Writing this post is like stabbing my friend on the back; but if I don't stab him with my words now, I might end up stabbing myself out of sheer irritation or anger. So here goes. This friend of mine, a Malayali, is a very dear friend, who is deeply rooted to his culture, which means he has read Marx and Marquez and Mukundan with equal passion. But he refused to read Chai, Chai, that is my book, for a long time. The reason being since I was his friend, and since we discussed women over wine, he thought I was not capable of displaying 'depth' in my writing.
"But how do you know whether it has depth or not without even reading it?" I protested.
"Wait, wait, I will read it. Don't worry. First let Jomi read it. I bought your book yesterday, but I gave it to Jomi. He is pucca with literature. He will tell me if your book has depth. He can distinguish between serious writing and masala writing." Jomi was a Malayali friend that my Malayali friend had recently acquired.
"What does this Jomi do?" I asked him.
"He is a poet," my friend replied.
"Ok, just fuck off," I told him.
A few days later my friend called. "I am reading your first chapter. Not bad at all, man."
"Did Jomi read the book? What did he say?"
"Oh, he liked it. He was praising your power of observation. He was telling me, 'Oh, this fellow has depth.' I am still in the first chapter. Not bad at all!" So Jomi, the poet, had given the green signal.
"Fuck off," I told him.
A few days later, my friend brought Jomi over and we went out for a drink. For most of the time, Jomi was just a shy, wiry, young and bearded Malayali who felt awkward to be in the company of a man who spoke no Malayalam. But he treated me with reverence because I was a Bengali -- a distant cousin of the Malayali. Towards the end, however, when he was many drinks down, Jomi became a revolutionary. He denounced all writers except Sarte and Nietzsche and Foucault, and he denounced all cinema except Russian and French and Japanese and Bengali and, of course, Malayalam. 'Depth' -- or the lack of it -- the criteria for his discrimination.
The bar was closing, so we bought a bottle of whisky and made a makeshift bar in the car. By now, I was myself somewhat drunk, and I finally gathered courage to ask Jomi what made him decide if a book or a film had depth or was shallow. He broke into a minor speech, invoking the names of Sartre and Kurosawa, as if they were his first cousins, but at the same time not wanting to hurt me because I was a Bengali -- his true first cousin. On the whole, we had a nice time that evening.
Now, let me sum up -- from whatever little I understood from his speech -- his criteria for 'depth'. If a certain piece of writing is difficult to understand, making you reach out for the dictionary every now and then, and that makes you realise every now and then: 'What the fuck am I doing in this world?', then the piece has 'depth'. But if a piece is so simple that you can breeze through it in a matter of minutes, then it just can't have 'depth': how can a 'deep' piece be read in a matter of minutes or hours?
Well, to each his own. But I am extremely grateful to Jomi that he placed Chai, Chai under the 'having depth' category, even though he had finished reading it -- by his own admission -- in less than four hours. Maybe he was just being nice to me, or maybe he was serious: Mr Poet was far too drunk to make false statements, or so I would like to believe.
But what is this 'depth' and 'shallow' business? Well, I shall never understand. I never studied literature to understand its nuances. According to me, a piece of writing is good if people -- from the director of a company right down to its driver -- easily understand what is being said. If the director has to scratch his head and if the driver has to look up the dictionary, then the writer has failed.
It is easy to present simple things in life in a difficult form, but very difficult to present the real depths of life in an easy, understandable form. It calls for a lot of hard work to write in a language that even your driver understands -- not only understands but also appreciates. It would be the most gratifying moment in my life if I ever find a ticket checker or a coolie reading Chai, Chai. But that would also be the most horrifying moment for Jomi, the poet from a land that champions the cause of the masses: he would instantly declare my book as non-serious, which lacks 'depth', just because a coolie was found reading it.