Thursday, November 14, 2013

Yet another campus caper

Besides the question why are so many people writing without being interested in writing as such, why are so many of them writing campus-capers? I can understand the still-hungover mid-twenties crowd, but men in their mid-thirties? A purely-humorous campus-caper is not an impossibility, but humour is a craft that has to be painfully learnt, and given that these people are in too much of a hurry to do that, one can only assume that there was something deeper in the tales told, an inner necessity propelling the writer. And when you’ve braved through that bilious prose, at best functional, you wonder if these vapid frolickings of characters who stir scant empathy really deserve a retelling, given that the market is choked with so many similar tales.
I refer particularly to a type of genre, of pseudo-jocks, even bedroom-jocks, strutting around in the cloistered and secure world of campuses ensuring 100% placements. Or at least 80%. Make it a campus in a hinterland where unemployment stares at the actors two years ahead, and there is always the looming threat of a thukai from a gang of local katta-wielding desperadoes for showing too much attitude, and then it becomes a story, stark and viscerally real. Why – because the fear lived is real. Unfortunately, very few of these men are writing that story in English. When they do, like a writer reviewed cruelly here before, the reference point is still the college he couldn’t make through, the fantasied big-dick-waving affairs of their bigger stop-the-press lives, than the humbler truth of his own.
But coming to these writers of a particular stock, whose various but not much varied types I happen to be very familiar with – surely it was not always so facile for them. Let me state an example here. The third part of Amitabh Bagchi’s ‘Above Average’ examines the friendship between the urbane anglofied middle-class protagonist and a vernacular small-town batchmate with such raw honesty, that it achieves what every book must surely aspire towards – making the reader remember, with a lump in the throat. This bit of the story is no quite as sensational as the prelude to a murder in Mayur-Vihar, not as cool as the bit on fear and loathing among drummers in IIT, but it is the bit, unsensational, small, so finely nuanced, that makes me rank it as among the best campus-capers I’ve read. Even the success of Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone, that started this trend, was founded on a modicum of honesty of feelings.
Experience is a painful journey. We learn when we fail, we achieve peace when pushed to the last depth of misery, hitting the sandbed, kicking and then resurfacing in a new light. Friendships are tested when pushed to the brink, when the stakes are bigger than a common love-interest, when there is no rich parent to bail you out, when there is no citadel of the campus to keep you cushionly secure against the real cut-throat world. And I refuse to believe that none of this genuine human-condition is encountered even within those turreted walls by even the most facile.
But that is so uncool.
Of course, no story can be a story without some conflict and angst. But these are either the superficially-experienced episodes or borrowed. And like the 3-Idiot’s suicide, never personal enough to transform the facile all-is-well narrative into a deeper introspection as ‘Above Average’ achieved. The structure of the stories is rarely organic and borrowed from the tropes flooding us, Bollywood, Hollywood, MTV. The conflict is always outside and never inside, experienced in superficial sentiments and not genuine emotions.
I return to the question, why, despite the wisdom, are men writing the same stories that they could have written a decade ago? What about the collapse of certain dreams since, of encounters with starker realities, deaths, divorces, of the simple joy of fatherhood?
Because this writing is painful (even the joy has to be experienced with the acuteness of pain) and they’re afraid of pain. Fear is what they start out to avoid in these boisterous memoirs, and fear is what I encounter splashed in pages after pages. The fear of irrelevance, foremost. We were young and cool too, once. Possibilities alive once, now secretly feared dead and gone forever. The tone of these capers is emphatic –effervescent prose, generous peppering of caps and exclamations, slangs, fucks, sex they never had. There are no nuances, only episodes upon episodes. The volume is turned on for the writer as much as the reader, to drown out that faint inner voice and really believe in the constructed fiction of their pasts. The human condition needs no emphasis, only the escapist fantasies where we’re heroes of our stories, larger than life by dwarfing everything else, the side actors and other narratives, and that fear within that makes us feel small and uncertain.
The fear of their present condition.
Fiction is an attempt to understand our deepest selves. One begins thinking one will end at such and such place, but ends up at a nook he never suspected. That is the purpose of writing. I have read interviews of some such writers and listened to them gush about how this happened in bits, and that is the tragedy – they never pushed themselves harder enough from there. Abandon that first facile draft, as I did eight years ago, and chase that uncertain blink of light. Writing, like all arts, is a process which you enter as one man and emerge as a different man, a self you chase to realise within. Like genuine travel. Unfortunately, these writers are determinedly tourists, they want to return securely as the “them” they began with. They don’t want to become anything else. As said before, the stress in their writing is on emphasising their securely-held beliefs of “Kya-cool-hain-hum” and not transformation.
What they do become is this closed self-congratulating clique, insecure of any criticism, ranting about elitists and, like corrupt demagogues winning elections after jail-stints, shouting how the people have voted with their money. There they are, encountered in the new citadels of boardrooms, facebook, pubs, golf-courses and drawing-rooms, loud opinions, still flaunting, self-promotion of vapid blogposts, saying what everyone else is saying, doing what everyone else is doing, only cooler and that witty ironic tone. Ever perpetuating the myths of their lives lest the slightest drop admit a discordant note – especially from within. They are the sort who would panic if their witty takes on a headline-debate doesn't get any likes on fb, two in a row.

I was wrong. Even bad superficial writing does transform you. You return an even hollower self for the truth of the experience encountered and denied.

For those thinking of writing their own stories, I have nothing against any genre. Only bad, superficial writing. Write honestly, don’t be afraid to acknowledge a wasted draft, imagine that entire spectrum of your experiences, exorcise, transform. Disbelieve the strident myths we’re surrounded with – we humans are much more intelligent and deeper than they would have you believe. The readers have still not forgotten to discriminate between the genuine and the affected.

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