The enlightened reader will be a savior — Tabish Nawaz

From the day-to-day recording of mundane activities to an accomplished storyteller, Tabish has come a long way. As he listens to the sound of moving water, which helps him to meditate, he talks to Vivek Nath Mishra on the verge of the release of Opening Clouds, Fermented Rain.

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Vivek Nath Mishra: What, in your opinion, are the essential elements of your writing?

Tabish Nawaz: Primarily, I am a diary writer. I learned it from my father, whose mornings used to start with journal entries, mostly about his police case diaries. He used to buy us all siblings, a new diary each year to pen our thoughts. This practice continued until I went to study in a boarding school in Mussoorie, Oak Grove School. I used to take a keen interest in putting on paper as to what happened over the day. Also, we used to write weekly letters to our parents, siblings, and friends describing the entire week. I rue this loss of letter writing culture. But this practice has stayed with me and influences my writing. Somehow, I have noticed, like, for example, there is always an attachment to the past. My characters are looking for the lost time in some ways. Maybe, I look into the past, past one day, week, or year, while I am writing. I try to explore the nature of the memories, how time has corrupted them, how it can further change, how it can be corroborated with the people who are part of the minds. These questions interest me, and I try to explore them in my writing. Most often, people have told me that such and such things you are saying did not happen, or I am just embellishing. That creates some sort of loneliness when I look, and I wonder how come I retain this experience, was I somewhere else when such an event was unfolding despite being in their company, am I imagining things now or then? These questions, difficult they are, make me think about the loneliness in the company of people, as to how much-estranged someone can be to create a private, unshared world of her or his own while staying with people all along. What makes me more curious is how unaware people themselves are when such private worlds come into being, so when they look back later, they fail to make out if they are real or delusions. I try to explore the boundary of such worlds in my writing, as to how far they can be corroborated. I also enjoy exploring the nature of the journey, its impact on the traveler, the idea of belonging somewhere else, that happiness is always elsewhere, which motivates a traveler to undertake a trip. I also try to give voice to Nature, inanimate objects in my writing.

Vivek: In such difficult times, how do you think contemporary literature could come up as a savior?

Tabish: I see literature as an art of looking back, going into the past, and finding out where the present is coming from. Somethings only become apparent much later. But having said that, I don’t intend to dismiss the role of contemporary literature in shaping our collective memory. It has a vital purpose for documenting the present, making it available for the coming generation to look, decipher the meaning and learn from it. I say this to stress upon the fact that it would be quite tricky for us, in the present to make much sense of it, because we are experiencing it, we are too much into it, we are looking at it too closely. Therefore, the role of contemporary literature must be to attempt to document it whatever is visible, as honestly as possible, making it available for the future generation, that is the best we can do. We can only infuse it with the meanings when we look back at it from some metaphorical mountain of time, how things were interconnected, we would be able to see, we will have clarity, so the stuff of the present will inspire the future literature, to look back and learn from it. For the current generation, looking at what has been written would be more useful, because that way we would have more clarity about our present, we would find ways of looking at our present problems. Since you have brought it up, I must mention A Journal of The Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, which was written roughly a century after the great plague of London. The book describes an eye-witness account of the London Plague of 1665. It gives facts in so much precision and details that one feels them happening in their homes. They are presented as a matter-of-fact manner, but there is so much going on in the facts that one feels as if something is moving, stirring above it. I think this something is our collective human consciousness, which seeks our experiences to express itself.

Still, to bring it up in writing, I believe some clarity and unattached perspective is needed, which can only happen after the storm has passed and things have somewhat settled. But in poetry, the present can be expressed more clearly, mainly because it is a timeless and universal art, respite can be found if one is into it. I read Hibiscus recently, the poems in it do provide some relief, they resonate with our present. Poetry seeks to establish a dialogue between eternity and time. It bears the truths valid in every age. The comfort poetry gives us is that it helps us see eternity within time; we can locate ourselves spiritually. This identification with eternity is what soothes in poetry and has some therapeutic feel to it. Also, reading philosophy has been useful to me, particularly stoic philosophers like Seneca, Marcus Aurelius Meditations. These works provide a view to look at the limits of human actions, help me see history working actively in our present, the idea is to reconcile with these eternal forces and then there may be a chance to control them. Poetry and philosophy help me in realizing that present is always passing, and has ever done so. But at the same time, it makes me see that it is still there, for the past is nothing but present’s memory and future, present’s hope, as Borges puts it. I must clarify that I am not saying that literature promotes resignation, but it does create some reconciliation with time, making peace with it. But the idea is to understand what eternity wants and is trying to say. Understanding this aspect can propel an individual into action; such an individual will be a force of history, creating it eventually. The role of literature, therefore, should be to open this dialogue between time and eternity. Then only it can work on its readers, and ultimately the enlightened reader will be a savior.

Vivek: Writing is a weighty responsibility. It is a way of serving literature, and one has to do it rightly. How well do you think you have taken up this responsibility?

Tabish: I see two aspects of my writing activities, first, as a routine affair, sitting daily, for an hour or so, and putting it on paper what happened in the past twenty-four hours or so. This regime has stayed, without which I feel something is missing in my day. Now the second aspect came into focus when I started reading some great literature, beginning with Manto, Borges, Kafka to Camus, Pessoa, and Saramago. The role of good writing or art is to open eyes in its readers and viewers. For example, before Vermeer, painters were mainly painting scenery, mountains of Alps, forlorn, untouched lakes, and things like that. People thought, OK, that’s beautiful, they believed that they would find beauty only if they would travel to some mountain or something. Still, when Vermeer painted maiden pouring milk or a woman stitching something, reading a letter, these paintings helped create eyes in the viewers, Hey! Look, beauty can be found inside our homes; it is there in our everyday ordinariness. Though the society took note of this message only after Vermeer was gone, it did help create awareness, offering a new perspective, looking again at the established notions. Something similar good literature does to its readers. And it did to me as well. It opened up new eyes in me to look at my past twenty-four hours and beyond in my diaries to explore them to locate where the threads of my past lie, how much I have transitioned from there. Gradually, I noticed some depth and granularity coming into my writing. This engagement has helped me immensely through many things. I have, therefore, begun to bear a sense of gratitude to the books, poets, and writers for sharing their solitude to me as a reader. So, I must also give back to this corpus of literature and contribute it to grow so that it reaches to other individuals like me to benefit from, to open some new eyes in them. This is one responsibility I feel towards literature and writing. How well I have done this, I have never thought about it, but whenever I feel from inside that I must write, then I write.

Vivek: How do you think our society has shaped you as a writer?

Tabish: As a writer, one must have personal experiences, empathy to connect with others, and an eye for details. These are the raw materials a writer works with, and of course, society provides these materials. Writing is a collaborative task between the writer and the reader. So, there is always an element of connectedness with the other. Borges used to say that the reader is the writer. Therefore, a writer cannot exist in isolation, though s/he must retreat to her/his solitude, but must return to share. Writing may be a way of being alone, but it must get back to society, holding a mirror to it, providing fresh eyes to look at itself. This exchange between a society and a writer shapes the writing. My writing takes contour by the times I live in. It certainly provides me experiences to write about, but it also gives me a boundary to engage. There are things that I would have liked to say more bluntly, but there are associated social sensibilities that push me to be more inventive. Of course, there are a lot of things that can bother a writer in society, but there is also a delicate relationship that must be protected, otherwise the dialogue, the engagement may be broken. The self and the other are delicately balanced at the fulcrum of reality. This fulcrum helps me in locating my writing somewhere in between and open dialogue in some constructive ways. I need to say things, even difficult situations, but delicately. The idea is to make society reflective and look into itself.

Vivek: Is writing a means of catharsis for you?

Tabish: No, not at all, I write to relive my experiences. When I am bottled up, I have felt that I fail to write. I must process my experiences and make peace with it, then only I can write. To me writing is very much like a surgical process. A surgeon needs to be calm and clear, moving his fingers around the delicate innards. Likewise, I run my pen when there is clarity, catharsis can come in my way of looking at things.

Vivek: Does anyone of the characters hold a special place in your heart? If so, why?

Tabish: It is difficult to say. If you ask personally, I can say Mirza in “Four Annas” is quite personal and based on one of my family members. There is also the presence of a mother in many of my stories. The character of the mother is unique to me for clear reasons, but also because mothers perform a heroic deed by giving birth as Joseph Campbell puts it, she gives over herself to the life of another.

Vivek: What do you hope your readers take away from your writings?

Tabish: I will hope they carry away some empathy for the world around them, get some fresh ways of looking at Nature and other inanimate objects, by involving them in their societies and holding a conversation with them.

Vivek: Are you working on anything at the present you would like to share with your readers about?

Tabish: Currently, I’m working on my debut short story collection, Opening Clouds, Fermented Rain. I will also work on my maiden poetry collection sometime later.

Vivek: What do you like to do when you are not writing?

Tabish: I am into teaching and guiding students, which I enjoy the most. Apart from that, when I am not writing, I do the reading, sketching, roaming around, and sitting near some water bodies like rivers, streams, and sea. The sound of moving water helps me to meditate.

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Vivek Nath Mishra
Vivek Nath Mishra lives in Varanasi and his short stories have appeared in The Hindu, Adielade Literary Magazine, Queen Mob's Teahouse, Muse India, Cafe Dissensus, among other places. Some of his stories are forthcoming in Indian Literature and The Punch Magazine. His debut book is Birdsongs of Love and Despair, published by Hawakal.

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