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Literary Disciplines as a Mirror to Social Change

Jan 2017

Literary Disciplines as a Mirror to Social Change

The famous painter, creator of Guernica and other such artworks, Pablo Picasso had once remarked, “In the last analysis there is nothing but love, whatever form it takes. They really should put out the eyes of the painters, just like as they do to goldfinches, to make them sing more sweetly.”

Literary works erupt from the depths of the writer’s psyche. These novels, short stories, poetry, be they in any genre, are born after a long hiatus where their creator, eventually purges himself or herself through the might of words. Literary creations are akin to human births, where the writer has to internalise the birth pangs, so as to bring forth a timeless masterpiece. The writer ‘mothers’ his

creation, until it is fit for the public. Unless and until the writer is able to do that – be true to own self – a genuine work, can never, never emerge.

Take for example, the way a novel starts. Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, starts with, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The opening lines are very important. It sets the tone and pace of the novel. As an aside, I am quoting Sir Alfred Hitchcock, who had made the cinematic version of the novel by Maurier. “This paperback is very interesting, but I find it will never replace a hardcover book – it makes a very poor doorstop.”

Literature does, and should reflect the times we live in. Down the ages, it has been documents for social change and has acted like a mirror. The language evolves, the themes get more social-centric and we, the readers, get a clear picture of the times these literary works are set in. Literature, like images seen through a kaleidoscope, change with every era. How would Shakespearean language fit into a modern novel, for instance? It would sound incongruous, isn’t it? Keeping the readability aside, the literary work would stumble on its saleability as well. Because we have moved on with the times. Can our literature be far behind?

Before, the joint family structure was the norm in most Indian homes. Today it is as endangered as Charles Darwin would have had it. Nuclear families are more prevalent. So also with literary traditions. Gone are circuitous, soporific diction. Enter simple, crystal-clear language which is easier to grasp and closer to common prevalent communicative diction. Short, stucco sentences are the pillars whereby modern literature gains a toehold on the modern conscious. Even slangs have entered into literary works and they are used to create effect, or otherwise to shock us out of a moral and psychological stupor.

For memoirs, the most clichéd beginnings had been that from the most noted journalist and columnists of our country, Truth, Love and A Little Malice by Khushwant Singh. A man who had written such novels like Train To Pakistan, he begins, “It is safest to begin with the beginning.”

Autobiographies have always intrigued me. The reason being, in these the writer becomes true to the self. No holds barred, no discriminations entertained. The veteran actor, Naseeruddin Shah, has also penned his autobiography where he has unfolded for his readers and fans alike, what it took to get behind the painted veil.

Moving away from memoirs, novels as a genre are as popular as they are personal favourites. The noted writer, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, whose The Palace of Illusions was the ‘toughest work to handle’, according the author herself, begins with: “Through the long, lonely years of my childhood, when my father’s palace seemed to tighten its grip around me until I couldn’t breathe, I would go to my nurse and ask for a story.” Another writer, also of Indian origins who went on to master the art of story-telling and to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, Jhumpa Lahiri, begins one of her stories by the sentence: “At the tea stall Mr. And Mrs. Das bickered about who should take Tina to the toilet.”

Literary language has indeed traversed a long way since its Shakespearean days. These examples had been from Indian authors, famous and fiery in an equal measure. Contemporary western literature also reflects the change in mind-sets of the modern man. His priorities have changed. His lifestyle has undergone a sea-change. The pace of his day-to- day activities has left little or no room for idle thought. Yet he dreams. That is the dichotomy of modern life. What is literature? A reflection of society and social changes.

Harper Lee who wrote To Kill A Mocking Bird, had also won her the Pulitzer years ago, had published her novel, Go Set A Watchman, the sequel to her previous book. It begins with: “Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with the delight almost physical.” Who can ever forget the opening sentence in Jane Austen’s novel, Pride And Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Poetry, as a literary genre, has undergone more radical changes, both in structure, form and language, with the passage of time. The iambic pentameter paved the way for blank verse, which again made leeway to broken words as part of a poem. Rhyme is a thing of the past now. It is almost imperative that the succeeding lines should be in small letters as if they were the continuation of thought formed in the first line itself.

In conclusion, I can say that there is as much of literature and literary works within us, as there are years in the coming centuries. Every era produces its own literature which is unique and radical. Like a mirror, we should be able to see ourselves and our lives reflected in our literature. Be it vernacular, be it English or other languages.


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