May 25, 2020
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The Right To Write

Does 'authenticity' lie in the object of an experience or in the subject having the experience? Who is qualified to give an 'authentic' description of a place?

The Right To Write

A few weeks ago, I angered several people I have never met and will likely never meet. I had written a light-hearted 1500 word personal essay about Bandra, a Western suburb of Mumbai. The essay, as personal essays tend to be, was about me and my relationship with the neighbourhood since 2007. So, two weeks after the essay came out, when I woke up to a flurry of emails and Facebook messages from friends in Mumbai, naturally, I was surprised. How could so many people have taken offense at my personal experience? Surely my own story could not be up for debate.

The key criticism, from what I could gather from the bits and pieces that were sent to me, was that I did not have the right to write about this neighbourhood and its culture because it had existed long before I arrived there in 2007. I was accused of not being qualified to give an authentic description of the place. There were other, more personal, things that came into comment but those jabs are too irrelevant to address. There were also those who clearly had not read the essay closely but were angered anyway and probably will be again but they are also not the issue.

What interested me was the idea that I did not have the credibility to write this essay. Geographical and intellectual turf wars are nothing new. Every generation replaces the previous one and will, in turn, be replaced by the next one. And every generation will have its own writers and documenters who have their own experiences. At the moment, places like Bandra spark this debate more than, say, Manhattan or Paris, because Bandra is still undiscovered enough for a group of people to want to lay claim to it. At the same time, the neighbourhood is expanding fast enough to make people nervous. Change is frightening and a reminder of the impermanence of everything and, eventually, our own mortality.

When I recently returned to my undergraduate campus and found a Starbucks on the corner where there was once a run-down deli, I felt abandoned. The Starbucks was filled with people who were sitting in the same space that I once had and living a version of a life that I once had but will never have again. Even if I return to the same town and live in the same apartment on the same street, like Holden Caulfield discovers, nothing will actually be the same. And that is a frightening idea that forces us to cede control. It is hard to live knowing that we cannot claim sole expertise on a place we like to call home. So much of our identities is braided in with our surroundings. Knowing that nothing remains the same forces us to face a certain darkness. We know that we are being replaced, slowly but constantly.

With each passing year, new voices come alive so not only are there new people having the experiences that once defined you but they are also speaking about it and affecting how the rest of the world sees it. I wanted to explain to the students sitting at Starbucks with their expensive lattes and MacBooks that this isn’t how it used to be, even just nine years ago. I wanted to tell them that we didn’t have the option of soy or almond milk in our coffees. I wanted to tell them that their idea of this town, this campus, this corner is wrong. But it isn’t. Their corner is theirs and unfortunately, my version and my life at this corner has little bearing on their lives.

The idea of authenticity is a fascinating one that comes up repeatedly in different incarnations in literature, law, and many other fields, including psychology and philosophy. Do the circumstances under which we have an experience change the authenticity of the experience? Is the sunset you experience different if you experience it on a full stomach versus an empty one and is one experience more authentic than the other? There is an endless ongoing debate about whether authenticity lies in the object of the experience (in this case, a neighbourhood) or in the subject having the experience (in this case, me). This brings up the Rashomon Effect, named, obviously, after the 1950 Japanese movie by Akira Kurosawa in which the same incident is visited from several perspectives.

In personal essays or fiction—even, to an extent, in journalism and purely scientific papers, every single sentence written is tinged by the life and personality of the person writing it. In life, fortunately, there is no base from which we all begin. Experiences are personal from before we are even conceived.

One of my favourite books by one of my favourite writers is Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer. In it, like in a lot of his writing, Dyer blends fact and fiction and writes with abandon about cities he visits and trips—both literal and drug-induced—that he takes. The impulse would be to think of Varanasi as outside the realm of possible description. Varanasi assaults every single sense and before I read Dyer’s book, I thought it would be absolutely impossible to try to capture Varanasi and I was sceptical. But Dyer does it and does it beautifully because he captures perfectly the Varanasi that he experienced—or maybe didn’t. Dyer takes his own experiences, often fleeting, blends them with fiction, does not explain himself, and delivers some terrific tales of cities his readers may have visited or been born in or lived in and had completely different relationships with. He plays these games with his readers often. Paris Trance does the same thing to Paris. Yoga For People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It does it to several different cities. To block out new voices or to even ask them to first pay homage to everything that came before them or comes with them is to stop a place from becoming more real in the many forms that reality takes.

New York City, for instance, has no singular definition. Someone living on the very next block has an entirely different relationship with this city than I do and that is part of what makes this city magnificent. Mumbai shares many of the same qualities. Mumbai welcomes (almost) everyone. There is space there for many lives and many experiences and that is what makes the city pulse with energy.

In small suburban towns, experiences are more uniform and for me, more dull. Everyone is shopping at the same shops, seeing the same people, and visiting the same businesses—often for years on end. Little changes and, if you want it, you can have similar experiences and lives as your parents and grandparents. But in a city or a neighbourhood that is growing, changing, and developing, there is a spectrum of experiences. And these are the very places that attract travellers and wanderers and therefore allow and force the place to grow and expand and make room for more. Someone who spends a summer in New York City can be touched and transformed by it as much as the lifelong New Yorker. With certain experiences, for better or for worse, 24 hours spent in Mumbai can stay with you as much as 24 years in the city.

For me, for now, these are the places that I long to visit and revisit. These are the places that inspire me. The places where time rushes past while also staying still. The places, like Bandra, where there is a street by the sea on which undertakers continue to make and sell their coffins. A neighbourhood where I can stop to admire the old bungalows that family feuds have prevented from demolishment and step into the ones that have been repurposed into trendy cafes or music studios with polished interiors and good lighting. The places that are constantly in flux but where I have the options to pick my own form of nostalgia. And I will continue to write about my adventures while also reading about others’ adventures in the same places and being amazed that some parts of the world inspire people from such different walks of life.

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