Thursday, October 22, 2009

Depth

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.

15 comments:

Priyadarshini said...

From what I could gather the very idea of Chai Chai has a lot of depth. Exploring the unknown is not an easy task and you took the brave step of doing it. And U have done it well. All I can say is my grandmother who is 82 years old , someone who doesnt read beyond the headlines in the news papers could connect to your book as I read it aloud to her. My father who is 60 could connect to it as well. And I in my 20's am able to connect to it as well.

Anonymous said...

JOMI U ARE A JACK ASS.

Anonymous said...

I dont think you should be writing this post at all. Be bothered about those who love your book and your writing. And so what if it it didnt have depth? Writing should set minds free. Depth or no depth your book is truly an enjoyable joy ride.

mithali said...

The USP of your writing is your simplicity,your way of telling profound ideas and thoughts in an uncomplicated way.stick to your style.

colourmewhite said...

I do feel sorry for ppl who put in great efforts to teach themselves to believe in another man's thought. Even if the other man lived in a completely different society and died a good 100 to 300 years ago. What pride in one's intellect can there be in possessing a bunch of borrowed ideologies?

Anonymous said...

Chai is not avaiable at many bookstores in Kanpur like national book house on mall road. At what stores it is availale ?
Lalit

janani sampath said...

Maybe some perceive depth as something that lies smothered between heavy, ornated sentences.
The challenge lies in bringing out the essence of the most profound and otherwise inexplicable moments in simple words, of which you are a master.

So why bother about what Jomi and his pal had to say? :)

Anonymous said...

It reads like as if we are there next to you experiencing it all....good read...read it on the train when i set out to chennai for the book release.... every time a chaiwala passed by on the train I smiled ....want to read it once again slowly....
Total acceptance :)

The Ugly One said...

how come the loyal friend who spurred you to write the book refuse to read it? its natural that you were angry. btw, the friend's poet sure is quite an interesting character. the world is full of hills and valleys, even in the depths underwater :)

Anonymous said...

u need more friends like the one u mentioned in the post and his friend too. nice post..
I still hve to read 'chai chai' and hope to get a copy by next week!!

Vijay said...

I hav'nt had the opportunity to read Chai Chai because a certain someone promised my wife a copy and has not lived up to his word. That does not mean that I have no inclination to pay to get a copy. It's just that my wife has placed a ban on buying any more books unless I've read the ones I already have. And I'm a tad ashamed to say that I've been more an avid book collecter than a reader. Books that my 'aantel' friends recommended and I laboriously dug out from old book shops and new. And now, the thrill is gone. All I'm left with is some half-hearted attempts at tomes by Rabelais, Joyce and Eco. Lately I've started reading best-selling authors I once used to abhor(probably because I thought they didn't have depth). I find more knowledge and insight in novels by Jeffrey Archer and Michael Crichton than I could ever hope to in Neitszche or Camus' indulgences. I'm not even interested in talking about the likes of Foucault and Deleuze, of which I have stock too. Seriously, how many more interpretations of "free will" do we need to start living our lives the way we want? So, I sympathize with your friend and his friend, but I'm relieved to say I can no longer empathize.

Bishwanath Ghosh said...

That was a nice comment Vijay, thanks!

colourmewhite said...

ahem ahem! my god vijay!! 'aantel' in quotes?!!

P.S: the ban is off just for this one! In fact I have already secretly flouted it ;)but psssst! you arent to know about it.

visithra said...

so true - i abhor books that try to confuse their readers or even worse depress them

Mathrubhumi said...

Let me say sorry first as i have not read chai chai...but i don't think it's not chai chai brought me here and pushed me read ur blog..good and simple..subtle and evocative...