I don't want to be a tree; I want to be its meaning.
Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red
I see a child putting letters of the alphabet, one in front of the other, daring to make sense out of what is being written, attempting to give meaning to what is being said, trying to relate to the meaning within his minuscule world of experiences and being satisfied with what he gets out of it, wide-eyed and exhilarated. I also see the child read a story, look at pictures in a book, hear the words of a story being narrated, equally wideeyed, feeling exhilarated with what he can visualize through the words falling like drops of ink on the world of his imagination and experiences. The child experiences the real world on his own. The child also experiences the real world through words written by other people. In literature, the child can see what he knows and identifies with it; he can relate to what he has understood of life and at the same time also be apart of something he had not known orunderstood till that moment.
Ever since I can remember, I have been reading books. As a child, I read books that opened up new worlds for me. As I grew up, I saw that I understood the world around me through the text. As I read, sometimes I merely identify with the characters and their situations; sometime, I see through their eyes and comprehend something that is not otherwise palpable. The world of literature has been as fascinating for me as the experiential world itself. Perhaps I have been so immersed in the world of literature because, often, my experiential world meets the world of the texts in myriad and miraculous ways. As a reader and a teacher, I want to lead my student-readers into the backwaters ofexperience and imagination.
In a flash, 'When the evening is spread out against the sky; Like a patient etherised upon a table,' I can see T S Eliot's wasteland stretched in front of my eyes while a train is pulling out of Delhi. Standing in front of a field of white crosses, growing a crop of the remains of unknown soldiers, I know what Rupert Brooke spoke of when he wrote about 'some corner of a foreign field'. I can experience the world of acrimony and misogyny at its fullest, not through my own experiences but in the flesh and blood embodiment of the women in Lorca's House of Bernarda Alba or Elkunchwar's The Old Stone Mansion. I feel weighed down by the density of love and can peel off the layers of the emotion while reading Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera or while unbraiding Jeanette Winterson's Passion. I can completely relate to Pamuk when he says, 'Over time, I have come to see the work of literature less as narrating the world than "seeing the world with words". From the moment he begins to use words like colors in a painting, a writer can begin to see how wondrous and surprising the world is, and he breaks the bones of language to find his own voice. For this he needs paper, a pen, and the optimism of a child looking at the world for the first time.'
The process that takes place while one interacts with literature is multi-faceted. While teaching a literary text, one can separate various strands of the silk thread to hand-weave an experience for the students. There are instances when I can understand the literary text because of my own insight into the world: I can try and understand Hamlet's melancholy after having experienced something like it. At other times, I can understand the world because of the power of the writer's words, which dissolves the ambiguity of the idea or the emotion and sublimates it such that it is crystal clear. The concepts of futility and irony are understood in their sharpest and most 'unblemishedly' devastating sense after reading war poetry or Khalid Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns.
The interaction between my world of experiences and the world of the writer takes place in a fluid space, within which my mind darts around like a silver coloured fish. In these two worlds, I see myself. I can relate to the experiences deeply embedded in a literary text, not only as something I can 'understand' but also as something I can 'experience'.
Literature is a microcosm that is created by the writer and the reader-teacher. There are three texts born within this microcosm. The first text is the experiential reality and the imaginary world of the writer. When the reader-teacher reads the text, her own experiences and imagination create a second text. The reader-teacher perceives the first text in the light of the second. The third text, however, is a product of the two, which cannot be held or analysed as it lies between the space in which the worlds of the reader-teacher and writer meet. The third text is what creates the individual who will be able to look at the world with a vision that will either restore it or destroy it. It is the reader-teacher who sometimes aids the student in the creation of this third text.
For instance, while reading Blindness, a novel by Jose Saramago, you never quite feel you can see what's going on; you feel that your viewpoint is constrained: in fact, you feel partially blind. In the novel, a man driving his car in a city stops at a traffic light and is struck blind. So begins Blindness. This is just the start of an epidemic that spreads rapidly throughout the country, robbing everyone of their sight, for no apparent reason. Saramago imagines brilliantly the collapse of a civilization deprived of the visual structure on which it depends and, as the horror unfolds, he develops the central metaphor to explore a number of key themes. Accepting his Nobel prize, Saramago, calling himself 'the apprentice', said: 'The apprentice thought, "we are blind", and he sat down and wrote Blindness to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures.'
In this novel, it is not the powerful, but powerless people who insult human dignity. They are ordinary people, terrified at finding themselves and everyone else blind. Everything is out of control and some behave with selfish brutality. We can see that the group of blind men who seize power in an asylum and use and abuse the weaker blind inmates have indeed abandoned self-respect and human decency: they are a microcosm of the corruption of power. This understanding of this third text makes the book far more significant for us today. Building the scaffold to arrive at this understanding of the third text is what the reader-teacher does.
Reading a text is like looking through a microscope or through a pinhole camera. One encounters the minutiae of experience one might never have first-hand but which go far into the making of one's conscience as well as one's sharpened awareness.
In Albert Camus' The Outsider we have a narrative about Meursault, a man of French descent who lives in Algeria during the French colonization. Meursault does not follow the typical social conventions of a French-Algerian bachelor. He lives a simple life, acting on impulse, while viewing life itself with a calm detachment. Meursault never lies, and because of this he lacks the emotional responses expected of him by society. In Meursault's case, he wants to be free from hope because hope means that there is some disconnection between the two selves—who he shouldattain to be and who he actually is.
The third text is the one where I, as a reader-teacher, can see the outsider within me and within those I interact with. I see the rift between selves, within oneself and between people. I can see how I am'othering' or being 'othered' by peoplearound me constantly. Only when I becomeaware of this split self can I become anindividual who responds responsibly to theworld around her. The merging of Camus'experiential world with mine gives riseto a real world that engages with others responsibly. When I as a teacher invite mystudent-reader to be a part of this real world,there is a possibility that it would lead tothe development of the politically awareindividual who holds power responsibly.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is a novel of love and politics in communist-run Czechoslovakia between 1968 and the early 1980s. Here is a 'post-modern' novel in which the author withheld so many of the things we expect from a work of fiction, such as welldeveloped and complete characters. Kundera himself tells us, 'It would be senseless for the author to try to convince the reader that his characters once actually lived.' The novel brings in lastingly significant concepts of fortuity, a brotherhood of mankind based on kitsch and the conviction that it is by our treatment of animals that we most clearly display our essential and unforgivable arrogance as a species. What is remarkable is that a work so firmly rooted in its time has not dated. Kundera's novel seems as relevant now as it did when it was first published. Relevance, however, is nothing compared with that sense of felt life which the truly great novelists communicate.
Teaching literature at various levels, from school to university, is one of the bridges that could bring individuals closer to the stories within writers and within themselves. Teachers as readers separate the layers of emotions and complexity within the text to present it to the students. A novel such as Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind could be taught keeping in view the Barcelona of the 1940s. In the novel, it is a city shut down in a time of death and fear. Survivors of civil war, its people hang on grimly, with no apparent expectation of better times. Yet they will snatch at scraps and find real sustenance in a city streetscape whose every corner tells a story.
The reader-teacher is able to decipher the writer's conviction of the importance of literature in real life, which comes shining through. The story exemplifies the liberating power of the imagination. Walk down any street in Zafón's Barcelona and you'll glimpse the shades of the past and the secrets of the present, inscribed alike in the city's material fabric and the lives of its citizens. Exuberant, larger than life in their tragedies as in their joys and desires, they are irrepressible: no dictatorship can keep them down.
Reading contemporary literature in class makes available to the teacher the possibility of discussing constructs that colour our conception of things around us. Julian Barnes' new novel, The Sense of an Ending, has these themes dominating the book: how we choose to construct what has happened to us, how we shape our memories to suit that construction, how we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives and histories, and what this means to us.
Novels like these sensitize us and help us to understand the world around us, without being blinded by its blaze or without tethering us to looking at a blinkered reality so that we can be spared the pain or the rude shock of encountering life. If literature is a part of one's life at all times, we are awakened to the emotions and humanity that course through our veins. We are constantly in danger of being deadened to the irreversible reality around us due to the monotony, distance and repetitiveness with which it strikes us, arriving at our doorsteps in the form of news. Literature, with its intrinsic nature of enlivening the mind, stops us from turning into sandpaper hearts. We become conscious of experiences and we find peace through it. 'You cannot find peace by avoiding life,' says Virginia Woolf. The writer herself and her representation as a character in Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours merge in our subconscious as we try to interpret what Virginia Woolf (the real or the fictional) said:
To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. At last to know it, to love it for what it is, and then, to put it away.
Amitav Ghosh, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, William Shakespeare, J M Coetzee or Kazuo Ishiguro: these are some of the many great writers who communicate the sense of life that fosters the heart, the mind and the imagination so fully that one can be equipped with a vision that enables thorough engagement with viewpoints, perspectives and ideologies. Their works are also texts that are inherently stories. Stories that belong to the writers meet the stories inside us (reader-teacher/student). We come across stories at every corner, in every other person or text.
We meet stories through literature but also through science and mathematics and history. Since stories, like travel, broaden the horizons of the mind, books need to be read. It is then significant to have literature as a subject taught at various courses, not limiting it to the humanities or courses in literature. Not just that, teaching courses through stories would also give the student of biochemistry or information technology an insight into a world that has been kept at bay, has not been allowed to merge with his multiple selves. The reader-teacher finds herself equipped with tools that bring the essence of felt life closer to the students through these texts. There exists a basic intertextuality in our realities and experiences. We cannot be detached as individuals, performing roles separately, dividing our lives into compartments as teacher, father/officer, wife. Then why distance literature from what we do or study? Stories are what we encounter outside as well as within literature.
Reading the stories within other subjects helps us to unfold the narrative and makes the text reachable. The story is the kernel that holds the interest as well as the thought. Experiences merge and become real. The worlds of the reader-teacher and the author meet inside the story. An author can be anyone who has created the text. This is why it is imperative to read the story behind any text—even mathematics or physics. It is while reading this story that one can see one's own shape carved out fully. One's own experiences and expectations, one's own perceptions and choices are all reflected in one's interpretations of the stories. It is not just what the story does to you but also what you do to the story that changes life.
At the heart of Orhan Pamuk's novel, The New Life is a book. It has an interesting beginning. The narrator, whose name is Osman, is a young engineering student living at home with his mother. He is overwhelmed by a book:
I read a book one day and my whole life was changed. Even on the first page I was so affected by the book's intensity I felt my body sever itself and pull away from the chair where I sat reading the book that lay before me on the table.
Light surging from its pages illumines his face: 'Its incandescence dazzled my intellect but also endowed it with brilliant lucidity.'
He becomes obsessed with the book, the reading of which completely transforms him, rendering him incapable of continuing his present existence. To assuage his restlessness, Osman leaves his hometown and goes on a long journey lasting many months and passing numerous small Turkish towns on different buses. Pamuk's meditation on the complexity of being Turkish is mirrored by a narrative structure that moves away from that of a standard novel. Osman's life is his own but his meditations on it are ours as well. As readers, we share in the protagonist's point of view because we live in his shoes and see through his eyes. At the same time, by using narrative devices such as direct address and secondperson pronouns in his novel, Pamuk wants us to know that he is aware of our presence in his text. In fact, he writes to speak to us; his anticipation of our responses assists inhis storytelling.
Orhan Pamuk writes a book that invites us in, changes us, and by so doing, changes the meaning of the book for us. As Osman puts it:
So it was that as I read my point of view was transformed by the book, and the book was transformed by my point of view.