“Look! Look! If you look really hard at things, you’ll forget you’re going to die,” an American actor is supposed to have once said. In a writing class I occasionally teach, this injunction to just look—out of the window or down the street—is sometimes met with boredom, not a seasoned ennui necessarily, just impatience with what one presumably already knows. We are prone to treat the outer world as a source of information, new and old, when it is actually a font of emotion. We describe things not because they are there but because our life depends on it.
Take Raymond Carver’s story “The Cabin.” A man called Mr. Harrold drives to a lodge in winter for a couple of days of river fishing. His wife has recently left him and he is suffering her absence, but this we know only through the occasional flashback. Most of Mr. Harrold’s feelings are expressed subliminally, through the delineation of things—furniture and furnishings in a room, the interplay of clouds and hills on the horizon, what people wear and how they look. Mr. Harrold is intent on enjoying himself, but it’s somewhat hard going, and he tries to keep himself together through acts of exact naming and deliberate doing. He takes a pint of Scotch out from the glove compartment, spreads out his weights and hooks on a table, smokes a cigarette with his tackle box open.
Eventually his grip on this material universe collapses. “He shook his head. Then he went up the steps to his cabin. He stopped on the porch. He didn’t want to go inside. But he understood he had to open the door and enter the room. He didn’t know if he could do that.”
Carver once said that “a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing—a sunset or an old shoe—in absolute and simple amazement.” Everything is grasped with a fine precision in his stories, with the ordinary but distinctive texture of the world. Often it is as if things have a life that people draw from, rather than endowing things with meaning. “Ideally, perhaps, the animate and the inanimate should swap places,” said Joseph Brodsky. Michael Hofmann, who quoted that remark in an essay on the poet, pointed out that this is exactly what happens in Brodsky’s poems. “The person, the poet, is atomized, centrifuged, dispersed, while his inanimate surroundings are spun into an increasingly concrete aura, a genie, that comes to stand in for him.”
This holding fast to the concrete world can be a way of anchoring oneself in the aftermath of tragedy—the departure of a wife in Mr. Harrold’s case, exile from Russia in Brodsky’s, which he describes rather as “tragicomedy.” His fellow exile Vladimir Nabokov clearly saw the tragicomedy of exile, too. In, say, the painful novelty of the everyday American products that arrest Humbert Humbert on one of his cross-country runs with Lolita (“Not for the first time, and not for the last, had I stared in such dull discomfort of mind at those stationary trivialities that look almost surprised, like staring rustics, to find themselves in the stranded traveller’s field of vision: that green garbage can, those very black, very whitewalled tires for sale, those bright cans of motor oil … ”).
The tragicomedy of Nabokov’s most tragicomic hero, the also exiled Timofey Pnin, is heightened by his comic flailing, his inability to get a hold on America. All sorts of everyday objects—from train timetables to washing machines—trip up this out-of-place Russian professor, but what endears him to us is his passionate ardor for these very things, his besotted attentiveness to them. His son gifts him an antique glass bowl that reflects “with such emblematic force the sweet nature of the donor that the tangible attributes of the thing are dissolved, as it were, in this pure inner blaze.” The object is transfigured through love. At the end of the novel, when Pnin is washing the bowl after a party at which he has received some bad news, he drops a nutcracker into it. The “excruciating crack” he hears sounds to us very much like the breaking of his heart.
While Nabokov and Carver’s characters seem as committed as their authors to the hard-edged glow of the uniquely common, in the fiction of R. K. Narayan, the Indian writer widely celebrated for his evocation of ordinary life, things are described clearly by the author but are not always seen for what they are by his characters. In the story “The Astrologer,” a seller of fried groundnuts “gives his ware a fancy name each day, calling it Bombay Ice-Cream one day, and on the next Delhi Almond, and on the third Raja’s Delicacy.” No one objects to these misnomers. The astrologer himself has eyes with an abnormal gleam that is really an expression of canniness but that customers mistake for sagacity, and the story is about a life-saving sleight of hand. In “The Doctor’s Word,” a brutally honest doctor is compelled to try a white lie to save a friend. Misunderstandings, trickery, surprises, exaggerations, the unseen hand of destiny—this is the stuff of Narayan’s stories, together with a persistent otherworldliness, seen in the famous singer in one story who travels the world giving concerts but is “habitually oblivious of her surroundings … She seemed to exist without noticing anything or anyone, rapt in some secret melody or thought of her own.”
The poet Arun Kolatkar once said, “There are a lot of mythical birds and beasts in Indian poetry but not ordinary things. Sparrows and crows have rarely appeared.” The writer who was able to most effectively combine the ordinary and the mythical was the poet, linguist, and translator A. K. Ramanujan. Yet again, it was the condition of displacement that created this possibility of seeing afresh, of noticing on a Chicago street what was first experienced in a South Indian home, but in Ramanujan’s vision things are animate in a different way: they become imbued with metaphorical meaning. Every poem of his could be read as an act of transmutation, and what is transmuted most often is the human body. The body is the locus and the body is returned to its formative elements; the body is pushing against its limits while the imagination tries to supply what the bodily senses cannot apprehend.
There is a thin line between concrete things and abstract ideas in these poems. In one, the poet thinks himself into a walnut tree that both goes into making a writing desk and is pulped for paper. He sees himself at that desk, writing on that paper, “a firm imagined body / working with the transience / of breathless / real bodies.” Ramanujan’s poems constantly “strain against the present tense,” as he remarks in another poem, while Carver’s stories are tributes to that very tense.
All this could suggest an easy dichotomy between the Western outlook—particular, present, individuated—and the Eastern—metaphysical, relative, fluid. The dichotomy is easily undone however by looking to Indian history. The Mughals, for instance, were acute observers and painstaking documenters of everything—their own lifestyles, the smallest details of the natural world, the complexities of kingship, the spoils of war. They were intent not just on identifying things but also on exercising the imperial right to label them. “As Adam named the birds and beasts of the Garden of Eden, so Akbar, supreme lord of his lands, rechristened a particular variety of Kabul cherry ‘shah-alu,’ king-cherry, or gave the pashmina shawl the nicely alliterative name parm-narm, most-soft,” writes Parvati Sharma in Jahangir, her recent biography of Akbar’s son. This fourth Mughal, perhaps the greatest aesthete of the line, had a “visceral appreciation of beauty” and “excelled in describing the strange.”
Of course the Mughals were exiles, too, in a manner of speaking. Babur, the first of them, who was born in Central Asia, famously lamented in his autobiography how Indians “have no good horses, no good flesh, no grapes or musk-melons, no good fruits, no ice or cold water, no good food or bread in their bazars, no baths or colleges, no candles, no torches, not a candlestick.” A couple of hundred years down the line, Jahangir, though completely at home in India and half-Rajput, is nevertheless still looking at it with the eyes of a discerning visitor, zestfully describing the habits of the natives and, unlike his great-grandfather, comparing favorably the fruits of India with those of Kabul. Thus the formerly native slowly becomes foreign and the foreign is made native; the Persian word vilayat once meant the land of one’s ancestors but over time came to mean “abroad.”
If exile produces one ideal condition for observing and naming, power produces another, and these two came together in the case of the Mughals. In Jahangir’s time, for instance, and that of his father, Akbar—the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—the country they ruled was one of the richest in the world; the catalogue of these riches—cloths, spices, minerals, fruit, grains, livestock—needed a comparable richness of vocabulary to describe, as they often were by awestruck visitors, notably those historic emissaries from Europe. Soon all these many things would become the envy of the Occident and thereby impetus for colonization. The relationship between covetousness for things and their depiction in art has been described admirably by John Berger. In his classic relook at Western art, Ways of Seeing, he shows us how European oil painting from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, commissioned by rich patrons, came to embody the aesthetic for re-creating material objects and reinforcing aristocratic ownership of them. The dominant styles of oil painting “conveyed a vision of total exteriority.” This possessive stance toward the world was at the heart of the colonial enterprise, he argues.
What Kolatkar describes as lack of everyday detail in Indian poetry could be read as a comfortable taking for granted of things, a doing away with the need to describe what one has an obvious claim on. In the colonial era, Indian writers seem to lose that sure hold on experience, perhaps because of our reading about one set of things in English literature, inside the classroom, and experiencing another outside. The most weather-beaten example is Wordsworth’s daffodils. Every second postcolonial writer, from V. S. Naipaul down, has found reason to complain about those daffodils of the school textbook—definitely not ours and yet ours already. For a later generation, the exotic teas devoured by children in Enid Blyton’s adventure stories—scones with clotted cream and tongue sandwiches, gallons of ginger beer and lashings of lemonade—came to stand in for this embarrassment. We liked stuff vicariously and often grew up to dislike ourselves for that reason. But what is missed by this now all-too-familiar critique is the fact that we are responding not merely to things but the words in which they have been incarnated. What excites the imagination is the description; what alienates—but thereby also inspires—is the feeling of not ourselves having a language compelling enough to bring things to life. The response, when it comes, is a literary one, and a literary response can never be wholly antagonistic to its impetus.
But whether writing out of a need to dispense with those daffodils and recover what is close at hand, or writing out of an assumed ownership of the world, the mere ambition to get things down, to conquer them with human names and fix them in human images, can become, if taken too seriously, a hubris, as Berger points out. Even writers must stop playing god at some point—the deity that Flaubert, master of noticing, famously gave license to all writers to emulate when he said they “must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” Carver seemed to know that. A poem called “The Blue Stones,” addressed to Flaubert, has an epigraph from the French writer: “If I call stones blue it is because blue is the precise word, believe me.” The poem itself however seems to gesture at something else—the inner life of things, perhaps unreachable by the words a writer dreams up for them. Those stones on the beach look blue in the moon’s light. And “Next morning when you pull them / from your trouser pocket, they are still blue.”
Anjum Hasan is the author of the novels The Cosmopolitans, Neti, Neti, and Lunatic in My Head, the short story collections A Day in the Life and Difficult Pleasures, and the book of poems Street on the Hill.