My dear son,
What can a mother who is a writer tell you, other than stories?
Although this happened a while back; I remember it like it was just a blink ago.
I was working on a story while the maid sat nearby, chopping vegetables for dinner. I was writing a scene where a family is settling down to dinner. They are struggling with a recent and terrible financial crisis, and coming face to face with a paucity of any kind for the first time. The head of the family realizes that there is hardly anything to eat that day except for some boiled rice. He asks his wife to bring some pickles to eat the rice with.
I explained the scene to the maid and in the most inoffensive manner possible, tried to ask her which pickle did she think they were likely to have; i.e. which one of them was the cheapest to buy. That kind of detail was important to the sequence because it would lead to an argument in my fictional family, which revealed a lot of other facts about them. Anyhow, I offered her a choice between chilies, lemon, and mango; in my opinion the contenders for the cheapest pickle tag. She looked at me blankly as though I had posed a calculus problem. I, in an effort to simplify her problem and mine, asked her which one her family mostly buys or eats, thinking I could just go with that choice. She just shrugged nonchalantly. None. The answer was ‘none’. I asked her why? She said they could not afford it. I argued that I was under the impression that it is the cheapest thing to buy; at least lemon and chilies pickle, considering how cheap those are. She said, as true as that might be; oil and spices, which is what makes a good pickle, are not.
That shut me right up.
I struggled to find the source of that idea in my head. Why did I ever think that way? I searched through the recesses of my mind and came across references, casually and frequently made, which may have led to that misapprehension. My grandmother often used to say, “Achaar se roti khaate hain, par fashion dekho,” in reference to people she thought dressed beyond their means. (Literal translation: “They eat their meals with pickles because they have no money, and yet look at the way they splurge on fashion”). The following dialogue and a grainy, sepia colored vision of a movie I had seen a long time ago, too jumped to attention, “Achaar se roti kha lenge par haraam ke pakwaan nahi.” (We would much rather eat our meals with pickles than eating the delicacies bought with dishonestly-earned money). On the whole, I surmised, this was an impression that has been built into my head over the years, through the echoes of how one particular stratum of society saw, and talked, about the other.
I remember feeling so dejected after that conversation with the maid, that I abandoned first that scene and then the story, altogether. What I was put off with really, was my ignorance of the reality and yet my over-confidence in thinking that I could pull off a realistic story like that. In thinking that I could deliberate on and bring to others’ attention to deliberate on, the trials and tribulations of a life I had never led and only understood very little of, and quite a bit of it wrongly, based on hearsay. How pompous and foolish was that idea? I remember not writing anything for a very long time after that.
I was reminded of an excerpt from Motorcycle Diaries; where Guevara writes about coming across some poor kids wearing slippers made of tires. It had made me feel the same way as the conversation with the maid. How would people like us, who are fast blurring the line between luxuries and necessities, understand the lives of those who do not even have the bare essentials? Is that kind of an assimilation of someone else’s reality, on the far end of the economic continuum from you, even possible?
Stories are meant to entertain, of course. But they – some of them at least – are also meant to enlighten. Awaken. Start a conversation. And hopefully, bring a change. It is not easy to write these stories, though. First of all because, as the anecdote above suggests, a lot of us may not know what the realities of those whom we intend to write about, are. We only think we do. And we are too complicit in our illusions. Besides, because once we do find out; we are either too bummed out or too under-confident to write about them. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that these stories need to be told. More than the others. More than ever.
I hope those are the stories I write. I hope those are the stories we all write. Until a time, when there are no more stories like these left to be told.
Not all of them need to be written with a pen, though. There are people who have created far stronger and impactful narratives of social change with their actions.
So, choose the medium you want. But do not ignore the stories that deserve to be told.
Love, now and forever