I went to hear Orhan Pamuk at the British Council on the 5th. I expected it to be a stimulating evening. It was that and more. The "more" came during the brief Q and A session, which revealed us to ourselves.
I have read Pamuk's "Snow". It isn't a book you can zip through. It tells a difficult tale. It isn't trying to amuse its readers. There's no attempt to touch the emotions. No psychological insights into characters that will help you to understand and thus empathise with them. It attempts to engage you not with the problems of the individual, but with a religio-political situation that stretches across two continents, impinging on and influencing every action of the citizens of Turkey from choice of dress to choice of friends, coffee bars, plays.
In conversation with Sunil Sethi, Pamuk spoke about the sources and methods of his writing, described his brief encounter with architectural studies, his early wish to paint and his ultimate decision to write. At one point Sethi offered an encapsulated analysis of Pamuk's major preoccupations and approach and asked him to comment. Interlocutors do this to establish their credentials. They are saying I have made a long and deep study of your work and since I have a sharp mind, I have arrived at this very clever interpretation of all your novels put together. Such a person's credentials are only partly established if the writer acquiesces with his analysis. What puts the cherry on the cake is if the writer looks at him with admiration for his perspicacity, nods vigorously and says, "That's it. Nobody has put it so well before."
Pamuk disagreed with where Sethi had put the empahsis on analysing his preoccupations and then went on to say that he himself did not know what he had written till a few years after the event. By then he would have heard and read varied takes on his novel and through them he began to see what he had actually written. "And then," he chortled, "then I teach my novel to my students".
Then came the Q and A.
Question one (not verbatim--I wasn't taking notes): "What do you think of the problems Indian writers in English face in writing about Indian themes?"
(Gloss: our overweening self-importance in thinking that any writer who visits our country needs to have given careful thought to our writers' problems. One also suspects that the gentleman who asked was prompted by Pamuk's white skin to forget that he didn't write in English himself, and would not feel any natural sympathy for those who did)
Pamuk answered succinctly. There is a language we speak with our grandmothers and grocers and that is the language we write in. So I write in Turkish. But there is also a language of communication. English is that language across cultures. So I am happy to be translated into English. As for the problems of Indian writers, I really have no opinion because yours is a very complex country with complex problems.
Question two (again not verbatim): You value your solitude greatly Mr Pamuk. But today writers are forced to be out in the market. How then do you hold on to your solitude?
(Gloss: We writers live in a rarefied, ethereal space. Ever since dirty lucre stepped onto the scene, we're being hauled kicking and screaming into the bazaar)
Mr Pamuk: Oh I enjoy being at events like this as much as I want my solitude. I wouldn't want to be at such events everyday, and I wouldn't want to have solitude everyday. When some of my colleagues complain about the world intruding on their work I tell them not to access their email and to unplug their telephones.
Now, my question to myself is this: Why was I so astonished at his candour? Why was I so taken up by the fact that he had laughed at himself? Why was I so relieved that he had de-romanticised, de-mystified his writing?
Short answer: Because we ourselves practice several forms of hypocrisy of which the common element is, not to tell it as it is. Because where I particularly come from, the Marathi cultural space, to laugh at yourself or at somebody else whose achievements are many and of a high order, is to demean her/him/yourself. It is to lose social/historical height. It is to declare your own lack of cultural gravitas.
Example: Paresh Mokashi's film "Harishchandrachi factory", a fictionalised account of how Dadasaheb Phalke made the first Indian silent film, was not as much as considered for a nomination in any category of the recently declared Zee Gaurav Awards, because it had dared make the audience laugh at the whimsicalities of a man who was one of the tallest idols enshrined in the Marathi mind. The jury who judged the film didn't notice that the very form in which the film was made itself constituted the finest tribute that a contemporary film-maker could offer Phalke. Nor did it notice the poignancy that underlay every scene that made us laugh. Such subtleties are beyond us. We go by rules of thumb. Laughter equals mockery. Tears equal fine sentiment.