The crisis

SACHCHIDANANDA VATSYAYAN

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CRISIS, at least in the context of literature, is first of all an awareness of crisis; a matter of the writer’s consciousness. Without such awareness, objective situations may exist on various levels – social, economic, moral – but it would be more appropriate to talk of them as problems faced by the writer in those respective fields.

I therefore hesitate to talk of ‘the crisis facing the Indian writer’. I doubt if a general awareness of crisis exists, and I have met more Indian writers without it than with, even amongst the disgruntled ones (who should now perhaps be called the ‘angry’ ones). Anger is fashionable; disillusionment is a reality, but an exploration of the causes rarely leads one to this sense of crisis, however interesting and instructive it might otherwise be.

In discussions of the predicament of the writer today, one often finds a comparison of the thirties and the present decade. I think that such a comparison is very useful. But I think also that, more often than not, the wrong things are counterposed; the conclusions therefore are wrong and misleading.

If the thirties gave clear or stronger evidence of dynamic writing than the present decade, I think that one should look deeper for the reason than many do. It is no use saying that the present is more ‘challenging’. And it is absurd to talk of ‘ecstasy in the objective Indian situation’.

We have to consider the situation in the thirties, as well as that pertaining today, from two different sides. The ferment observed in the earlier decade, and the vigour of the writer’s response, was due neither to one set of factors nor to another, but to the violence of their impact on each other.

In the thirties, on the one hand, a great many issues had become crystalised and stood in sharp outline; what is more, this crystalisation had occurred for the first time and the shock had the added power of uniqueness. On the other hand, standards of value still existed and were accepted as valid. It was in the context of this frame of values that the shock found its real significance. This was the source of dynamism; the possibility of a genuine moral indignation still existed. However precipitous and dangerous, the path was clearly indicated: the writer – or some writers – took it.

The same can hardly be said about the late fifties. Undoubtedly the issues are bigger; their magnitude almost defies comprehension. But mere bigness is not enough; it can appeal or overpower but need not necessarily provoke a constructive response.

The issues are not only too big; they are confused. And the criteria of value have all become doubtful. Here again, it is not either one set of factors or another set of factors which should be considered in order to formulate the writer’s crisis; it is the impact of the one upon the other. And it appears to me that the way these factors impinge upon each other can help us to understand much better what is happening in our literature or in the writer’s consciousness today. The relationship is the exact opposite of that prevailing in the thirties. It is sad but understandable that the writer should feel bewildered and put off rather than fired with enthusiasm or spurred to expression.

 

 

While I think that this presentation of the contrast can help one not only to understand the difference in the situations prevailing in the thirties and today, but also to appreciate the state of the writer today, it is not my impression that even this is fully appreciated by the majority of writers. This is, in a sense, a dessicated presentation of a larger problem; and the writer, particularly since the attainment of Independence, has been concerned with flesh-and-blood formulations of a number of lesser problems. It is not that he has suddenly become more mundane or profit-minded. It is only that he has felt, I believe with reason, that the present is more propitious for the pursuit of such aims than the past and even the future.

In other words, he is on the crest of a commonsense, anti-idealistic wave. This would have been a natural consequence of the attainment of a new status in any age; in the context of the situation I have delineated above, it becomes even more understandable. Earlier the issues were clear and the light shone bright also; and worldly efforts by the writer did not seem too hopeful of early fruition. Today the issues are confused and the light is so uncertain as to be treacherous; on the other hand, the struggle for bread-and-butter at least appears to be likely to produce quick results...

 

 

Do I see a solution? I do not know. I do see hope, if that is any answer. But I think there is need of infinite patience, I want to tell myself that I have it. It may be that objectively I am only deluding myself. But if crisis is an awareness of crisis, surely the first step towards solution is also an awareness of the possibility of solutions.

I do not like to visualize the writer as ‘at bay’: particularly not writers as a class. To start with the assumption of an aggressive-defensive configuration is to corrupt literature at the source. Writers as a group may criticize, attack, denounce, cause upheavals and bring about revolutions; but I am convinced that somewhere there is a distinction between the relation of a group within a community to that community, and the relation of the writer to human society as a whole. In the latter context I venture to suggest that the writer’s basic relationship must be, can only be, one of harmony, of contact, of being in communion with.

This is, of course, a very debatable proposition. But even without necessarily establishing the point about harmony, one can go on to assert that basically what the writer must grasp is not things but the experience of life: his experience of life. To the extent to which this grasp is sure, his position is one of certitude and therefore of strength; it is this strength that he can deploy constructively. Any action flowing from insecurity, from a feeling of being ‘at bay’, buttressed as it may be by group organization or solidarity, is essentially action from a position of weakness; it may amount to political exigency or astute strategy but cannot produce healthy literature.

Since the thirties, or shall we say since after the War, the writer has been more concerned with his situation as a member of a class or group than with his predicament as himself. This is still the dominating trend. In other words, he has not only not arrived at crisis, but is not even heading towards it.

 

 

In the thirties there were a few writers who arrived at the fire-ordeal, and even went through it; their degree of success is not important here because in any case the significance of the ordeal and its aftermath can only be discussed in relation to the individual writer. As critics, outsiders, we can adjudge the quality of an artist’s experience, but to do that we have first to see that it has value because it is experience, and that it is his experience.

To my mind, this is the crux of the general problem today; however saddening it may be to have to confess it, the truth is that we are so much exercised about the use of experience as to be negligent of the quality of our experience of life. There is no urgency of self-confrontation: the crisis is that there is no crisis.

Having made it clear that the essential problem is of concern only to the individual writer, I can think of the more important ones on the lower plane. During the last decade, or two decades, the writer has proved woefully inadequate on every occasion on which a concerted expression of opinion was called for. He has failed to rise to the challenge, whether because of lack of vision and inadequate appreciation of the situation, or of petty jealousy and mutual suspicion, or just the absence of an organization through which he could express himself.

 

 

To give a few examples off-hand, he has not, to any extent, influenced the formation or activities of literary academies in the states or at the Centre; he failed to give a clear lead for the revision of Copyright Law (in spite of the PEN deputation of which the author also was a member), failed to influence the policies of All India Radio in respect of matters of vital concern to him.

Faced with the issue of state aid, the community of writers provided an unsavoury example of the saying about cutting one’s nose to spite one’s face: more than one conference was convened to consider the matter, but while each had strong feelings on the subject, there seemed more anxiety to demolish the credentials of the preceding conference than to exert constructive pressure.

The community failed again, or succeeded only in a small negative way, to influence the fate of the Conference of Asian Writers. It was unable to give a clear, emphatic and generally endorsed expression of its views on any important issue – even on issues on which strong feelings were held, such as the Pasternak affair or China’s border incursions.

I said above that the writer had not confronted himself as an individual because he had been concerned with material interests – that he had been aware of himself only as a member of a group. It is pathetic that, with so much involvement with groups, there should be so little effective action. All the energy which could have been fruitfully employed is dissipated in mutually destructive bickering.

I am sure that every Indian language provides its own examples of this unhappy tendency, but to confine myself to the one with which I am most familiar, I should draw attention to the sorry spectacle provided by Hindi’s ‘little reviews’. What should be a reflection of the vitality and dynamism of a literature is merely an example of petty recrimination and jockeying for positions of vantage at whatever cost of integrity. The partisanship and sectarian intolerance of coterie magazines is one thing; but what we observe is frequently not even remotely concerned with principles – any kind of principles; it is an all-in bout of mutual mud-throwing.

It is here, perhaps, that one can talk of the writer ‘at bay’ – but ‘at bay’ against what?

 

 

This cannot last. But so far there are no language organizations that seem equipped to find or even determined to look for solutions. Nor is there an all-India organization. The PEN does not have the drive and energy required, and so long as it is merely an Indian centre of an international organization, it is hardly likely that it will come up to the demands of a national organization. There has been a ray of hope in the all-India conferences, but those who have attended them will know how close they have steered to the rocks.

I have some idea as to where an answer can come from. I have met individual writers from different languages who, as individuals, see the enormity of the situation and are detached enough to face it on its own level. As to when they will be able to act together – and that not as an organization but as a voluntary concord of independent individuals – one can only answer patiently: ‘Wait and See’.

 

* Reproduced from ‘The Writer at Bay’, Seminar 21, May 1961.

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