This morning, seated at my desk, I’m asking myself how I would like to greet the future? In the days that are left to me, who is it that I want to be.
The person I like most is the one I am when reading a story by Anton Chekhov or Ismat Chughtai or Alice Munro or Vinod Kumar Shukla. When reading them, I enter another, rarer state of mind — in which I’m paying attention to the inner workings of the world. I am calm, and yet all my senses are on alert: I feel I’m at rest as I receive news from a particular corner of the human heart. The other world, of so-called real news, with its noise, doesn’t interest me at this time. The conflicts on the page, the choices that the characters are making, these appear more meaningful and true. The nuances of any exchange, of every change, prickle my skin. When I’m reading like that, with a sense of focus and maybe even empathy, I feel whole and it is as if my humanity has been restored. So, there is the answer to the question I raised earlier about how I would like to meet the future.
The question I’m really asking, I realize now, is how to be human. When I write, or read, or paint, I am more of a human than I am a gadget. The words you are reading I first put down in longhand using a sharpened pencil. While I was writing, I did not check my email. At such moments, I feel I’m myself rather than a body attached to a buzzing phone.
Dear days that are passing: will you please whisper in the ears of the days that are to come, that that is my greatest wish? — To be someone who pays attention. Bring me quietness, bring me caring. Make of me a reader, a writer, an artist.
Nine years ago, I read an oft-quoted line by the writer Annie Dillard: ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.’ My days were filled with wanting to write but not actually writing. I had a new baby and classes to teach. So I decided that I would make a small checkmark at the back of my notebook if I had done my quota of writing for the day. It was almost like keeping a diary. It changed my life.
I was writing about my hometown of Patna, where rats had stolen my mother’s dentures and, the police claimed, drunk all the confiscated liquor. I don’t think I skipped even a day, and when the year ended, I had completed a short book. Every day I had turned to the back of my notebook, put down the date, and then made a mark.
The method was a success; I had now written a book by writing every day. I wasn’t going to give it up. In the minutes between classes, or on trains or in the waiting room at the paediatrician’s, I would write my daily words in a small brown notebook that fit in my pocket, and then count them to make sure I’d hit the target. Once I had done the work and drawn that small mark, it seemed possible to imagine I would spend my life writing.
In the back of my notebooks over the years, I see the rows of checkmarks that stand for an unknown number of hours of toil, but also words (rejected by ___, rejected by ___, rejected by ___, accepted by ___), figures (20K, 30K, 50K, 90K—total word counts) and dates (the signing of a contract on a novel on 7 March 2017; the death of my publisher on 30 December 2019; the acceptance by HarperCollins India of the book that you are holding in your hands on 22 January 2021).
This is a plain, rather primitive form of record-keeping; its spine is the long column of marks on a page. I prefer this practice over the apps on our smartphones that serve as journals in the age of surveillance capitalism. These apps count each step we take, store our memories in the form of photographs, even record the places where we have parked our cars. They hoard such a surfeit of information as to render meaningless any painstaking individual action. The check mark is Gandhi in a world built by Bezos and Zuckerberg. It is the same with drawings and paintings, not least because they are not made by instant clicks on a smartphone; they take time and attention.
The Japanese-American conceptual artist On Kawara is famous for having produced nearly three thousand canvases that record only the date on which they were painted. If he was unable to finish the day’s painting before midnight, he destroyed it. I’m drawn to the rigour of Kawara’s routine and to the fact that he looked at each day with an equal eye: there is nothing in his paintings to distinguish them from each other except their unique dates.
I am a writer; so every day I write. The days I am given are only for writing. Maybe you are a writer, too; maybe you are not. The point still stands. The mark you make in your journal is more important than whatever comes of the daily task whose completion you’re recording. The first represents actual living; the second merely a life.
Excerpted from The Blue Book: A Writer’s Journal by Amitava Kumar (Rs 699, pp.176), with permission from HarperCollins India
(Amitava Kumar is the author of several books of non-fiction and three novels. He has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and residencies from Yaddo, MacDowell and the Lannan Foundation. His novel Immigrant, Montana was on the Best of the Year lists at the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Barack Obama’s list of favourite books of 2018. His new novel A Time Outside This Time was described by Pulitzer-winner Ayad Akhtar as ‘an absorbing portrait of an inspired artist in the midst of our maddening cultural moment’. Kumar is a professor of English at Vassar College in upstate New York. Views expressed in this article are personal and may not necessarily reflect the views of Outlook Magazine.)