Free, Fair, Fiction

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JOURNALISTS ARE not supposed to keep any truck with fiction. In fact, the most cutting rebuke for any reporter is ‘you made it up’. Every process in journalism is ostensibly configured to frame the hard truth and leach out fantasy. The two presiding gods of every newsroom in the world, in every language, are facts and deadlines. Both are completely unforgiving. Those who do not abjectly genuflect to them quickly lose their vocation.

So what’s a newsmagazine that spends its days digging for dirt that will expose the abuse of power and money in the public domain doing putting together a special issue on short fictions? Most will assume it’s to give ourselves a happy break at the end of a long year of scrappy battles over cases of inequality, injustice, and perilous bigotry. In practice it may have turned out so, but in its seed the idea arose from the sense of a snowballing reality that increasingly defies easy understanding and classification. And yet, paradoxically, a reality that is breeding dangerous simplifications. Contrary to popular wisdom I do not think the challenge in India today is to present complex things simply. The real challenge is to present complex things as complex things, and to urge everyone to read them well and to come to terms with them. This is one of the things that literature, at its best, attempts.

Those who love it know that the finest literary fiction has the ability to refract reality through the imagination to produce illuminations that are otherwise elusive. The world begins to fall into an Orwellian nightmare when everyone is endlessly consuming the exact same cookiecutter slices of reality.

For years I have said every journalist and politician — people who shape the public domain — should read at least one literary novel every year. Just so they can step out of the halogen of self-aggrandisement, look at life bottom-up rather than top-down, enter other lives through the backdoor rather than the front, and connect with their own inner lives rather than the image on the screen. (The assumption, of course, is that the writer herself should have done the same thing.) To understand that a man who wears a salwar-kameez also has a vulnerable, authentic life that demands acceptance and compassion, can be a transformative thing. It can make it easier to forgive a Bihari who comes to Mumbai to earn a meal that he cannot back in his village. A periodic righting of perspective can generate an empathy and a wisdom that can be transformative to the public space.

At the same time fiction’s task is not prescriptive. That can be left to schoolbooks and Rotary Clubs. I once asked the great writer OV Vijayan what was it that literature did that gave it a showcase place in civilisation. He thought for a bit, and said, “It refines us. And that is a very big thing.” In a time of bombarding information and facts, of crude posturing and increasing battlelines, this special issue of original fictions is then about that — that amorphous ‘refining’ thing.

The theme proved easy. Excess. Look around you. Look at the year gone by. Look where we are headed.

The writers were given no other brief. Just the one word. And as you will see, in Louis MacNeice’s words the “world is crazier and more of it than we think, incorrigibly plural”, and if we are willing to celebrate it there is “the drunkenness of things being various”.

A Happy New Year to all our readers. Lets hope 2009 is a year in which excess is stopped somewhat in its tracks by empathy.