August 13, 2005

Doing my job

Dicey connection from a Pune cybercafe is not the best place to read (and link to!) Uma's anger against a man who accuses her of peddling sordid stories.

But it reminds me of the many many times over a decade that I've had people telling me I write about "misery", and that "anecdotes about poverty mean nothing", and "can't you write about the good things that are happening in India?" -- that kind of stuff.

My only answer is this: if my writing doesn't make my reader think -- whether in agreement or disagreement or somewhere in between -- I have failed at my job. (And there have been such times, which I remember with some squirming). That's it. That simple. There's no better reason to write.

So Uma, you should welcome the comments from the guys who make those accusations. Means you're doing your job. When you make people think, they might do unpredictable things. Still means you're doing your job.

14 comments:

bal said...

How do you handle harsh criticism? I have seen some harsh reader comments, sometimes on silly stuff which is not the main point of the article.

Of course, a post or an article, in general, cannot change the world but still I feel let down by people - dont they get the point? I would think it is difficult to laugh it off, specially when writing is your profession.

I wanted to ask you this question in the previous post. "I dont care about a christian's views...", or even the mumbai vs. Bombay comment. I have also seen some harsh comments on some silly issues of your articles on Rediff. I find them disturbing myself.

On a slightly tangential note -
For my scientific papers, I find it very disturbing when I get bad reviews by people who in the first place do not understand the paper (they are researchers who are supposed to be experts-enough to review my paper) and give reviews on unrelated of the paper. (The english seems to be of a non-native speaker, paper does not have a roadmap describing which section has what)

Vikrum said...

Dilip,

If "making your reader think" is your objective, then you are a great success as a writer. From a personal standpoint, I decided to blog after reading your blog.

One example of your writing making a difference is in your post entitled "Why she's here." If you look at the comments, you'll see comments like, "by this you have made a few other people think about [adoption] VERY SERIOUSLY and I am happy to count myself among those 'few'. Dilip its been a pleasure and a privilege knowing you."

In fact, I know an unmarried Indian woman who wants to adopt a child. She is weary to adopt without being married because Indian society pushes marriage on young women harder a used car salesman trying to get his monthly quota. After reading your article, she gained some confidence and decided that she would adopt - married or not.

Allow me to say one more thing: while I think your writing is successful by your own criteria ("making people think"), I am not sure if one has to do this to be an effective writer. Some writing is good simply because it is interesting. For example, a lot of poetry is descriptive and apolitical. This does not mean that poetry is useless.

Now to respond to your point about people telling you that you only write about "misery":

You can never please everyone. But you can make a difference for some people who you will never know (like the aforementioned woman who is planning to adopt). When I write about working in Bombay's slums I realize that I am writing about a part of India that some would like to conveniently forget. But if one person decides to volunteer, if one person decides to donate money, if one person decides to learn more about the slums, or if one person is inspired to help in some way - then I think my writing has been successful (despite the detractors).

phucker said...

You claim that your goal is to make people "think". About what? What is it, that you're saying, about India's poverty and misery that most of the people perusing your blog, or having read your columns don't already know? Have you given new information? A new insight? Have you enlightened somebody?

By talking about death and despair have you motivated this countries youth to go out there and solve these problems? Or will they instead just decide to migrate to greener pastures...

News update #1 - 4 women were gangraped in separate parts of country today

Never mentioned News update #2 -
20 women learned to read and write today.
15 Women refused to marry due to dowry demands.
100 Dalits won their claim to land.

By choosing simply to focus one update #1, and ignoring update number #2, what is it that you are making readers think?

Every artist is a cannibal,
Every poet is a thief.
All kill their inspiration,
and sing about The Grief.


-Bono

Charu said...

Dilip, I have often wondered what makes you keep writing - aren't you ever tempted to say, enough - why should I go on listening to these jerks?!

TTG, a good writer - Dilip and Uma in this case, forces readers to think about issues that are otherwise very unpleasant and mostly considered irrelevant to our lives.
If you look at some of the more balanced comments from normal readers on this blog - or Uma's or anyone who writes about social issues for that matter - you will see how many people have taken away new insights.
And I admire them for writing about such issues even knowing that many readers do not want to get "enlightened" - after all there are so many more pleasant things to read.
if all journalists decided that their job was not making any difference, we would sure have a very "enlightened" world...

km said...

TTG makes an excellent point.

Bringing us the (blatantly visible and audible) bad news is hardly insightful.

Is that your point, TTG?

Let me ask you this: do you really think people know what's going on around them? I mean, do they really know, or are they content with the nightly news-broadcasts about their reality?

Is everyone with internet access in India (and outside,like some of us) fully aware of their situation?

If even one person reading this blog learns something new about a subject, then hasn't the blog achieved something?

Dilip hardly needs defending from me, but i read his blog because he frames the problem in such human terms. A blog is about the intensely personal, and Dilip's posts are always about how he sees the problem.

If I wanted a dry, highschool civics-textbook like repetition of India's achievements and facts, then that's where I would go.

What I enjoy about this (and some others, including Vikrum's) blog is the intersection of the personal and the political.

Are we so naive to believe that things are entirely rosy or entirely bleak? But to deliberately ignore the bleak claiming it is already visible is merely a stance and is taken with one's eyes closed.

(And since you quote Bono, you must be aware of the earliest gap that arose between rock and pop music around 1965. Pop was "all good news all the time", and rock was unafraid to look at dark things. It's how the American youth examined Vietnam, racism etc. Aren't we glad some artists looked away from the sunny side of the street?)

Dilip, apologize if I am flooding your comment space.

Krishna

Dilip D'Souza said...

Clearly I was not doing (or "diong") my job well enough to spell "doing" right in the title. Fixed now.

I don't have the time right now to reply to you guys at length, like I should. But I will. Some quick thoughts.

Vikrum, you're very generous. Krishna, I'm hardly going to complain about you "invading my comment space", so please do so! It's a pleasure to hear from you always.
TTG, I don't claim insight. I simply write about what I see and what it makes me think about.

Bal and Charu, more about the "harsh" criticism when I get a longer spell at the keyboard! Have to run.

Rabin said...

While reading through the comments i felt,

a writer will write a piece the way he/she wants it to be and a reader will read into the same piece what he/she wants to read...

interesting how the same thing can be viewed differently all the time or how a good intention gets questioned time and again. Getting to the subject, Krishna, Charu and Vikrum i think just about cover everything I wanted to say between them :)

?! said...

Obviously, everybody reacts to a personal intrepretation of any article.It is the perception that as someone from the media and thereby shaping public opinion, he cannot choose the "I write what I feel like" way out that elicits strong reactions. And as far as being a bringer of bad news is concerned, I would guess that good news in its own way could be as thoughtprovoking as bad. What inspires Uma or dd to write is their personal business though.

phucker said...

Well,
I have feeling most of your posts (whether you intend them or not) inspire dialogue.

A few things:

Krishna - But to deliberately ignore the bleak claiming it is already visible is merely a stance and is taken with one's eyes closed.

On the contrary. Seeing a man defecating in public brings a lot things home to me. Having to defend my female friends twice in two weeks in public places brings things home to me. A blog giving a link to an article telling me the same thing hasn't added anything constructive to my day (not to accuse Dilip of doing something so empty, just making a general point) - which of course means I don't have to read it , which is all fine and dandy. However, you blog because
a) you want to vent,
b) because you feel you have something to say and
c) because - let's be honest - you crave an audience.

(I'm sure there are other reasons).

But just as it's your blog and you feel you have something to say, leaving comments open tends to bring on the assumtption that you open to hearing what others have to say. Amit Verma keeps his comments off, for reasons that he states clearly, but in not-humble-opinion, that makes his blog that much less interesting and readable.

ummm...I don't know what I'm trying to say anymore...but I'll post this anyway.

uma said...

Dilip,

Thanks for this. You've said it better than I could. And I notice your post has led to an interesting discussion right here.

Fadereu said...

Hmm...my thoughts on this discussion.

Each person has a different narrative of the same events, and this narrative is not constructed ( at least by writers such as Dilip & Annie) to put mere misery on display.

The things they notice and choose to write about reflect a state of the world that they can't help seeing as components of it. Some other people are able to make light of such things, others are able to write objectively of events where they can separate themselves emotionally from what they see, or what they seek to see.

These writers balance that other world of writers who choose to attend and write about the happier parts of society, say, the party circuit and the technological achievements of the state. Others like Hunter Thomson project the implosion inside their own minds onto a canvas of society in decay.

George Orwell seems to an exception in this case, and I quote the back cover of Down & Out in Paris & London:

"The striking thing about Orwell as a witness is that, while he experienced fully the sordid realities of his time, he remained miraculously uncontaminated...He retained a rebellious clarity of vision which penetrated to the nastiness that is hidden, hushed up, camouflaged by convention..."


So my only plea to writers like Dilip & Annie, who speak of this nastiness vicariously for those who cannot speak, is that they maintain a certain distance from the misery of the people they meet, if only out of respect for that misery.

Each man who suffers is alone in his suffering, and no amount of sensitive journalism can remove that pain.

The interesting form of journlaism that seems to be taking centre stage is Dilip & Annie's - an eye-witness picture of society projected onto the canvas of their own minds, deeply personal accounts of events.

When you will collect the corpus of their writings in a few years, I doubt if you will find the accounts of India you're looking for, I think more fascinating than that will be the story of the writer's discovery of India in his/her head, his own story.

Kabir:

Akath Kahani Prem Ki, Kutch Kahi Na Jaye
Goonge Keri Sarkara, Baithe Muskae


[ Inexpressible is the story of Love
It cannot be revealed by words
Like the dumb eating sweet-meat
Only smiles, the sweetness he cannot tell]

K said...

Easier Uma - say enough is enough and implement a "POLICY" like our Dorky here ;-)

Dilip D'Souza said...

Bal, the criticism: well, perhaps it is a case of water off a duck's back, now that I've been getting it for some ten years. Can't say it makes no difference to me at all. But it tells me two things: one, the guys who resort to subterfuge and abuse have no argument of their own; two, again, if this is their response, I'm doing something right.

As for bad reviews, I read somewhere that people who get bad reviews (of their papers/books) always assume that the reviewer has not read their work, or did not understand it. (I assumed that about the bad reviews I got for my books). But I think the more useful assumption to make is that you need to go back and explain things better the next time around.

That said, there's one final point: there are people you'll never reach. Meaning you can never please everyone. So whatever you write, be sure that there'll be somebody to disagree.

Vikrum, thanks once more; I wanted to say, that even descriptive and apolitical poetry, if it is interesting, is making people think by definition. Nevertheless, I get the general point you are making, and it's a good one.

TTG, yes, I do blog (and write, more generally) for those reasons you list.

?!: I also do write about the "good" news: for example, I once heard from rediff.com that this article I did got the most hits of anything I've done for them. (Aside, this reminds me that I owe you a note. Will get to it).

r: interesting how the same thing can be viewed differently all the time or how a good intention gets questioned time and again. Very true; in fact, to me that's one of the most interesting things about writing. Frustrating at times yes, but fascinating for being so all the same.

Fad: your plea is well-taken, and a good reminder. That distance is important, and a mistake to forget.

Charu, thanks. Always a pleasure hearing from you too. Likewise Krishna.

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