Mukul Kesavan on Making the Familiar Strange

Mukul Kesavan concludes a wonderful essay on Lucknow, the English language, Indian writing in English, the Indian summer, and ice-cream with:

[T]the point of writing isn’t to make things familiar; it is to make them strange.

Kesavan is right. To read is a form of escapism and what good would it be if we all we encountered on our reading adventures was more of the mundane? To write too, is a form of escapism, and again, what good would that do if all we felt and experienced through that act was a return to what we had left behind? This departure can, as Graham Greene memorably pointed out, serve as therapeutic relief from what would otherwise be the unmitigated grimness of weekday existence:

Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation. [From: Ways of Escape, Pocket Books, New York, 1980]

Kesavan’s observation alerts us to the fact that in writing, in seeking to describe either the existent, the elapsed, the imaginary or the yet-to-be realized, we seek to go beyond its bare particulars, to dress it up with our words and imagination. But that isn’t all. A good writer sees things we don’t, he is able to match words to objects in ways we can’t. In this new vision, which makes the previously invisible visible, in these new correspondences, which establish unimagined linkages, the familiar becomes strange. This works because the world from day to day is never the world unmediated, raw, unfiltered or ‘given’ or anything like that. It’s already dressed up for us; by the languages we learned, by our histories, our experiences. The writer steps into this neat arrangement and disorders it all. He cannot but if he is any good.

The writer reminds us there are other conceptualizations of the world possible, other ways of drawing meaning from the world’s meaninglessness. The poet, a species of writer, does this in the most radical of ways because he shows us that the language that has served as descriptor and tabulator of the world can itself be drastically reconfigured and pressed into new tasks and responsibilities. This can be captivating and fearful alike. We wonder: how much of the hard-earned and constructed stability of the world, erected as a bulwark against the peculiarity that otherwise peeks at us around its corners, will be diminished by a new description afforded us by a radically different piece of writing? The writer and the poet become peddlers of magic potions, a sip of which induces visions.

This power of the writer is most commonly visible in the novel, of course, but it is perhaps most dramatically visible in the travel essay, written about one’s most familiar habitations, perhaps one’s hometown, by a visitor.  Even the most well-traveled of paths can appear spanking new and mysterious all over again as the traveler fits a new garb to the old land.

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