The Reader I Want

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Neither readers nor writers should assume they are without prejudice

AMITAVA KUMAR

Illustration: Samia Singh

I HAVE little taste for those readers, or writers for that matter, who want to be pundits. When you meet a person like that you realise that he nurses a secret ambition to be described as someone who has read everything. This kind of reader will always try to sound knowledgeable, moral, balanced, and always, very reasonable. Such a reader will never parade his or her prejudices.

Can you imagine a mind like that? That mind would appear to me like a clean, well-scrubbed pot, very large in size, of course, but also quite empty of anything real. I’d rather sit down for hours with a dented spoon.

I’m not celebrating simple-mindedness or ignorance here. I’m talking about honesty. Of course, one runs a grave risk in calling for a degree of comfort with a lack of knowledge or expertise. Have you looked at the readers’ reviews — though review is exactly the wrong word here — posted on Amazon? You quickly realise from looking at them that the parading of prejudice is an ugly act. The display of any kind of stupidity usually is.

Rather, what I am saying is that I like that writer who doesn’t address the world from a position of Olympian superiority. It is even better when a piece of writing reveals how its writer’s admittedly partial or flawed vision offers special insight into the world. A reader who reciprocates in the same spirit, reading with empathy or hurt or imagination, produces what may well be a new text. When I’m confronted by that spirit and its outcome I feel as if someone has opened a secret door and led me into an attractive garden.

I confess that the most enthusiastic, or certainly the most popular, responses I have received from readers is when I have written something polemical. People enjoy screeds — when it confirms or reinforces their vision of the world. In such instances, the rather obvious, even crude, partiality of the piece is ignored; it is mistaken for passion. I like the praise but inevitably feel that I have misrepresented myself.

More than that I have betrayed the purpose of non-fiction. I feel quite strongly that the movement of any piece of writing, simply, should be toward complexity. I don’t mean complicatedness but something more like a clear articulation of a situation where several things are held in tension. Like when two, or three, or more thoughts emerge like stars at dusk, and taking these forms floating in the sky, our minds arrange them in bright patterns we call constellations.

The form of writing I have been describing is not new — it is the classic essay. Michel de Montaigne, living in sixteenth-century France, is considered the originator of the essay form. If you think of some of the more successful practitioners of non-fiction in India today, say, Ramachandra Guha or William Dalrymple, you’ll notice that their more definitive books have not been lacking in heft. They boast of punditry. But what gives their writing charm, and popularity, is that essential ingredient of the personal voice that is more idiosyncratic and sometimes even whimsical.

Are we ready however for a form of writing that comes from an awareness of not knowing enough? This, too, was an element of Montaigne’s writing. His wonderful question “Que sais-je?” (‘What do I know?’) was designed to introduce subjectivity into judgement, yes, but also skepticism. In a word, doubt. As readers, we have wanted our non-fiction writers to function more like authorities filled with certainty — as if we were all living in dull academe — and not as playful skeptics. This, I believe, is a mistake.

I could comfortably speculate that our fondness for pundits reveals the deep hold that Brahmanism has on the very core of our thinking. But, of course, in the spirit of what I’ve been saying here, I don’t want to sound too certain about it.

Kumar is the author, most recently, of Evidence of Suspicion: A Writer’s Report on the War on Terror

WRITER’S EMAIL:
amkumar@vassar.edu

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