At the Writing Table, anonymous American painter, 18th century.
Time Divided: Blandishments and Fallouts
I find myself here at this very interesting symposium thanks to Amit’s most generous invitation and also to, I expect it follows, Amit’s reckoning that in some measure or form I exemplify the sort of persona that is referenced in the symposium’s title.
I am a scientist by profession; that at any rate is the only avowable profession I can lay claim to. I also happen to write: I have turned my hand to fiction and to non-fiction: and this, the act of writing, I look upon as my parergon, carried out to the side of, but in no manner subordinate to, the science. While I, like countless others, am fascinated by the often stupefying marvels of nature that science uncovers for us, I find also that, as a practitioner in the realm, I am never able to see myself as being unreservedly devoted to science—never an oblate, as it were, to its religion. As a corollary to that sentiment, I have consistently felt that I should never be defined altogether by my vocation, nor straitjacketed by it—and I should like to be known also, conceivably equally, as a writer.
My first foray into fiction took place while I was doing my doctoral research at Oxford, and it came about partly as a reaction to the science. At the time, and as had been the case before then, I was happy enough to read, devouringly at times, what I could on those slivers of science that piqued my attention. It was when the time came to do science—to actually, physically, perform the experiments from which, with some luck, the ultimate harvest of scientific endeavour, newly minted knowledge, should plume forth (I had taken up physiology as my strand of science, so these are physiological experiments I am speaking of)—it was then that I discovered that some of the nuts and bolts of the praxis of science didn’t quite run to my taste. There was the dreariness, for instance, of forever having to jot notes, chronicle procedure, grind out tables and graphs, feed into the statistical mill the dust-dry yet unutterably precious numbers that the experiments yielded up. Never a great one for numbers, nor any more for the dark art of statistics, this alienated me not a little. But what put me off most surpassingly was the means one was obliged to adopt so as to attain the desired end: the route to the numbers: the act of ‘sacrificing’, as it is feebly euphemized, the animals from whom were drawn the tissues—the nerves and muscles—on which one carried out one’s electrical probings or chemical tinkerings. The animals were for the most part mice, frogs, guinea-pigs and the like, and sacrificing them was a matter of ‘stunning’ them or ‘pithing’ them—words, again, that withhold a great deal more than they confide, and so safest to leave them, in the interests of delicacy, unexpounded. Sufficient to say, here, that the path to what is looked upon as the holy grail of all experimental science, namely, original data, entailed acts that to my mind were nothing short of barbarous, squalid; acts I could never quite stomach. And this wasn’t all, in the arbours of science, that came over as disenchanting. I recoiled also from the ‘publish or perish’ fever it had evolved into—an ethos in its portentous incipience during the days of my Ph.D.
It was in this setting, while encountering a daily more insistent estrangement from science, that the first strong urge swept over me, to write. Partly it came as a way of escape; but partly it was in the nature of an entelechy, fulfilling an innate proclivity I’d had from early schooldays. Some part of me had always wanted to write. And what made that foray possible, without the shadow of a doubt, was the distance I was bidden by my sensibility to keep from the cut and thrust of frenetic mainstream science. I tried my hand at short stories, at vignettes, at poetry. A story got carried in a student magazine; to my considerable astonishment, it got read, and what was more, was kindly enough thought of by some, imbuing in me a sense of possibility. The possibility of not having to commit myself monomaniacally to science, to be able to tread a parallel path alongside.
The stance my tutor at Oxford, Alison Brading, took on it confirmed me in my own. ‘One good paper a year,’ she used in her vehement way to observe, ‘is more than good enough.’ She wished, for one thing, she said, not to ‘clutter up’ the literature: which struck me as rather a prepossessing notion, enshrining a benignant, patrician view of the scientific juggernaut: when there was already such a Babel out there, why add to the din unless you had something of some import to say? She wished, for another, to do justice to her other interests—motoring her barge, the Callusin, down and up Oxfordshire’s canals was one of them, countryside drives and travel, a couple of others—and these she did with élan, despite having been rendered partially immobile, obliged to use crutches, by an attack of polio. And so in a certain sense, I stood de-professionalised from the first. I was accorded an emboldening glimpse of how it was possible to do science and still afford for oneself broadish tracts of, shall we say, leisure, in the root sense of the word, towards making room for one’s other penchants and absorptions.
As the idea grew on me of fashioning myself into a writer in parallel with doing my science—and around this time I had wound up my Ph.D. and returned to India—I sensed also that it held several seductions.
There was the beguiling prospect, for a start, of seeing if I could get the science and the writing to play into each other, to interpenetrate. More especially, since I had, for better or for worse, resolved to pitch my tent in the camp of what goes under the name of literary fiction, I looked to my science and my fiction to ricochet off each other. I hoped for the science to waft some of its virtues and quiddities—its flinty logic, say, or its yen for precision—into my fiction, and for the fiction to leaven my science, or in any event my scientific writing, with some of its sinuous charms. I wondered if one could bring off a mutually salutary commerce between the science and the writing, a symbiosis where each profited from having at its elbow the other. And if one is to be perfectly honest, there was also the matter of one’s own narcissistic impulses. Most alluring was the thought of the nimbus that enwraps the man of science striving simultaneously to scale the ramparts of highbrow literature! I had already had occasion to discover that it held, in some eyes, a certain cachet, a sort of glamour: and I was sure I could do with more of that.
It all panned out, to begin with, gratifyingly enough. Over my first few years at IIT I set myself, during the evenings, to working on a novel. I was aided considerably in this by leading at the time the life of, practically, an anchorite— this in turn being helped along by being stationed at Powai, now a much celebrated suburb of Bombay, then a far-flung, rather disesteemed outpost. One had a sense of the fine frenzy one might be flung into should one be trying to make one’s way as a writer in the city proper, so cut-and-thrust things seemed to be over there. So I counted it a blessing, again, to be at a calamine remove from the hurly-burly of metropolitan life. I haven’t read this at first hand, but V.S. Naipaul cites Proust as saying, ‘it is the secretions of one’s innermost self, written in solitude and for oneself alone that one gives to the public.. [this] innermost self… one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.’ How very true I have found this to be; how inexpendable, furthermore, to the act of ‘letting the bucket down into the unconscious’, as V.S. Pritchett’s lambent phrase has it, and without which I, for one, cannot so much as contemplate putting pen to paper. This was how my first novel, A Speck of Coaldust, which goes under the published alias of In the Light of the Black Sun, came into being, through the auspices of seclusion, immersion, excavation of memory. Whilst still in manuscript form the novel won a Betty Trask Award; it then got published, and managed to garner for itself a clutch of not unflattering reviews. This stirred in me a sense of vindication: that one had after all settled upon the right path, the right mode. I had made a fair start: and this start I owed unanswerably to having determined, in that subconscious manner I have spoken of, not to over-professionalise myself in the vocation that claimed me for its own.
I was thirty-three then. Not by any means young blood, but nowhere near the far side of the hill either. As a means of enduing myself with a sense of reach, of long-term scale, I’d catch myself turning my thoughts to, more often than not, an enigmatic, rather rebarbative figure—that of Joseph Conrad. His first novel, I was much given to reminding myself, was published when he was a good 37 years of age, following long years of lucubration at an alien tongue. Well, what a solid little head-start I had on him! The English language, as I fancied complacently, was practically second nature to me; my debut I had already made, at an age four years shy of his; I was now embarking on a second novel . . . if Conrad had accomplished the body of work he had, surely I mightn’t straggle too far behind, perhaps, with some luck, even keep my neck ahead of him?
That was back in 1995 and ‘96. Today it is 2016: two whole decades on, to the dot. And what, pray, has been added over this score of years to my corpus of other-than-science writing? It’s a tally that makes me fairly blench to set forth. I have had just one more book published, that again not a work of fiction. Some years ago the feeler came my way, from my Institute, of writing a narrative history on the first half century of its existence, and I, to cut a longish tale down to nothing, took up the offer. Another novel has been written, yes, and it’s one that’s won for itself an award, the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize—but that too has happened in its foetal days, in manuscript form, and it hasn’t as yet insinuated itself within the blurb-splashed covers of a published book, squired by its own colophon. Nor in the province of science, I may mention parenthetically, has there been anything in the nature of a spree in the way of publication. The upshot, in brief, of this reticence in the matter of visible outflow is that I find myself positioned somewhere out on the very fringes of each of the spheres of science and literature, and most decidedly not at the throbbing heart of things in either.
This could be read on the one hand as my having succeeded signally well at deprofessionalising myself along both axes, the scientific and the literary. I haven’t gone after either of them in, shall we say, sweaty, frenetic mode; I’ve taken time out from each; to say nothing of time abstracted for a gaggle of other, evanescent passions that every now and then have engaged, indeed engulfed, my attention altogether. But to my own ears this appraisal sounds flimsily sanguine, even specious. The alternative reading, the not so blithe one, is that on each track one has been merely an also-ran; a dabbler not an immersant: rather a sobering thought.
Here, then, we have the grey side to the instinct, or the drive, against overspecialization. You eschew the regnant dogma in each realm to the point where you come up short of your own envisionings. When driven into a bemused corner by such a harvest as this, I’m apt to turn to some plain arithmetic. To take stock, let’s hop backwards, I say. Over the last 3 years, I’ve been ‘heading’ my Department at IIT. To those who have the faintest idea of all the baroque finery that a Head’s job is decked out in, I doubt if I need say any more: on the instant they’ll know that these years have been, in a word, a spectacular washout. Prior to that, I spent three years rounding off my second novel. Before that, a good four years researching and writing the history of IIT Bombay. All of which tots up to some ten years. What about the balance of that span of two decades, summing in itself to ten years?
There are moments when I’m paralysed by the thought that there may no real accounting for them at all: that they might be the sort upon which is usually conferred that rather plangent appellation, the ‘lost years’.
Wherefore those lost years, into what cavernous sump had they tumbled away? Well, on taking stock of it all, I can’t help concluding that a large part of the lacuna owes to my having gotten serious, during that phase, about the science. Not serious, again, in the sense of nursing any vaulting ambitions for myself, just serious about getting some respectable research done—which, after all, was among the prime remits of my job. I had taken on a couple of Ph.D. students, secured a couple of research grants—but I had no real notion of what I was to be up against. I was, you see, trying to do science in an India which at the time was an exemplar of Byzantine bureaucracy, spiralling at times into the positively Kafkaesque. Picture now, if you will, a large, drab room, a laboratory, about the size of a big classroom. It is the mid 1990s. Picture here a man of science crouched before a rackety PC, jabbing possessedly away at its keyboard. The time is just past midnight. To his left sits a student, to his right one of those dot matrix printers of the day, luxuriantly built. Every few minutes the printer pours forth its daisywheel chirp, at which the man of science starts, rises, rips the printed sheet off, scans it, consults his student, shakes his head, emends on paper, amends on screen, fires off another print—and so it cycles round, printout on the heels of printout, amend upon amend. Meanwhile a younger student, fiddling away at a rig in the lab, looks on, half quizzically, half in awe—the latter sentiment evincing itself when, apologising for the intrusion, she says, “Sir, I’m just wondering, do you always work so hard?” For it is now close on 1 AM, and Sir’s frenetic prints and perusals are showing no sign of ebbing. “Well…” Sir mumbles a deprecation, “I suppose I do when I have to.”
It is manifest that she is much impressed, by what may well appear to her to be the maniacal working and reworking of a research manuscript by one consumed by the daemon of science. She’d have been impressed a great deal less, though, had she known just what I—for the scientist in the picture is, as you might well have divined, myself—was up to. All I was doing was scripting tens of dreary letters addressed to suppliers of scientific equipment, entreating them (yes, those letters of inquiry did carry a ring of entreaty) for quotations for the instruments they manufactured, each letter laying down at pernickety length how the quotes were to be framed—for without these unfaultably crafted quotations, the equipment simply could not be procured. And like the infinitesimal whorl at the dead centre of a fractal diagram, this was but the seed, the teaser, for a superabundance of the like to follow, ever burgeoning and magnifying. Because beyond this step of the proceedings, once the quotes had arrived, lay the yet more rococo thickets of paperwork that needed hacking through in order that purchases might eventually be effected. For every piece of equipment I acquired for my lab, I would have put in weeks together of callisthenics of this sort. I certainly hadn’t bargained, when mapping out my terrain, for palaver quite so exalted as this. The more so since I’d been conditioned by how I’d known things to work in laboratories in Britain: you picked up the phone, you let them know what you wanted, the article in question like a genie out of a bottle magically presented itself. It became ever more apparent, then, that I had laboured under a false surmise, to wit, that the prosecution of scientific research wouldn’t be so all-consuming as not to leave me the energy, the ‘leisure’, to nudge myself along upon a collateral track.
Nor had I reckoned, for that matter, with an inner condition that I found creeping up on me by stealth. The first symptom of this condition was the notion that what I wrote should practically scorch the paper, after the manner of the adolescent VS Pritchett. Witness this reminiscence of Pritchett’s in his A Cab at the Door:
That week I wrote and posted my essay.
I do not remember what I said in that paper, but I do know that I had started to be interested in unusual words, in the search for the mot juste—as it was then called. I chose words for what I called their intensity. I wanted them to be terse and exact. I wanted each word to burn into the page. My pen tortured the paper.
‘Perfectionism’ is perhaps the exalted, and exalting, term for it. Rather a feelgood term in its way, but it had a habit of ballooning into proportions little short of pathological. I recall with the sharpest pang, for instance, wrestling and wrestling with trying to evoke, for the purposes of a story, a clutch of floor-strewn onions bathed in afternoon sunshine shafting down upon them through a ventilator high in the wall—and getting nowhere with it. Pritchett must very swiftly have sloughed off this fatal trait, but to me it unshakably clung. An attendant symptom of the condition was the phenomenon of abandonments. Time and again I’d start myself off on novels, short stories, essays—though principally novels—only to toss them overboard a little or a longer way through, never entirely happy with the idea I had taken up, or the way I was spooling it out. This again leached barrelfuls of time through my industrious enough but mountingly ineffectual hands. The synergy of, on the one hand, such high profligacy with time and, on the other, my obduracy on not following through until I felt I had seized upon, to my lights, unarguably the right word, the right sentence, the right novel, proved pretty potent. For all the writing I was purportedly pegging away at, I had little in the way of enumerable output to show.
Once I had left behind the many abandonments and derelictions, the waverings and oscillations, I bethought myself—and what better phrase than this quaint one for the quaint notion I was nurturing?— bethought myself to write nothing less than a novel with the capaciousness of an epic. And lest that word sound overly sonorous, let’s just say an expansive, cross-generational saga, arcing over some four decades, charting the lives of a Punjabi family that in sundry ways has had to traipse about from one part of the country to another, calling upon its wits to shift for itself. It was my hope to capture, through the agency of such a narrative, the sweeping, at times perplexing, transfigurations—political, communal, ethical—playing out on the unquiet canvas of a nation in ferment. By the time I was some distance into this new, rather tendentious campaign of mine, a good few years had swum past since the publication of my first novel. Well-wishers of mine, those that were alive to the slippery slope I appeared to have set out upon, while stopping short of actively dissuading me from my magnum project, did counsel me to the effect that, now that I’d committed myself to the long haul on this one—and, given my assorted impedimenta, that it might be a good few years in the making—I might do well to consider knocking out, on the side, the occasional short piece as well. Of any of a variety of species: short stories, say, or book reviews; lay-science pieces, perhaps, or nature notes. Chiefly as a means of keeping my name in some semblance of literary circulation, and not melting away from the scene altogether. I heard them out patiently enough, even as, inwardly, I demurred. With steadfast resolve, as I pedestalized it then—or with cussed bull-headedness, as I decry it now—’it’ll be the long novel or nothing’, I said to myself, ‘and no excursive sallies along the way’, even as I girded up the old loins for the odyssey. I took the view that dabbling in any other, slighter, form would merely dissipate my energies, energies I needed scrupulously to conserve for the large work—which, needless to say, I saw as being my chef d’oeuvre in its incipience. And so on I went upon my resolved path, at times plodding stodgily forth, at times seeming positively to tool along . . .
What kept me afloat while sticking to my guns was, of course, the ballast of my job in science—for which I was unequivocally grateful. It gave me the twin anchors of my address and my salary. It was thus that my impulse towards deprofessionalisation on the scientific flank helped me keep up the writing, and experiment with it, as aforesaid, on a fairly lavish scale. At the same time I think I can safely say that the buffer afforded by the science rendered me deprofessionalised in my writing. I had been every bit as interested in being regarded as a writer as in being regarded as a scientist, and I had romanced the notion, every now and again, of quitting science altogether—the full-time job in science, that is—in favour of becoming a full-time writer. To accomplish the latter, however, I needed to be knocking things out at regular intervals. Perhaps on account of the buffer my job gave me, however, I never grew frantic, either over propelling my partially written novels through to completion, or about thrusting my completed novels through to publication. A part of me resounded to Salinger’s view, for all that it might have been wrong-headed and self-defeating: ‘There is a marvelous peace in not publishing . . . I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure’—a view that also saw publication as ‘a damned interruption’. In sum, then, I ended up inhabiting deprofessionalised personas on either side of the science—art divide. As for how to view the fallout of this dual divestment, I am left somewhat at a loss.
Finally, what about the transaction I had hoped would come to pass between my science and my writing, the synergistic sparring and coupling between the two? The long and short of that dimension of things is that it proved itself a chimerical notion; it never really had a chance. Indeed, so far from infusing my fictive diction with sinew or verve, the scientific half of my life rendered it, I discovered by and by, gouty, bled of colour, my use of English turning stilted and laboured in uncanny proportion to the time I spent in the world of science. The reasons for the backsliding were not far to seek. First, there was the circumspection I felt constrained to exercise in my use of language when communicating science, whether in writing or in speech. In my lectures, whilst I didn’t wish to talk down to my students, I did wish to get across to them. And given the subjects I was teaching, given also the antecedents of very many of the students—they hadn’t so much as schooled in English-medium establishments—I had to keep things unimpeachably plain, close to lifeless. Any gratuitous ornament, and the consequences could be woeful: for one thing I wouldn’t get through to my audience and for another, I’d be thought of as insufferably precious and florid. I profoundly dreaded that; dreaded being binned with the linguistic popinjays of the world. For only slightly different reasons, the same went for my writing in research. So, be it in the spoken or the written word, I abided austerely by the watchword: ‘tone it down’.
And what of the language that, rather than issuing from me, was proferred me at the workplace? Well, in the novel on which I am currently at work, the protagonist finds herself in a situation not dissimilar to mine, so let me just quote a passage:
What pours into her ears at the Centre she likens to engine sludge, and seeks over the course of each evening to desludge her brain: of the thick sediment of bureaucratese, bombast, cant and patois that daily, tenaciously, settles into its interstices. ‘On a daily basis’, ‘on a temporary basis’, ‘the item was deliberated upon in detail’, ‘kindly requested to make yourself available’… and so forth. Effectually to purge all the accretion takes, in her experience, a good few hours, and only then can the synapses in her Wernicke’s area have any hope of functioning with any agility again. For at the end of a typical workday, it’s as if the barrage of argot has overmastered her brain, and nothing but that selfsame argot can find its way to her tongue: at such moments she finds that to listen to herself can be a profoundly jarring sensation. The whole mechanism conforms, she reflects drily, to that dictum so beloved of the boffin: garbage in, garbage out.
Some of what I’ve had to say may well come across as an elongated skein of apologia, endeavouring to explain away hiatuses and scantiness in production the roots of which may lie in other directions as well, and I’m not insensible to that peril. There are, for instance, those that have been prolific concurrently in the worlds of science and of fiction: Sunetra Gupta, who spoke at this symposium just a few days ago, is a shining example. I’m very sorry to have missed Sunetra’s talk, for I’ve long been intrigued at her seemingly transcendent capacity to create at speed and to ship her creations out into the world, and I do wonder at how the exercise of deprofessionalising herself has worked rather to further her oeuvre than to stymie it, as it seems to have done mine.
Here, then, is my coda. Now that I’m not just marginally past fifty, if things go on the way they’ve have been going for some time now, the prospect stares me in the face of my ending up, before too long, bearing on my lapel that sonorous tag, the tag of writer manqué, a paid-up cardholder of the literary demimonde. Rattling thought . . . so now, ought not a certain frenzy to creep in? Ought I not to pass into a positive twitter over it? And if I may yet set my sights on gaining writerly traction and the comfort it brings, isn’t it time I turned perhaps to the short form—stories, essays, vignettes, et al ? What a dénouement, not to say come-uppance, that would make for: all things formerly shown the door, or at any rate ratiocinated against in favour of the long form, turned now into my recourse and my succour. And should this come to be, what kind of writer will I now unpack into? And what place will science command in the scheme of things? Why is it that I sense that if I am to have a serious crack at either sphere, I may in fact need to professionalise myself?
Rohit Manchanda is Professor in the Department of Biosciences and Bioengineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. He is the author of the novel In The Light of the Black Sun (1997), winner of a Betty Trask Award. His second novel, A Place in Mind, won the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2012. It is yet to be published.