Write Memory: On Blogging and Jomin o Joban
I've been feeling the tug to return to blogging. It might have something to do with writing about art again and seeing exhibitions by artists who have created without any guarantee that the works will sell. Or maybe it's the little spurts of glee I feel when writing the books newsletter, Dear Reader, which is essentially a weekly blog about what I've read (care to subscribe? Click here). Or maybe it's just a part of me throwing a little temper tantrum because being a 'freelancer' drives home how tightly commerce coils around your brain when you're trying to make a living as a writer. You've got to think fast, react faster and hawk that thought to the highest bidder before the subject has lost relevance (which means you have a couple of hours to think, react, write and sell). You write keeping in mind a website or publication's 'target audience' — young and impatient with polysyllables (even if that polysyllabic word is perfect for the idea being communicated), older and contemptuous of humorous asides (even if it is providing insight) — and the reader is never someone like you. They're always someone else, a creature of blurred outlines and assumptions, standing in the distance. The value of what you write lies in whether it will be bought.
All of which is fine because that's what follows from not listening to Ma and mulishly studying Literature. I'm thankful for whatever earning I can make from writing, but it's also made me remember that I didn't start writing because it seemed like a great career prospect. Quite to the contrary, I stuck with writing despite knowing that professionally, it's a shit show. Twelve years ago, I hadn't anticipated that culture beats would be considered frivolous and a waste of time space and effort. I didn't foresee art reviews becoming like unicorns, books pages disappearing, and Bollywood becoming the one-stop-shop for culture and entertainment. On this front, my inner Cassandra was a flop show. However, I did know that I would struggle to get and pay off loans; that I might need financial support for simple and basic things like a nice apartment and food; that I would be doing tiresome assignments in order to make a salary that was less than what my peers got because in addition to being a writer, I'm also the worst negotiator ever. If I have ever been paid well, it's because the person commissioning or hiring me was a fair paymaster (there are too few of those. Most have seen my weak flexing of financial muscle and decided I'm also a pushover and/ or stupid). The point is, I knew I was signing up for this when I sent my first job application. Why go ahead anyway? Because I'm a writer. It's my only real skill (aside from finding appropriate gifs and being able to hold the phone steady while using its camera to take a photo. I'm just a bounty of marketable talents).
Whether or not anyone else values it, words and sentences are all I have. So I work at writing and find work as a writer. What's been scary is realising my words and sentences are creaking and lumbering, that I hate them a little more than I usually do, and that too often, I look at what I've written and think, "It's not worth it."
The thing with blogging is that it's free in the pragmatic sense, but precious because it gives you freedom. A blog post carries no expectations of being worth a certain sum of money or space to a publication. It offers the freedom to make mistakes and to work out thoughts, rather than pose as an authority. It can become a searchable record if you do it consistently enough, which can be enormously useful. Most importantly, it's about writing that feels necessary. Not because it will sell or has 'viral' potential, not because the subject has been deemed earth-shatteringly important by the media; but because you simply wanted to write and because it's important to you.
A former colleague of mine believed that for a writer to have a blog was irresponsible towards the whole tribe of writers. It meant that writing would be seen as something that was done casually and distributed freely. It's not a flimsy argument, especially in a country like India where value is synonymous with price. Yet to be free doesn't mean it's casual and a lot of the paid writing that we see in journalism is regrettably cavalier in its attitude. I find myself worrying about what happens to me as a writer if my imagination is only shaped by commerce. What happens if I start viewing my writing only from the perspective of whether it will sell to the highest bidder? Will that make me a better writer? I don't think so. Writing is literally manual labour, as in it's work done physically, with your hands. It's sort of like turning thinking into a muscle memory. You only get better because you labour, you practice. To be a writer is not to have a book or articles to your name. Those are just stages in a process that shapes how you're going to keep working. To be a writer is to be a work in progress.
As journalists, we're working within a broken business model, surrounded by anxieties that come from knowing that this building we're standing in, is crumbling. We're seeing its load-bearing columns being battered each time news bows to a political or economic master. The new columns that go up are nowhere near as sturdy as those that are coming down, but we don't know what to do. Run out and build something new? Stay inside, say a prayer that the building lasts for our lifetime while we cling to one another, and panic? Both options are hard and seem doomed to fail.
As writers, though, we have it a little different. There's the comfort of knowing that there really isn't a business model for literature. It exists because of patrons past and present. Literature, like any other art form, is not defined by its market but because it wields soft power. The challenge writers (like all other artists) face is finding the right patron. For some, the public has fulfilled that role, which is lucky, but not a business model. And here's the arrogance that some of us have: we're not willing to trade what we consider good writing for popularity. While I'm thrilled that trashy pulp fiction exists, if tomorrow I was told that I could magically become a popular author — say, Chetan Bhagat — but it would mean that along with earning like he does, I would also write like he does, I would have no hesitation saying 'thanks but no thanks'. I claim my obscurity and penury willingly and cheerfully if the alternative requires me to have to my name sentences and plots that are banal, witless and ungrammatical tripe.
Which might be how readers describe my books as and when they come out in public (if they ever do). It's fine. That's the reader's privilege, just as it is mine to write. And hell, if all else fails, at least for now, there are artists like Munem Wasif whose work I can rejoice in and then write about.
I'd forgotten how frustrating and punishing print is as a medium. All of you who have the internet as your journalistic stomping ground, no doubt you're picking up skills that my generation can't wrap its head around, but I've got to say, we got the tougher (and better) teacher. We worked with word counts that could not be negotiated and because space was precious and limited, you rarely filled it with crap. Plus, there was the looming terror of knowing that final really was FINAL because you can't slyly correct mistakes after a piece has been published.
An edited version of this review of Munem Wasif's show, Jomin o Joban was published in India Today.
How much can you contain in a seed? In the biological sense, an entire culture, despite its tininess. The same holds true of Jomin o Joban — A Tale of the Land, Bangladeshi photographer Munem Wasif’s debut show in India. It’s a small show with just four works, but Wasif has packed into it a multitude of ideas about history, borders, ecology and economy.
Jomin o Joban, which translates to “land and promise”, begins with a set of photographs (“Land of the Undefined Territory) taken in what looks like a nondescript, barren stretch of land. It’s actually border territory between India and Bangladesh, which despite being strictly demarcated in theory, remains disputed. The ground reality is that rather than a country, it belongs to industry with the area being aggressively mined for limestone. This series is the only predictable part of Jomin o Joban. You would expect a Bangladeshi artist showing in India to include a hat-tip to the border that's so neatly drawn on maps and regularly blurred by the footprints of those who criss-cross it illegally. Once Wasif has got that out of the way, Jomin o Joban gathers strength.
The promises that an industry makes to the land are examined in “Machine Matters”, perhaps the most powerful work in Wasif's show. To reach it, you go past a table that displays tools and instruments. They're all rusty and old, foraged from factories that have shut down. Filmed at a languorous pace, "Machine Matters" is rich with melancholy irony as the camera gazes upon machines in a derelict jute mill. From symbols of modernity and profit, they’re now just junk. Pacing the film is a soundtrack of silence, mechanical sounds that the machines no longer make and the chirrup of birds we don't see. At regular intervals, Wasif shifts focus and zooms in so close on the body of a worker that he no longer seems human. The skin becomes a terrain that’s twitching, heaving and eerily beautiful. All of this is shot in black and white, with light sinking in and bouncing off to nuance this palette with greys and shadows.
"Machine Matters" reminds you that these jute mills (and indigo plantations, which are referenced in the cyanotypes) took over the livelihoods of farmers and contributed to famines that shrivelled Bengal's population. To the land and people it exploited, the mills gave little back and when artificial fibres and shipping containers were introduced, jute mill workers were reduced to nothing. Perhaps that's why we don't see any faces — only bodies that are no longer recognisably human in the way that they're viewed by another machine, the camera. The empty factory floors that Wasif shows in "Machine Matters" are haunted by history.
Against this bleakness is the blue-tinted vitality of nature that’s surviving as fragile, inanimate blueprints in “Seeds Shall Set Us Free”. In the 50 prints of rice, seeds and other natural elements, Wasif offers a coded history of agriculture in the eastern part of the subcontinent, where agents promising progress have come with seeds that have eventually ravaged the natural richness of the area. From the colonial-era cash crops to the GM seeds of today, the effect is the same — devastating the region’s diversity so that all that remains is indigo-tinted memory.
In the white box of the gallery, Wasif’s cyanotypes gleam like treasure. A few stand out, like the heartbreakingly delicate print of an insect’s torn wings, and the set showing rice (once available in many varieties and a staple in Bengal) kernels in patterns inspired by alpana (hand-made designs painted using rice paste and drawn on floors on festive days). The rest of Jomin O Joban is in black, white and a dusty brown, showing scenes and objects largely leached of both colour and vitality. The only spark of vibrancy lies in the cyanotypes, produced using an almost obsolete process, creating copies of elements from a natural world that’s vanishing, and scorching the monotone with the vibrant blue of remembrance.