Over the years, the Economist Style Guide, like many of my books, has become more of a possession than reference/reading material. I rarely pull it off the shelf and bother to spend time with it. But when the latest edition arrived, I went through the pages randomly, more for the smell of the fresh ink that emanates from between every new book. For no particular reason, my eyes fell on an entry under 'U':
underprivileged Since a privilege is a special favour or advantage, it is by definition not something to which everyone is entitled. So 'underprivileged', by implying the right to privileges for all, is not just ugly jargon but also nonsense.
I panicked. Did I ever use the word in my copies? Did I ever use it in my blog? I could not recall, but I certainly had come across the word in copies that had been handed to me for editing and I never pointed it out. And how could I when I did not know myself? Shouldn't I be ashamed?
As a matter of fact, I should be. And I am. After all, it is the sense of shame that keeps me on the right track. I can announce the shame with a sense of pride because I know fellow journalists who would have said: "Big deal! It happens. Even the Economist makes mistakes." Or, worse, "Even I was wondering if we should say 'underprivileged'. But I had a headache that day so I let it pass." Or, even worse, "Of course there is a word called 'underprivileged'! I saw it the other day. Wait a second, where is the dictionary..."
It may work elsewhere, but in writing, you can't cheat, especially when something has been committed to print (or online, for that matter, assuming you don't have the option of re-editing). If a vigilant reader points out, you will have no option but to clean your vomit, unless you are shameless enough to retort: "You know what, I never wrote that. Those guys on the desk always muck around with my copy."
I don't know how good or bad a writer I am. If I am bad, there are reasons for it. I grew up in the Hindi heartland speaking no other language but Hindi (except for Bengali at home). Even though I wrote in English, my thoughts were processed in Hindi. As a result, I would find myself tongue-tied in the middle of 'English' conversations. This, in spite of the nuns making us clean the playground if we were caught speaking Hindi.
And if I seem to be having a way with words, that could be because I grew up with every single magazine that existed during the 70's and 80's. Many of them no longer exist -- Sunday, Onlooker, Mirror, Probe, Illustrated Weekly. Many of them still do: India Today, Society, Savvy, Cine Blitz, Stardust, Femina, Filmfare. The knowledge of sex and 'female-related matters' came primarily from women's magazines, Manorama and Grihashobha. Then there was the magazine that came only for me: Chandamama.
If you put the contents of all these magazines into a blender and turn the knob on, a 'Ganga Mail' type of blog is likely to flow out of the nozzle. That is what you find on this blog -- a bit of this, a bit of that. If someone has a good word, it warms my heart. If someone criticises it, well, never mind, there is always the next time.
But I would like to say a few things about critics, since I am on 'writing' trip. Very rarely, out here, is the criticism constructive. It is usually aimed at demolishing you. One criticism that my writing frequently draws -- from the same set of people -- is that it is too "flaky", "masala", "non-serious." For them, I don't do the serious kind of writing. For them, the benchmark is the editorial page of Hindu. But at the same time, they miss the facing, op-ed page, which is usually filled with serious yet breezy articles from Guardian or New York Times.
I hope my critics read this post, for I am going to explain to them a few things about writing, once and for all, pointwise:
1. There is nothing called "serious" or "non-serious" writing. A piece of writing can either be "readable" or "unreadable". Yes, there is a variety of writing that is called "pompous", the Hindu edit page type, where the writers talk at the reader instead of talking to the reader.
2. I am more obsessed with the craft than the content. Your content might be first class, but if your presentation is boring, if you constantly refer to the thesaurus to replace words like 'theft' with 'heist' just to sound self-important, if you start with a convoluted sentence just to show that your command over English is far superior than others, chances are nobody will read you beyond a sentence. But if you know the craft, you can make a story out of a thesis.
3. The fact that you read me in the first place is a victory. You read me because it requires no effort, and it requires no effort because I work hard at it. What takes you precisely 5 minutes to read often takes me 5 hours to write -- 3 of which go into the first three paras. If that shows what a poor writer I am, so be it.
4. Your criticism doesn't stick because every moment I am criticising myself. Every time I read stuff I had written two days ago, I hang my head in shame: "How could I?" But I can't delete what is already printed. And in the blog I don't delete old posts just out of respect for the labour I had put in.
5. If -- instead of criticising for the sake of criticising -- you take a scalpel and edit my copy, sharpen my sentences, I would acknowledge you as a true critic and not someone who doesn't like my face or is just jealous of me. (I am so tempted to put a 'wink' smiley here, but my posts are out of bound for smileys.)