is still not perfect, the ideal has not been reached! Yet the thought of destroying it never comes to mind. I recognize it as fairly good, as something worthwhile for others to read, and it goes out to the world. The shadow always falls between the idea and reality.
What do other writers think? Do you attain the perfection you sought to achieve? Will you destroy it if you haven’t reached that ideal?
It was long ago in the 1980s. I had never written a book, and had no idea that I ever would. Certainly there was no way I could know that one day I would be able to share my thoughts, ideas and knowledge, on one of my favourite subjects, religion.
I visited the USA for the first time, and staying with a friend in New York, I had to look in on Barnes and Noble. What a bookshop! There was so much I could have bought, and so many days I could have spent there. But I was not there for long, and did not have much money left. Then in the back of the bookshop there were second-hand books. I came across a series under the heading Great Religions of Modern Man. There were six hardcover books in the series, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. Each book had quotes from original texts, along with a general introduction and some comments. I couldn’t resist and though it was quite expensive for me, I bought the set!
And below I share a quote from one of the books, in memory of that visit.
From a Sufi text:
‘The Lord of the Spirit and the Word [Jesus] used to say: “My daily bread is hunger, my badge is fear, my raiment is wool, my mount is my foot, my lantern at night is the moon, and my fire by day is the sun, and my fruit and fragrant herbs are such things as the earth brings forth for the wild beasts and the cattle. All the night I have nothing, yet there is none richer than I!”.’ (From the writings of Al-Hasan al-Basri, a Sufi saint from Basra in Iraq, who died Ce 728; trans. A.J. Arberry.)