One of the things that all writers are obsessed with is the whole ‘secrets of writing’ genre. We read interviews given by the writers we admire. We take classes, read essays, all in the hope that we can improve this torturous process that is our metier.
Writing in its most fundamental aspect is about representation. It is about taking something that is physical in this universe and representing it through text. But that is not merely enough. What you hope to do as a writer is convert the physicality of the object into metaphor for emotion, memory and history.
In that sense, it really doesn’t matter what the object is. What matters is how you as a writer connect with these objects and how you showcase them to your readers.
Take three random objects: neem leaves, napthalene balls and camphor. These are the things that our moms used to keep in their cupboards to protect their sarees. On the surface they have nothing in common. But when you look deeper with a diffused eye – no, that is not a contradiction. It is a practise. Being both present and permeable to influence is essential in creative work. You have to connect with the topic or object in a penetrating yet diffusing way. Indian poetics calls this “Pratibha.” Often it occurs in a flash when you are least expecting it — like when you are in the shower. Being jobless and not being on your phone is essential for such flashes to occur. When you attain this state, you will see what Charles Baudelaire called a forest of living symbols.
What do neem leaves, napthalene mothballs and camphor mean to you? To me, and this came after much thought and in a flash really–again, not a contradiction, just a practice. These three objects that could depict…the sweep of Indian civilization. How do you ask? Well, here I go, making the connections.
Three is a powerful number in India. We submit forms in triplicate, we have the divine trinity of gods in our creation myth, three colors in our national flag. Tribhanga, Trinethra (the third eye), Tiranga. All three. The three objects that perfume a grandmother’s saree. When viewed a certain way, they represent our civilizational history.
Napthalene balls came with the prudish British, afraid as they were of the vibrant, verdant thriving wildlife, insects and moths of tropical India. Camphor is something we use for the sacred — the aartis — and the profane — to protect our clothes. This juxtaposition and play where we wear precious diamond earrings along with chappals that cost ₹100 is typical of India. This makeshift adjustment where everyday objects are put to multiple uses is also typical of India. We call it jugaad or swalpa, adjust maadi here in Karnataka.
Neem leaves come from one of the earth’s most ancient trees. Native to India: Azadiratcha indica. It exemplifies the Indian love affair with nature, how trees populate our myths, poetry and songs. Today, neem along with moringa and turmeric are global health superstars, usurped by the fitness fiends who drink chai lattes and green goop.
I’ve written four memoirs which means that I depend on memory to fashion a tale. For my last book, Food & Faith, I traveled to many religious shrines all over India. Here’s what I noticed. It doesn’t matter if you are Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh or Jewish. Every faith used humble objects to access the divine and access the soul. Christians lit candles, Muslim lit incense, and Hindus lit the lamp. A simple object as a metaphor for worship.
Poet William Blake talked about seeing the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. But for that you have to go out and feel the sand, it isn’t. Smell the wild flower. The tools of my trade came from alpha and beta – which joined together to create the alphabet. Today Greek alphabets have taken a whole new meaning to signify the march of Covid. An alphabet becomes a virus.
I have taken many writing courses. The craft that still eludes me is the construction of metaphors. In order to work, metaphors and similes, you need to do two things. They have to be dissimilar and yet, when stated, they have to appear obvious.
Some metaphors are predicted. Most cultures call the womb a vessel, because it is a container. Other metaphors are culturally specific. Kalidasa once compared the flight of birds to a garland. This does not work in Western cultures that put flowers in vases. Gifted metaphors offer a shock of surprise and a revelation. They are a pleasure to read and savor.
Recently, I have summarized reading poetry. Since poems are short, they are finite and can be savored in a tik-tok minute. They also enable you to feel the pulse of the poet, which (if the poem is good) is quite wonderful, because it allows you to reach across time and space.
Metaphors are the language of the psyche and the spirit. To fashion them, I have to be in touch with my inner world, which, when it is so easy and fun to be distracted by social media, is a hard thing to do. That is the craft of writing. That is the gift of a good writer.
(Shoba Narayan is Bengaluru-based award-winning author. She is also a freelance contributor who writes about art, food, fashion and travel for a number of publications.)