Always a good fight

A few of India’s leading writers spoke to Frontline of the hopes and challenges the future holds.

Published : Dec 28, 2023 12:00 IST - 20 MINS READ

Writing is never easy. It demands solitude and also readers. It demands privacy and also a public stripping of the self. 

Writing is never easy. It demands solitude and also readers. It demands privacy and also a public stripping of the self.  | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

What are the greatest challenges writers are likely to face in 2024? This is the question we put to a few of India’s eminent authors, asking them to speak of the present and future anxieties they see threatening their selves and their craft. Writing is never easy. It demands solitude and also readers. It demands privacy and also a public stripping of the self. It demands objectivity and also that you drown in every word you write. It is a vocation both terrifying and rewarding.

But it appears that it is all of this and then something more that challenges writers today. Anxieties that are even more basic and urgent.

There is the rise of artificial intelligence that questions the act of creativity itself. There is the challenge to engage with readers whose attention spans are being shrunk by a constantly exploding and expanding social media. And most of all there is a world of ever-shrinking freedoms. Where the shadow of autocratic states and their fanatical subjects looms large over every page.

And yet, all the writers spoke of hope. Of that faint blush of light on the horizon that is always discernible to those who fight the good fight. And that is the light we bring you here.

Anees Salim.

Anees Salim. | Photo Credit: MUSTAFAH KK

Anees Salim

In my heart of hearts I believe a writer thrives on challenges. And, more often than not, challenges come from within. The toughest challenge I face as a writer stems from the fact that I achieved some amount of success after a long period of struggles and rejections. Every time I sit down to write now, I ask myself these questions: Will my next book be relevant? Should I chase stories the way I chased them when I was unpublished? The answer to both questions is short and same: yes. Still, one part of me questions myself and the other part promptly answers: yes.

Outside this need to push myself, all other challenges are negligible, or even non-existent. The challenge of AI? I laugh at this possibility. The monetary benefit? For me, a good review is more satisfying than an advance check from a publisher. And the fear of the state? I have a simple philosophy as an author: Write between the lines because the state doesn’t read between the lines.

Anjum Hasan.

Anjum Hasan. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Anjum Hasan

The main challenge for writers is the lack of a foothold in what’s gone before. And without some purchase on solid ground, how to acquire taste, let alone develop sensibility? I’m thinking mostly of my own tribe—Indian writers in English. The very effusiveness of the genre can work against it. There is a lot being published, it’s all talked about for a week or a month, it’s swept up in the glitter of festivals. But what one is missing is memory and connection. We’re always starting on a clean slate and so we all go down the same hole of forgetting, as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra once told me. And when memory does stir and connections are made—as in Mehrotra’s work—it feels subversive, underground, marginal.

Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy.

Arundhati Roy. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

The challenge for writers is and will be what it always has been—how to minimise the gap between thought and language. AI can do that for us, yes of course. But I am not talking of literature as a product, but about the challenge of writing, the act of writing which is not different from how a sportsperson might approach their sport, or a painter her canvas. Previously the challenge of minimising the gap between thought and language was a question of honing your language skills. But now it is more than that. Thought itself is under siege in ways it never has been before.

Also Read | ‘Our country has lost its moral compass’: Arundhati Roy

Other than the prosaic and well-known dangers of having to live under censorship in increasingly authoritarian regimes, writers must negotiate a climate in which the air itself seems to be funneling an endless torrent of information, reliable as well as unreliable, directly into their brains. In addition to that there is a commentariat that never sleeps, never tires and is capable of being as dangerous as any fascist regime. Solitude, for most people, no longer exists. So, it’s increasingly hard to know if your thoughts are your own, if your language is your own, if your words are your own, if your views are your own. Social media corporations are running interference between you and yourself—that sacred space in which writers must live and work. We are being programmed by algorithms—masquerading as the atmosphere—but we believe we are exercising our free will. To recognise this is a challenge. And not just for writers.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

A poet is a journalist of the moment, someone who records the passing of a cloud. The job description doesn’t change, but what gets recorded changes with the weather. As the base metal that was India transmutes into the gold of Bharat, you may see poets drowning their bugged electronic manuscripts in the nearest river, much as Sant Tukaram drowned his handwritten one in the Indrayani. Or find them writing letters to newspapers like the one that appeared in The Hindu of October 8, 1912. “Sir,” began the letter, “I appeal to the people of India—in whose name the Government of India is carried on—against the injustice of the said Government in proscribing my two innocuous Tamil booklets... on the presumption that [they] are seditious.” One of the two booklets proscribed, Kanavu (Dream), was a love poem, and the other, Aril Oru Pangu (One-sixths), a social reform story. The author of the letter was Subramania Bharati.

Geetanjali Shree

Geetanjali Shree.

Geetanjali Shree. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

The real challenges facing writers today are the Market and Mobocracy. One operates insidiously and the other blatantly. Employing temptation and fear in different proportions, the two dumb down quality and iconocise what suits them. There is no answerability, no one you can pin down, and the reward for the writer is instant popularity, and sometimes financial gain too. I deliberately do not mention the state. Its purpose, in this scenario, is well served by looking away, by almost looking indifferent. The “law and order” the state might wish for is being enforced by these two forces. The writer must be as alert to the Market’s tyranny of temptation as to the Mob’s tyranny of coercion, and do what she is meant to do—observe and comment on humanity with honesty and integrity.

Githa Hariharan.

Githa Hariharan. | Photo Credit: MOORTHY RV

Githa Hariharan

What happens when words are twisted and made to mean something else? Words like “nation” or “history”, “citizens” or “people”? They become strangers to themselves. The souls of these words—the ideas deep inside them—are wounded. The word that lies, the word that panders to the whims of the powerful, challenges the writer on her home ground. But this challenge is only half the story. The other half shines with hope. It says that words can still chase truth, words can help in the search for justice and equality. This hope takes the writer by the hand. It helps her look hard at the world, at those arrogant with power; and always, at those whose voices go unheard. Hope makes the writer ask questions, even if she is afraid. But the writer, even when lonely, is not alone. The writer, reader and citizen live in the same place. They face the challenge together. They can claim what is rightfully theirs: words and ideas, whether these are thought, dreamt, spoken, sung, read or written. Books, music, films, dance, theatre, life in classrooms, courts, homes and on the streets: they belong to us, to you and me. They belong to the good fight we can only fight together.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

The biggest challenge I feel as a writer is if I would be able to earn a livelihood working as a writer alone. I have a day job, a regular job, I am assured of money every month, and that money has enabled me to live my life in a certain way and fulfil certain responsibilities without being dependent on anyone. These responsibilities are important for me to fulfil as I am only the second-generation formally educated and salaried professional person in my family, and I think that it would take at least two more generations of formally educated and salaried professional people in my family before our descendants are able to find the security and freedom to be a bit reckless with their choices and yet live a relatively comfortable life. Would I be able to earn the same kind of money and fulfil my obligations if I someday choose to leave my job and venture out as only a writer?

Also Read | Leaving the egg for the end

Writing requires focus, patience, and calm; and I have realised that I am not being able to do both—my job and original writing—side by side any more. It is difficult, and I know I am not good enough to do both even though I may boast about my multitasking skills. Both my job and my writing are special to me, and I cannot just multitask both or choose one over the other. Also, I come from a background where having a job is necessary and being berozgaar—unemployed—is seen as a taboo. My job doesn’t just pay my bills, it has also given me a sort of acceptance and respectability. Strangers from faraway places might know me as a writer and translator, but the people I meet nearly every day know me only from my job. What will they think about me if I happen to quit it all to focus on my writing? This is a challenge—or challenges, rather—I am facing right now: the question of sustenance, and the question of acceptance.



Imayam. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Whenever you read a new book, its message seems to be that you still have so much more to read.

When you are about to write a short story or a novel, the question crops up: are you going to write what no one has written so far? And the next challenge: is it possible to write all that is happening in real life in a single story?

Reading is a challenge; writing, too, is a challenge. My reading and writing happen amidst these challenges.

When you read a book, you despair about all that happens around you. When you write, you grow anxious that you cannot possibly write about all that happens around you.

Writing—be it poetry, short stories, novels—is all about documenting the world around us. To talk about these is to talk about life.

It is not easy to escape the desire that my every work must be celebrated, globally recognised; and not to be jealous when this or that writer is honoured by society.

The biggest challenge in the world is simply to be alive. In our times, being a writer is only an additional challenge.

Of course, if one writes only for monetary returns or fame or perform in front of an audience, then there is no problem at all.

Ira Mukhoty.

Ira Mukhoty. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Ira Mukhoty

Our long-ago ancestors in the primeval dawn of early time had no way to encode language, and therefore to record stories. The sounds through which they may have conveyed ideas to one another will never be recovered. Slowly, over the endless centuries, they learnt how to make ochre patterns on stone walls, and those were the first threshold stories of the human race. My only fear, as a writer, is to never be read, everything else is background noise. For like our inchoate ice-age ancestors, our only job as writers is to bear witness. Through the slow arc of time, we record the churn and curdle of humanity, its beauty and its pain, its melodies and its chaos. Writing is an act of faith, a belief that the words we write and the stories we weave will echo in another’s heart, and make of us immortal beings.

S. Irfan Habib

S. Irfan Habib.

S. Irfan Habib. | Photo Credit: K.V. SRINIVASAN

For someone like me who writes on engagements with the past, writing itself is a challenge today. Any attempt to read and write about history exposes the scholar to the abuses of a section that has been indoctrinated to look at the past with a tunnel vision. An honest and sincere scholarly critique is always a learning experience. Sadly, the challenge today comes from those who have been brought up on imagined facts. They expect the professional historian to pander to their pre-conceived vision of history, a history that conforms with their own imagined past, mostly based on WhatsApp forwards. It is indeed a challenge for any serious historian/writer today to perceive our pluralism as our strength, and to believe that the diverse strains in our cultural mosaic have enriched us immensely. It is a challenge for a conscientious writer to question the possibility of purity of culture, a possibility of any culture that has grown or prospered without sharing with others.



Jeyamohan. | Photo Credit: JOTHI RAMALINGAM B

Two things can mar a good photograph—too little or too much exposure. It’s the same with literature. My predecessors received scant attention. They wrote in magazines with a circulation of 200 copies; their readership barely touched 500. Their lives passed in obscurity. Today, my website draws 50,000 readers a day. Every aspect of my personal life is in the public eye. The problem I face, therefore, is unwanted attention from the wrong kind of readers. Thousands who have little respect for either literature or intellectual pursuit seek me out solely for gossip. At the same time, I cannot shun the media either because it sometimes brings me worthy readers too. In the past, it was easy to identify serious literature: it commanded the exclusive attention of serious readers and was published mostly in little magazines. Borges was thrilled to have a readership of 13. Nowadays, every writer seems to be known to everybody. At literature festivals, writers of serious literary merit share space with those who churn out potboilers. Sales numbers have become the sole yardstick. It therefore becomes necessary to reiterate tirelessly that serious literature is superior to the average bestseller both in aesthetic appeal and enduring moral content. If the first challenge is excessive exposure, the second is this general lack of discernment.

Mamang Dai.

Mamang Dai. | Photo Credit: RAGU R

Mamang Dai

Today all histories, geographies, science, art, and philosophies are available at our fingertips. The apprehensions about the rise of AI, state control, lack of readers, can be clubbed under this big umbrella of A brave new world. It is the seduction of speed, the ease of a button, the power of the dot. For me the biggest challenge is to keep track of my priorities—the things I started with. Call it a case of longhand vs Online (!) I don’t want to see imagination and memory broken down into data, erased, or dissolving into cyberspace.

Manjula Padmanabhan

Manjula Padmanabhan

Manjula Padmanabhan | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The biggest challenge facing writers today is… Cats. No, seriously. These beautiful, low-slung predators are the reason there are no readers left in the world. If all domestic felines were to magically disappear, there’d be no hypnotic video loops of furry demons flinging glasses off kitchen counters. Humans would be forced to read books, magazines and newspapers for entertainment. Publishers would remember that authors are a crucial part of the industry. And the world would be a kinder, smarter place. Instead? The latest viral videos show cats watching clips of people watching clips of cats. In the corner, two kittens are shredding a book. On the soundtrack, loud, triumphant purring.

Manu S. Pillai.

Manu S. Pillai. | Photo Credit: VIBHU H

Manu S. Pillai

A creeping tendency towards self-censorship appears to be one of the graver challenges facing writers today, especially those producing non-fiction. On the one hand, competitive outrage as a public phenomenon across political ideologies adds pressures. This is a direct result of living in the age of social media. On the other, fragments of writing (and speech) are deliberately circulated out of context, weaponising the writer’s own words to discredit them. The result is an almost involuntary self-censorship, particularly when one is unprotected by wealth, status, lineage, and other forms of cushioning. Writing suffers from a loss of humour, from over-caution, from verbosity, and grows listless and unimaginative. Established figures might still be able to say what must be said, but newer voices lack the room and liberty. And yet I remain optimistic: there will always be voices that take risks. And they will always test prescribed boundaries.

Paul Zacharia

Paul Zacharia.

Paul Zacharia. | Photo Credit: MAHINSHA S

Nothing is more challenging in a writer’s life than writing itself. Each time a writer sits down to write she has to reinvent herself, and also her language and craft. It’s almost like an actor reinventing herself each time she represents a new character. For me this means trying to renew my writing in all manner of ways so that it’s ahead of what I’ve done till today. And that means I need to be informed better and find ways to represent my imagination in better ways. It also means I need to harness time, stay healthy, and be calm. These are easier said than done. In the coming days, writers may face a grave existential challenge: how to remain free, remain true to democratic and civilisational values, not to give in to warped ideologies, not to sell your soul. History is an inscrutable force.

Perumal Murugan

Writers today are up against several challenges. I consider the loss of the right to write to be the foremost one. Realism is an important genre of modern literature. Writers across the world make art out of life experiences using the mode of realism. In India today, however, realist writing is in great peril.

Perumal Murugan.

Perumal Murugan. | Photo Credit: SIVA SARAVANAN S

Indian society is casteist. Religion protects caste. Today, for various reasons, casteism and religious fanaticism have grown in strength. Caste pride is much bandied about. Each caste foregrounds itself as the dominant one. Caste associations have gained much ground.

Indian electoral politics works on the basis of caste. There are political parties founded primarily on caste. It has become the norm to come to power on the strength of religion.

In this situation, writers find themselves unable to give caste identities to their characters. If they do, casteists come rushing out of every corner and assault them both psychologically and physically. Is it possible to write that there are only good people in one caste? Would that count as writing? If one writes anything centred on religious rituals and modes of worship, the communalists are quick to intimidate.

How do we write about our people without mentioning caste or religion? This is the greatest challenge before writers of our times. This is what I face as well.

Tabish Khair

Tabish Khair.

Tabish Khair. | Photo Credit: MOHAMMED YOUSUF

Looking beyond 2024, I would worry about the uncritical, capitalist-state celebration of digitalisation, AI etc., which I see as part of a longer conflict between what can be called “information” and “knowledge”. Even religions, with their bureaucracy of rituals (information) and concepts of divinity (knowledge), had a version of it. The conflict has never been resolved, and it has assumed greater urgency with the explosion of information and its increasing conflation with knowledge. However, if one needs to note a conflict specific to 2024, I would worry about the threat to human rights. This started snowballing with the rise of terrorism on the one side, and mainstream state indemnity, on the other, around the Iraq War (“embedded” reporting, drones, collateral damage, weaponised media myths of “chemical weapons”, etc.). The Hamas-Israel conflict marks its final crisis. 2024 might be decisive.

A. R. Venkatachalapathy.

A. R. Venkatachalapathy. | Photo Credit: RAGHUNATHAN SR

A. R. Venkatachalapathy

In the 2005 floods, water entered the majestic wrought iron racks of the Tamil Nadu Archives. A decade later, innumerable private and public collections were lost in the largely manmade (sic!) floods. Recently, water entered what is now the primary repository of Tamil imprints, the Roja Muthiah Research Library. If historians fear the gnawing criticism of mice, in the tropics, white ants and termites steadily eat into the very vitals of their profession. Extreme climate events are now giving a cataclysmic scale to such losses. Historians, though rooted in the present, are prophets looking backwards.

Floods and fires are now forcing them to look into the future. Rather than simply forming the taken-for-granted backdrop of historical events, geology is being distorted by human action—as historians Dipesh Chakrabarty and Sunil Amrith have reminded us in their groundbreaking scholarship. More than how to write it, in the Anthropocene, historians now need to worry about the continuous supply of history. That’s the challenge staring at their face.

Vivek Shanbhag

Vivek Shanbhag.

Vivek Shanbhag. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Writing in a divided society is the most challenging task for me. Literature needs ambiguous spaces, and hard divides, as we have seen in the recent past, kill nuanced conversation. The present atmosphere is so vicious that most readers, on either side, subconsciously desire everything in binaries. It encourages a kind of arrogance that one can understand everything. Language is the first casualty in such an environment, where definite meanings are forced upon certain words and expressions, making it difficult to create layered texts, allusive constructs, and subtleties of narrative. For a writer, nothing is worse than the feeling that the readers are looking into the text for confirmation of what they already know. It means characters from the world unknown to us are not welcome any more. How can I open up with people who are impatient to know on which side of the line I am?

Wendy Doniger

Wendy Doniger.

Wendy Doniger. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Writers have always been plagued by both internal challenges—fear of self-repetition, of failure, of inspiration, and so forth—and recurrent external literary challenges—fear of being hobbled by unfair and influential critics, or vandalised by incompetent editors—as well as by political persecution. But the politics of the present moment presents several serious new challenges. There is, on the one hand, the alarming resurgence of the serious harassment of writers by governments throughout the world—not just censorship, but imprisonment and murder—enforcing not only the usual political repressions but moral and religious and ethnic ideologies as well. And now there is the parallel threat of non-governmental moral policing, on the Internet and elsewhere, of writers (including academics and actors) by citizen groups (on the Left as well as the Right) under the banners of ethnic, racial, or sexual righteousness. It takes great courage to speak one’s truth against all these strident voices, and it amazes and thrills me to see how many journalists and academics and novelists and poets continue to find the courage to speak out. The situation of India is not, alas, unique, but the courage of Indian writers who continue to risk their lives by speaking truth to power (as well as to often even more strident powerlessness) is a great inspiration to me.

Zac O’ Yeah.

Zac O’ Yeah. | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH

Zac O’ Yeah

The lack of bookshops in many parts of the world is becoming a problem for writers who try to make a living by writing books, by which I mean the traditional format that is printed and works without electricity. One can of course browse for books online and read on one’s phone, but then one tends to find only the books that various artificially semi-intelligent search functions calculate that you’d be interested in, or books that you’ve already decided to download.

But you’ll never find anything unexpected. The conventional well-stocked brick-and-mortar bookstore remains the best place for discovering something unexpected to read because each bookshop has a different personality—so you never know what you’re going to buy and bring to the next-door pub for lunch company. You might come across some writer you haven’t heard of before, such as me, but who has written something that you end up enjoying.

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