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Of Literature: An Instantaneous Pondering – OpEd


I am not writing an essay, or any research paper. I am writing in simple language what I am pondering. This is an instantaneous pondering over literature. I guess most of the people know or think what I am going to focus. Yet, different kinds of issues gyrate in my mind while discussing about literature with anybody. Moreover, I face some common questions from my students while delivering lecture in the classroom. This writing is a reaction to my encounter with these situations.

This piece of writing is not intended for the scholars; rather it is for them who can bring out some leisure to think even after living in this material anti- leisure society. Anyhow, some common questions have been disturbing my psyche for quite a long time. Some are saying, some are asking, some are criticizing. Even I have encountered some long arguments in the virtual world with some knowledgeable friends. But the issue has not been solved. I can’t promise that it is going to be solved in this write up, yet I am writing. Like all my writings, this one is also like an adventure. As long as I am writing, I don’t know the destination or decision.

The following questions are the most common that I have faced:

  1. What is the utility of literature?
  2. Thousands of classics are there in the world of literature. What differences have they brought about in the world?
  3. A writer sacrifices a lot: he becomes nocturnal over his writing table, struggles with adverse situations, burns in the flame of alienation, becomes considered as an outsider in the society and is victimized with misunderstanding. After all these he creates a piece of art. Is this suffering worth taking? Does the society care what he thinks of justice and politics and humanity?

Before looking for answers, I think a couple of questions should be considered:

  1. If no more literary works are created in the society, will the society run?
  2. If yes, then why should one practice literature? Or why does a writer write?

The answer to the first question is ‘yes’ for sure. Aren’t the non readers eating and drinking and living? Don’t their children make them proud? Moreover, aren’t the non readers the majority of the society? Moreover, aren’t they more recognized as social beings? Rather, a writer is often misunderstood and labeled as unsocial and stranger in the society. If literature doesn’t exist, won’t people do jobs? Won’t they attend ceremonies? Won’t they celebrate birthdays, holidays, and vacations? Won’t they sleep at night? Won’t they enjoy sex? Readers of literature have always been a sect of minority. Even in developed countries (‘what development means’ is another issue of debate, for now I accept traditional meaning) more than half of the population doesn’t read literature. We don’t see any visible top to bottom change in the society by reading literature. Then? Then the answer to the second question must be found. There may be some possible answers:

  1. Personal sufferings: A writer suffers from a special- inexplicable species of pain created by political, social and environmental situation of the world. After observing contemporary world, the writer examines it on the basis of history and then he realizes that he has a lot to say. Quoting Manik Bandopadhyay: ‘I write to express what I can’t make people understand in any other way.’
  2. Existential Crisis: Here the term ‘existential’ should not be taken only as the famous philosophical branch. Every writer is infected with the question WHY. Albert Camus said, ‘we become so habituated to live that we never ask why we live.’ A writer can’t decide to lead a crammed- photocopy life, he intends to be a masterpiece. What should one do after being born only once in this world, having death ahead as the ultimate destination with only one human life? Did the world miss me when I was nonexistent? When I won’t exist, will there be any difference? Then have I come to this world like a lottery- ticket? Will I leave this world like a lottery- ticket too after leading a weak life satisfying the society and adapting the situations and giving up freedom? Writing, painting or composing music is the result of a search for authentic life. Human being is essentially authenticity- searchers. He gives birth to children to consider himself as a creator. He tries to be better than others in job or family or sex or business or politics. One of the most refined searches for authenticity is creating art.
  3. Social liability: a writer writes to show responsibility to the society. Some writers consider literature as a weapon to reform the society.

Hence, practicing literature is no more an objective activity; I think it has never been though. All the people will accept literature—this kind of hope is not a folly but logically a mistake in the global context. Common people will buy one more kilogram of rice than buying a book. I am not teasing, it is the reality. To create or accept art, leisure is essential, where is that thing in this material society? The so called leisure the inhabitants of this modern (what we mean by modern is another issue of debate) society get after earning money and satisfying society and family is not adequate to think or do something deep and significant.

Instead of being bookish or newspaper ‘articlelish’, we can realize this truth observing our surrounding urban reality. Now is the age of corporate life. People are looking for corporate jobs to be reclaimed. We see the bankers and other corporate job (I refrain from writing ‘service’) holders to run from dawn to dusk. They enter the office building early in the morning and don’t know when they are going to come out. When they reach their home, most often it is after dark. Their brain is tired with monotonous file work, their soul is bothered with the heavy demand of the boss and their mind is full of jealousy to the promotion of their colleagues.

This is a kind of capitalist hegemony. They don’t feel the necessity to find anything greater to run after. What do they do after coming home? They rebuke their children for not studying properly; they watch a drama or commercial movie or an item song on TV and then sleep only to repeat themselves in the next morning. Firstly, government has to take responsibility to create leisure for its citizens. Doing this could have been easier for us than other nations as ours is essentially an agricultural society. Our fishermen, farmers, boatmen have created deeply philosophical folk- arts (what are we if they are folks?) while fishing, cultivating and crossing rivers. Secondly, to create leisure government must be, according to Plato, not politician but philosopher—Philosopher King. If the state doesn’t virtually allow leisure, then the reader and the writer must be superman to be able to dig out leisure sacrificing temptation. It is a matter of happiness that some supermen have created great art in our country. A couple of questions again:

  1. If the non readers read literature, would their existence get any new dimension?
  2. If yes, then what is the way to make them literature- oriented?

Plato has responded to the second question partially. A country has some responsibilities and commitments to arts and culture. The more people become poor, the more they have to run after money only to survive; the more people will be detached from literature.

This is why we see that, there is hardly any educated (definition of education is another confusing question) man in our country who don’t know the masters of Bangla literature. Again, we hardly find any Bangali who is interested to know these masters’ philosophy. This society has unrolled such a frame in front of us in which we are compelled to pour our existence only to preserve our life in body and this frame is adverse to question or enquiry or curiosity. It promotes anti- curiosity culture. Our people rarely feel any curiosity to know. Their life is spent wandering how to be attributed with society-defined meaning in this society- imposed frame. If they don’t feel curiosity in their mind, they won’t search. If they don’t search, they won’t create knowledge. If a human being doesn’t look for the authentic meaning of his own existence, if he doesn’t ponder over the mystery of creation and life, if he doesn’t feel the necessity to create his own standpoint, if he accepts the materially motivated education system of the society and remains ignorant of the multidimensional aspect of life, if he thinks that religion is a hereditary property, he doesn’t care if literature is created or not. If he doesn’t feel curiosity, he won’t look for answer.

Knowledge has been contaminated in a well- planned way. This capitalist society has demolished the difference between knowledge and information. Present generation has accepted the demolition without knowing that this is a demolition. Knowledge has also been attached with money and profession. What do we find in job recruitment guides as general knowledge except some information? Why do the job seekers cram this information? For a job definitely. So a job becomes the aim of knowledge. For which book Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize? We tick Geetanjali among the four options and feel like being wise. But we don’t understand or think that this is only information. It will be knowledge if we read Geetanjali, try to understand what this Bangali poet wrote one hundred years ago, and proceed to understand his philosophy. Question should be raised in my mind why this book is important. Did Tagore write it to help me pass BCS? Obviously not. Then why? We usually don’t think.

Universities have departments for literature. Institutionalization and categorization of literature is another far- reaching conspiracy and coming to colonization and neo- colonization period it has become a western notification. Literature doesn’t have much material value. This immaterial characteristic of literature is a threat for a specific sect. Hence, they feel risk- free if literature can be imprisoned inside classroom. Students are concerned of examination only, they look for suggestion, will achieve certificates and hanker after slavery to earn money and literature will be deviated from its main objective.

Simultaneously, students of other departments don’t consider literature as their subject. They think, “We are students of BBA/ LLB/ Economics/ Political Science, so we don’t need to read literature.” This is called categorization as a result of which literature has been imprisoned in a specific status or class or group of people instead of being universal. A major sign of the downfall of a nation is when it mocks the most important thing/people. We don’t see any difference between watching advertisements on TV and reading/writing literature.

Now come to the first question: do the non readers lose anything? It is next to impossible for the non readers to understand the loss. Literature is like drinking alcohol. It is bitter on the tongue but intoxicating inside the brain. Is it possible to enjoy the intoxication for a man who never drank? The difference is, literature doesn’t damage liver. Difference is, literature doesn’t promote immature death, and rather it creates the possibility of reincarnation. It is difficult to make people realize the utility of art. Which is art-in-reality and which is art-in-appearance is also a matter of consideration. There is a vast difference between a novel-in-appearance and a novel- indeed. Writing something in the format of a poem is not always a poem. Narrating an event in short space doesn’t ensure a standard short story. The differences can’t be understood overnight. It depends on practice and this practice is supposed to be started from primary education and family. When we are reading literature, we are reading life, we are reading ourselves, we are looking for Man—the Man Eternal. If art doesn’t exist, then what should exist? If a human being doesn’t search the significance of his existence, then what should he search? If he is not creative, then what is a better option? Art means looking for truth and looking for truth demands sacrifice and sufferings. If a man doesn’t want truth, then what should he want? Happiness?

Everybody is looking for happiness. Can happiness be achieved without truth? Material society teaches only to collect. Dedication and sacrifice is omitted in practical life only to practice in the textbook. Present society is highly body- centered. Realizing the necessity of art is the matter of a great mind, hence the happiness of literature is afforded only by the man- searchers.

There is no intentional difference between a rickshaw puller and a billionaire businessman. Both are hankering after certainty, security and happiness. Yet, we see none of them happy. Nobody claims to meet happiness. Anxiety is their constant companion. Therefore, the life we see around us can’t ensure happiness. Then where is it? I suppose the answer to this question couldn’t be discovered yet. But in a single word we can say, truth is happiness. Falsehood or lie can’t be a source of happiness. It may be the mask of happiness at best. Now the question is: what is truth? I think no other issue is as relative as this one. Whether absolute and self evident truth exists or not is the effort of curious minds. Achieving truth is a pursuit. Who are observing this pursuit? Are the above mentioned people doing it? Are our familiar businessmen, jobholders and labourers doing it? If it were so, then the situation of the society wouldn’t be like the monster of Frankenstein. We are now frightened of our own creation.

Society doesn’t want writers. Society has necessity, not demand for literature. It is a strange paradox. Society wants to cover its wound with emollient. Writer pricks it with his pen. Bleeding is essential in cumulus to relieve poison. Society can’t easily admit this necessity. The purpose of a writer is to discover truth. Truth may be pleasant, may be ugly. Whatever the truth is, it is aesthetic. Claiming any absolute truth about human life doesn’t suit a writer. He is not judge. He must not give verdict. Readers’ wish fulfillment is not his job. He shouldn’t impose his own life- philosophy on the readers. The dialogues on a character’s lip will be the character’s speech, not the writer’s. Readers often consider the character as the writer.

This is where the writer is victimized with misunderstanding. Great writers usually strike on the belief of the readers. He shakes the existential foundation of a reader. The reader often feels heartbroken. The writer breaks, so that the reader feels the necessity of rebuilding. For this reason usually great writers are unpopular. Usually readers don’t think beyond boundary, they don’t like to, they feel unsecured out of boundary. When a writer, preserving the boundary, provides wish- fulfillment type writing, that is a limited literary work, can’t overcome its own age. When a writer pulls the root of existence, he hardly finds anybody to welcome him. That’s why Sidney Sheldon is much more popular than George Orwell. That’s why Syed Waliullah’s world class novels are not familiar to the people. That’s why many people don’t even know the name of Akhteruzzaman Elias. This is the reality; great writers are divorced from mass people. A writer must overcome himself to merge with other’s life and dream. A certain level of psychological development is necessary to understand the great writer which is usually rare and rarer in Bangladesh.

When I find only myself, my surroundings, my well and woe in someone’s writing, that writer may seem sympathetic but when a writer shows what I could have been, maybe I don’t find myself there, but that is more valuable for me. There are lots of windows inside the head and heart of human beings. Literature opens those windows. What the reader will see through those windows is up to the reader. ‘Wow, I have found myself in this book’ or ‘I emotionally cried while reading this book’ are not the feelings provided by great books. Literature makes one realize the necessity of searching oneself.

By birth man comes to this world with a mind. But promoting this mind to a greater mind is the job of a saint. Proper anointment is necessary for this promotion and for this promotion there is no alternative to literature. A standard novel/poem/short story may make readers laugh or cry which a cheap piece of writing may do as well. The difference is, great literary works may or may not make readers laugh or cry but instigates spiritual promotion to a greater mind through enlightenment. A non-philosophical write up can’t be classic.

If after reading a novel/poem/short story the reader feels attachment without receiving a new insight, it is not a great writing for me. If the reader remains the same person before and after reading the piece, it will not be memorable for him. He will soon forget it. Good literature enlightens. The reader feels as if he were not the same person: spiritual promotion and evolution is going on.

We live in a world covered with well crafted- beautifully designed- apparently perfect carpet. The writer overturns or removes the carpet in front the readers’ eye.

*Imran Khan works with the daily Asian Age in Bangladesh. He has taught English Language and Literature in Notre Dame University Bangladesh. An earlier version of this appeared at The Asian Age Bangladesh

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