A few years ago, a college-mate messaged me on Facebook. He spoke hysterically. As nearly as I could make out, he was trying to tell me: “It might be true that you write well, but that does not prove anything to me. I will respect you when you tell the truth.” I understood him. This is a variant of, “Even Einstein was a boob outside physics.” The world is full of such people.
Once when I went for a job interview, I saw a lean girl sitting on an over-sized chair. She could not have placed her feet on the floor. She said that she had worked with an investigative news website. She said, “I am not a good writer, but I can break stories. Some journalists are good writers, but they cannot break stories.” I smiled politely. She then asked me, “Will they give us a byline?” I said, “I do not care whether they give me a byline as long as they pay me.” She turned silent convinced that I was not worth talking to. It was a small magazine. I do not know why she wanted that. I sat there, staring at her feet.
I did not get the job because my ex-colleague Miss Touch Me Not was working there. She back-stabbed me. That ugly little creep. I do not blame her because it was my honesty that cost Miss Touch Me Not her previous job. For a while, I had seen her walking through Malviya Nagar like a lost puppy. When she saw me, she gave me a pained look. Her boss had once asked me why I named her Miss Touch Me Not. “I do not think you would have had a hard time touching her.”, he said with a clever smile. I know why he said that. I had never seen her forego an opportunity to touch a man. She used to stay up late in the office, presumably to have a surreptitious hanky-panky with a cute designer.
But, this is representative of a wider attitude. Miss Touch Me Not too had views that were very similar to that of the girl who sat on the over-sized chair. I once heard her say, “She writes very long blog posts.”. When I said that the world is complex, and that good writers prefer the long-form, she said defensively, “But, she does not have a point. It is too long. I always try to cut it down.” She then said that the newspapers and magazines do not really care whether you are a good writer or not. “I am not a good writer, but I can even sell ice in Himalayas. That is a more valuable skill.”, she said. I felt that she was trying to tell me, “The fools shall inherit the earth.” She felt that I needed convincing there. I, again, smiled politely.
If you stay near these people, you will notice that they want to repeat such platitudes that are hopelessly within the mainstream. I do not know why they think that people need convincing there. There is not one among them who disagrees with it. But, they think people have to be told over and over again that hunter-gatherers are better than processors, and that covert skills are more valuable than overt skills. Why? Because they know that this is not true.
Another creep in that office, “Miss Way of Living” had very similar views. “How long are your essays? 2500 words? Mine are never longer than 1000 words. I always try to keep it concise.”, she once asked me. I have never felt that it is easier to write a shorter essay. I have not known a single decent writer who thinks otherwise. But, the journalist duds who have not read a single book in their lives confuse brevity with laziness—with ignorance. They are too lazy to write. They are too lazy to read. And they decided that what lies easiest to their hands is good and noble. The Aspie girl once told me, “Crisp. That is what they call it.”
Miss Way of Living then spoke of the importance of going to slums to understand the “truth of the matter”. I said that academics rarely do such field work. “But, the best work in social sciences in the past hundred years was done by academics.”, I said. She suddenly turned her eyes toward the screen and said, “Let us get back to work.” This is typical.
Once I saw a female journalist on Facebook saying something along these lines. I said that going to the backyard “to see what is there” is not a substitute for erudition. When I said that journalists should study the social sciences, she said that she had never laughed so much in her life. A few hours later, I noticed that she had blocked me. But, I had seen her “liking” all the Facebook comments below an op-ed of Sandipan Deb. Elsewhere, she said that “he gave her this round universe”. I was amused because what a 53 year old women does while sucking up to a writer are not too unlike what a girl in her twenties does. Adults are grown-up babies. But, the “op-ed” would have had the effect of a thunderstorm on an ant on these dead-ends.
There are all sorts of passive aggressive people. Once a young man told me, “I liked your post. You should read the Brevity Magazine”. Now, this is a lamer who had not read a single book in his life before he did a post-graduate program in journalism. He once told me, “Editors will revise your draft. They know what sells and what doesn’t.” Then he said, beaming, “Joseph Anton was rewritten six times.” I felt that he was trying to tell me that I should fear him, and the other people like him.
Then, there are the frustrated nonentities that profess admiration for your brilliance, but slip in a dirty word when they speak to people closer to you. I should have spat on their faces.
Through such conversations, people try to impose their views on you, to assert their “superiority” over you. I am going to write down a few such conversations:
Me: I just finished reading Bhagwati and Panagariya’s “India’s Tryst With Destiny”.
Mr. X: It is so boring.
Me: Yes. It is so badly written. Indian economists are such bad writers. They are incompetents. I do not have much hope in anyone.
Mr. X: Oh, you are such a big joker. Panagariya is just too boring.
Me: I am glad that I am not like these people who never read anything good in their lives. Their lives are half over.
Mr. X: Hehe (Fearing that I was hinting at him)
Me: Yes. It is sad. (Smiling)
Mr. X: I hardly care about writers who can’t get to the point quickly, old or young. (Defensively. Hoping that good writers do not “get to the point”. Only dunderheads do.)
Ms. Kaur had just finished reading Spanking In Popular Literature. For whatever reason, she felt inferior.
Ms. Kaur: It is surprising that you spend more time on a subject than one might reasonably expect.
Me: What do you mean?
Ms. Kaur: Nothing in particular. But, you might like this quote: “Good writing doesn’t just transport ideas—it gives the reader a visceral experience, as if the writer is reaching inside his skull, grabbing fistfuls of neurons, twisting them, petting them, and sometimes crushing them. The most basic skill a writer can have is the ability to describe things simply and clearly, which means either painting a concrete picture or making a clear argument. It also means using easy but exacting words and to-the-point syntax.” (She was trying to tell me that I cannot do that.)
Me: Lol. But why do you say this to me?
Ms. Kaur: When I read what you had written, that was how I felt. What you had written is nothing extra ordinary. But, I appreciate it because you bothered to write about an otherwise trivial/overlooked issue. Now, do I make sense in context of what I had said now? (She meant, “I feel bad. I am 29. So, I am not going to grant you what you deserve.”)
Me: The beauty of the prose is important to me too. But, it is hard to define beauty. It is hard to define jealousy.
She blocked me.
Mr. B: I read your article on the development model of Kerala.
Me: Thanks. What do you think of it?
Mr. B: Good. Written in your own style, but you did not make any substantive point. (Mr. B’s English language writing skills are pathetic.)
Me: What? Did you ever see these arguments being raised in the mainstream media?
Mr. B: No. It is fine. But, I hope that you will find a permanent place.
Mr V: What is your non-fiction book on?
Mr V: Great. I am surprised that they are publishing something like that. Share the opening page if you do not mind.
(I sent it to him. Weeks later, he claimed that he had not received it, as if he had forgotten it. He asked me to send it again. I did. Again, he pretended to have forgotten it, to hint that he wanted to withhold his opinion.)
Mr. V: Will you move to the US? I have a feeling that you should.
Me: I have always wanted to. I just got stuck here, because I dropped out of college—and similar complicated reasons. I find the paper work tiresome. It took a batch-mate of mine two years, and he was treated really badly by his agent.
Mr. V: You have work experience. That counts. You’ve written extensively. You will be funded. I am sure. (As if I am an average bloke, as if it is my meager “work experience” that matters.)
Me: I had applied for the Bastiat Prize. I do not know how that works.
Mr. V: It is a high-profile award.
Me: I know, but Sauvik and Amit had won. I am a much better writer. Young and unknown, but still.
Mr V: You mean to say that you are a purer writer?
Me: I did not intend that. It is not very hard to be ideologically pure.
Mr. V: But they value something called “literary merit”. They do not say so, of course. I do not know about Sauvik. Amit Varma seems to have it. (As if my work does not have literary merit. Any well-read man with half a brain can see that Amit is not half as talented as me.)
He turned silent.
This “naïve”, but instinctively shrewd girl feels that she should stop me, and save me:
Ms. P: I liked your column, but do you really believe that your life would sell? I am asking this as a friend. Is your life full of marvels and surprises that people love? I should not say anything that might discourage you. You should keep working, and I am sure your effort will yield substantial benefits.
Me: I think I have done a great job, so far. A publisher asked me to write after reading my blog, anyway.
Ms. P: I wish you success, then. If an editor found your work excellent, who am I to stop you? I still wish you a good luck. Many people who seek freedom and independence turn to writing, but they do not always become successful. I have seen too many failed writers. So, I tend to be cautious. But you should trust that editor’s judgment of you.
Me: I am a better judge of my work. I did not decide to become a writer because I felt that it is an easier path to riches. There was not a single moment in my life in which I wondered whether I would fail. (The people with no judgment or values think of this as a casino in which writers do not know whether they will succeed or not.)
She: Don’t be too nice with me. I am kind of alone now. I don’t want to feel special with you or anything.
Me: I am not being too nice. This is just the way I am.
She: I see you as an equal, and I think you’re well mannered already. I just don’t want to feel to close with you. I usually don’t chat with anyone in particular, in Facebook or anywhere. I call my friends when I need to be with anybody.
Me: I had not intended that. It is just my nature, to be polite.
She: Good. Then do not take it personally when I warn you to be at a distance. It is for our safety. I am a very good friend, but a terrible lover. Take care, and have a good night.
Me: I had not intended that at all. Good Night.