“I cannot conceive of myself reading a text and being unmindful that the object before my eyes is a product of human effort.” - Gerald Murnane, 'The Breathing Author'
“...my writing is most often sparked off by art (including literature, music, cinema), but only sparked off, then it almost always moves off to something else, something not exclusively art.” - Aveek Sen
The first essay of Aveek's that I responded to was about him listening to Bach in Ballygunge (above). This attention to the local context, even personal context, of the reception of a work, which I respond to in Aveek's work is different from the more academic and generalising attention to context by New Historicists or Reader Response Theorists, say, both of which point out that what we regard 'naturally' as the work and as our response to the work has changed over time and differs from place to place. These deal with the larger trends of History.
But each person who responds to or lives with art does so in a context that appears to him completely local, personal – one does not read Proust as a 'postcolonial Indian in the twenty-first century' but: in such-and-such a room, at night under a tube-light in a flat where one could smell the drain, in a comfortable wooden chair, hard nevertheless, making it difficult to concentrate at the beginning each evening, and in such and such a mood.
Reading Proust is all this. Which is not to say that if one writes on Proust, one lists each of these things periodically as a guarantor of one's authentic experience. But that one – I – respond to a writer who pays attention to the body. Proust writes about it in Swann's Way - his account of Marcel's reading before lunchtime - 'allowed' as he is to in a novel. But why is one not supposed to address it in criticism?
Both in his writing on art and in his writing on the world – and in all but a few reviews, art (not always high art) is always present when the world is at the centre; vice-versa - Aveek often magnifies not the subject we (and presumably his newspaper editor) have been led to expect as the centre of the piece but something else which casts light on the principal subject.
This essay is in the non-fiction issue because Aveek writes non-fiction. In fact, non-fiction in the most familiar non-fictional format – the narrative essay. I identify the narrative essay with writing 'about'.
In 'Voices of the Same Poverty', the piece Aveek wrote after Kiran Desai won the Booker, he writes of her and Pankaj Mishra: 'Their books are ‘about’ so many things that can be listed in abstraction from the books themselves that it is often more stimulating and entertaining to hear them talk about their own books than to actually read them.'
His 'Ghost Stories', 'Small Laughter' and 'Life in Metro: Where to find love without being a Shopper' could each have been short stories – the first about a modern narrator visiting India's villages and the complicated relationship between him and his friend there, the second a 'poignant story of small losses' and the third a love story with working class characters set in modern day Delhi. But thankfully, not. “...I can’t write fiction when I sit down to write a story, but when I sit down to write a ‘piece’ it always becomes a story. The feeling inside my head or body is the feeling that one gets, I suppose, when one is writing fiction.”
This awareness of the whole event, work and world, is especially important today for a person writing on (visual, installation and performance) art, because the death of authority that modernist artists acknowledge is most starkly visible here. (Literature seems to hide this loss of authority behind the academia, the market and prizes though none of these is interested in it at all.) Especially in installation and performance art in which, to put it negatively, one can get away with anything but in which spaces I feel happy that I am getting away from 'judgement' and moving closer to 'response' – after all, one engages with art fundamentally because of what it does, rather than to judge it – even if a bit of judgement is inextricably intertwined with response when I leave the space and inevitably if I discuss it. In such a situation, when one can't often take what is in front of one at all seriously, wondering how what is in front of one is any different from such-and-such friend's antics at the last party, one must not hesitate from bringing in not just the work (which itself becomes difficult to define) and one's judgement but equally, the artist taking or not taking himself seriously and gauging if the audience is, the people standing around, their responses and even, the friend at the party.
In 'Look Away Closer', you end: 'Would I have been able to talk about all this here if I hadn’t done so in the name of art?' You've spoken to me in the past of art being a vehicle to set off things, not something primarily made for academics. Do you think this particular aspect of it is very important to the lay reader, that it is a space where what would otherwise never have been said is articulated? Both in the shallower (but important) sense in which you meant it then – of art allowing you to cloak what you are saying with its fictionalising as well as being able to face questions which it would not have been correct to put directly; and in the deeper (but obvious) sense of that particular form combined with its particular content being the vehicle for articulating something which cannot be extracted from the melded form-content that is the work.
“For me, the act of writing...is an act that creates a space of license for me, always. I feel wonderfully free, even in the middle of the agony of writing."
I met Aveek the day he'd been to see the Anish Kapoor exhibition in the NGMA. 'How did you like it?' I asked him. He said that he'd liked it when he'd seen it in Europe but that here, having gone for lunch to Old Delhi immediately after, he was struck by how Old Delhi, with its bloody-goat-carcass red and chicken-and-goat-skin-white meat shops and its atmosphere as a whole seemed to achieve the effects Kapoor was trying to achieve much better. I should go see the show, he said, it was good, but since I visited Old Delhi often perhaps it didn't matter.
In the debate between art for art's sake and art with a (sociopolitical) purpose, what is ignored is that most people to whom art (in any form) matters use it for 'life's sake'. A writer who attends to this, I attend to such a writer.
Aveek Sen, born in 1965, writes narrative essays on a range of subjects and non-subjects weekly for The Telegraph, Calcutta.
Anirudh Karnick would prefer not to.
The mysterious inner life, like a mischievous child peering into the living room after his bedtime, shows itself at the oddest, most inconvenient hours. You are at your own party, surrounded by food and alcohol and laughter and then poof! There it is, invisible and omnipresent. Your inner life, sweeping in for the kill, overwhelms all your senses and sound reasoning.Read More