Music For Those Who Listen

Most writers write with the purpose of being read. Therefore, nothing such writers write is personal. Pitches to publications, revisions suggested by editors, all of it serves to remove all that is personal to be replaced with market politics or universal marketability. My journey of trying to be a writer, one who considers writing his primary occupation, has thus far indicated otherwise. I am not talking about one trick pony theories that suggest that everyone has a novel in him or a story in him, his own, and after that, zilch. My limited reading of the masters, classic and contemporary, seems to indicate that what one writes about has to be personal to possess enduring value. And I feel that is true of all arts, visual, music or words.

The trouble with the personal lies in the conflicts it triggers in living. I see my life as a classic example, since no one is really qualified to comment on the life of another. If I were to make my innermost thoughts public, it would land me into a fair deal of trouble, with my friends, my neighbors, my insurance, my parents, my siblings, my spouse, and my children. Oh my, my!

Having Dad around hasn't helped much with resolving this dilemma, since he turns into a duck's back whenever I bring up the question of an artist's priorities and commitment to the truth. But this question haunts me more than ever as I grow older, move into newer territories of relationships with self, society and state, new worlds of the mind and the spirit, . I am not Prince Rama, nor was meant to be, but heck, I wouldn't mind putting a few of my conflicts to rest.

Before I get lost in my own murmurings, let me put down what I believe. It is essential that the writer writes from a place of personal conviction, perhaps even a place of personal experience, whether it be actual or metaphysical, but the decision to make those convictions public should be tempered by compassion and unconditional allegiance to the greater good. The moment you subject your writing to the "market" of the public that you publish for, be it friendly tips from a fellow writer, or the brutal slash fest of a professional editor, be it keyword density or search friendliness, you have in some way, compromised on the core of the communication process that is literature. Of course, I run much of my writing through my friends, my family, and I do take to heart the feedback of professionals, but only to guide me in refining my own voice.  Then I write what I need to write. Which probably explains why nobody will ever read what I write.

Mom's death nearly two years back was a life-changing milestone for me. It flooded me with regret, with increasing intensity as time passed, for all of the resentment I felt towards her - regret because I was able to see that it did not matter only after she was no more; regret because I wished I was able to see this while she was around and let her know.  I get that piece about she knows, she is watching over all of us, and I frankly believe that to be the case, but that still does little to dent the regret that I feel. While she was alive, for as long as I can remember, I had this huge virtual suitcase of things that I would be able to write once she was dead, because I would not have to worry about hurting or angering her. Now that she is "watching over us," I am still left holding that virtual suitcase without a clue what the right thing to do with it is.

Had I been clearer about my priorities and my commitment to my art, I would probably have been able to write about those things earlier, and perhaps in a way that would minimize the pain, but now, being freed from her presence makes it even more challenging, like sidebarring a person who has just left the room. It makes for great literature, but I am yet to be able to afford it. What puzzles me further is that in the very small community of serious writers, this seems to be a non-issue. Over the years, I have come to accept it as a part of my personal baggage and learned to self medicate to ease the awkwardness of being the odd man out.

The other day, my brother was telling me about the changes that he went through after her death, and we were both able to compare notes on how her death had automatically exed out some of what we considered pleasurable social behavior. In my case, it was the realization that everything in the virtual suitcase was irrelevant in the past and in the present, and it manifested in a greater conviction (and its attendant conflicts) in integrity being the only touchstone of creativity.

Then there is the question of the primacy of writing as an occupation. This primacy is not just or not even necessarily the primacy of livelihood, but that of writing being the primary descriptor of my time on this planet. Not everyone gets to be a Le Carre or a Grisham or one of the Indian pop authors of our times. (Funny, every time I typed Chetan Bhagat in that sentence, my operating system crashed. Therefore.) But the work being done in the nearly 7000 living languages of our time is significantly comprised of work of great importance, artistic, documentary, and spiritual. The solutions to the problems of tomorrow can be found in that work. Yet most of this work has limited if any readership. A few hundred copies, mostly unsold at the gates of the book fair. The tragedy is that for every writer who is doing that, there are tens, or maybe thousands of others who understand primacy of writing in a different way.

The recent declaration by giants with very large social marketing budgets that they would like to spend on platforms that users identify with integrity and value has the makings of a pleasant gamechanger. We are already in an economic era where a family needs two salaries to get by, and perhaps a third and fourth part time source of revenue to plan for retirement. Time and attention are without our knowledge the real cryptocurrency of the future. Technology has made a mess of trying to mine our time and attention, and all things being circular, there is no getting away from the consequences of it by anyone, creator or user. Writing, especially writing that is digitally self published and "marketed" on virtual social networks, is increasingly succumbing to demanding your time and attention at the behest of corporate masters. No matter how far along the wrong path you might have come, says a proverb, it is never too late to turn around.  

Primacy of writing as an occupation demands that what you communicate in your creative process be of intrinsic value, and that in no way invalidates art that seeks to entertain. I have in recent years, especially in the years that I was actively engaging with the writing and social activism communities, often come across work that left me wondering why the person undertook such a pointless project. This question was the starting point of my realizing the pointlessness of what I had undertaken - of writing for a broader readership. If what I write is going to consume your time and attention and leave you no richer or at least different at the end of it, I am selling you plastic eggs. The law of Karma agrees with Lincoln that all the people cannot be right all of the time.

I had made a commitment sometime late last year to move closer to my ideals of integrity. This implied publishing my beliefs, attitudes, motives and how they relate (or don't) with my behaviors. If you have been with me till here, you will understand that in most cases, mine included, this is not a small ask. I am also presently challenged in other ways in honoring the primacy of writing in my life. Most of my earlier writing was written at one go, and published with minimal reworking. Nowadays, I do not have the luxury of spending a few hours at a stretch on writing, and mostly, my essays are written a few paragraphs at a time. It is not uncommon for me to find time after a hectic spell of other work and look at what I had last written, read backwards and wonder what on earth I was trying to say, what on earth connected the sections, what on earth I meant when I said what I said. From what people tell me, that is exactly how they have always felt about my writing.

I am proud of my being the odd man out, of believing in things that don't work anymore, of being cold salad with too much mustard. What I am not particularly proud of is my elaborate attempt over the years to keep that under wraps, with little regard to success or failure. I intend to undo this shame, and I am making progress. Small hesitant steps perhaps, but progress. It is when I see people putting their faith in me that I really panic. But fear has its limitations. I intend to get somewhere. Someday, you will too.


Quickly read back on what I wrote, and before panic overcomes me, I am going to hit publish. Might add some images, but will not let that time get in the way of my sending this your way. And that's life, then: things as they are/ This buzzing of the blue guitar. And no, that is not from a Justin Bieber song.


  1. I still remember your teachings as a trainer , I remember the conversations as a friend we had in your balcony with endless supply of tea, I remember your writings as an uncompromising but always insightful blogger. I treasure these and I know for fact these were influential in my formative years. We need more original voices, voices that are unfettered by commercialism. We need more writers like you especially in times like these. Godspeed!

    1. Thank you, Sandeep. Our exploration of the truth together has enriched my life greatly. You should really quit one of your jobs and get back to art.

  2. Dear Subhorup, I always read all your posts but have been guilty of never commenting because of sheer laziness. This post resonated a lot with me because what you say here about writing with personal conviction is what guides me to write what I write. Thank you for putting into words so clearly and so eloquently what I strongly feel about, but have never been able to express it.


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