Prejudice prevents listening, colours perception, blocks the mind and shrinks the heart. And its roots are in the subconscious mind, under whose spell the conscious mind is caught. Once a particular prejudice takes hold of the individual it is very difficult to shrug it off as it becomes an intrinsic part of the personality. For the personality to regain its innocence, some kind of a miracle or Zen ‘satori’ is required.
I was lucky to have such a ‘satori’ recently while doing my literary browsing online. Something snapped in me and I felt liberated. I wouldn’t call it a total, holistic enlightenment but a micro, nano enlightenment. That flash expanded my limited literary self.
Prior to that revelation, for quite some years, unknowingly and unconscsiously, I had been reading only the books written by male authors, their interviews and their articles and excluding all women writers from my reading list. Any book or essay by a woman writer I wouldn’t read. Not that it matters much to a writer like Alice Munro whether I read her short stories or not. I am the loser if I haven’t had the taste of her power-packed stories.
This exclusivist tendency of ignoring women writers was not there in me during my college days. Otherwise, how could I have relished Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice or the poems of Emily Dickinson. And what about Elizabeth Bishop’s great poem on the art of losing something? Anne Lemmott’s fascinating book Bird by Bird? Though I don’t remember any detail of what I read, the memory of the joy those authors brought me lingers.
So, clearly, there was a time when I made no distinction between male and female authors. I was innocent like Adam and Eve before they ate the apple from the tree of knowledge. Then what triggered the bias in me and who triggered it?
Without any hesitation I would blame one of my favourite writers — V.S. Naipaul. After reading Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur and A House for Mr. Biswas I became a great fan of him. I loved his language, his deep and perceptive writing . Even now I do so. Whatever pronouncements he had made about politics and literature I considered as the truth. When you are under someone’s spell this is what happens. You are carried away by them and you lose your capacity to think for yourself. In Naipaul’s case, except for his ideas on spirituality — about which I thought he knew little — I accepted all else he said blindly.
To have prejudice of some kind or other is unavoidable. There’s no point in disputing that. It gives us a sense of being. True, any prejudice is primitive. To transcend that primitive tendency is the challenge.
In this state of mind I came across his views about women writers whom he didn’t consider to be his equals. He had also said that he could make out whether a particular writing belonged to a woman just by reading a few paragraphs. Once, responding to a question on Jane Austen, Naipaul had said that he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”. According to him, the views of women writers were narrow.
These ideas of Naipaul had made a deep impact on me and formed within me a strong prejudice against women writers. I could have listened to his comments and looked at them objectively with some kind of maturity. But I didn’t do so. I just imbibed them and allowed them to colour my views. They stayed with me for over a few years and prevented me from opening myself up to them. So, there has been an imbalance in the yin and yang, if you will, of my literary world. It was suffocating. That literary suffocation needed a spiritual ‘satori’. A serendipity that exogenetically wrenches one out of a cocoon one has no agency over. The problems created by the mind cannot be resolved at its own level. Albert Einstein had also said something similar to this. We need something more than the mind to free us from its limitations. We need that intangible ‘satori’. Otherwise, our efforts will be confined to the mental level, which only tends to complicate matters.
But how to bring about the ‘satori’ experience? And what is ‘satori’? According to D.T. Suzuki, a Zen Buddhist monk, ‘satori’ is something that is perceived on an intuitive level and not an intellectual understanding. He is right. Unless one has an intuitive understanding of the prejudice one is confined in, it has no chance of disappearing. One can say there’s no distinction between men and women till one’s death but unless one feels deeply the non-dual nature of life, one will remain at the verbal level, in conflict with the deep-rooted subconscious tendencies which divide human beings at every level.
As for having the satori experience, the Buddhist practitioners might say that a contemplative mind is essential. I think, in addition to all this, a questioning mind is also needed. Unless we question our views and ideas about the world, how can there be a change? Without quest and the resultant questions our views will remain like fossils. Questions are the tools which can unearth our fossilised ideas like the one I had about women writers.
To have prejudice of some kind or other is unavoidable. There’s no point in disputing that. In each of us there’s bound to be a prejudice of some sort. It gives us a sense of being. True, any prejudice is primitive. To transcend that primitive tendency is the challenge.
In my case, questions such as “What’s wrong with me? Why am I shying away from women writers? Why should Naipaul be right? Why can’t I look at things with my own eyes? Why have borrowed ideas?” helped lead me to the satori moment.
After that enlightening moment, I have changed. Now, I voluntarily and eagerly go after the writings of women.
And some articles that I read recently have made me come to this — daresay, temporary — conclusion: Women writers, with the very sentimentality that Naipaul belittles, touch the heart; whereas male writers appeal only to the intellect. Now, certainly this is yet another prejudice, one against male writers. But it doesn’t matter as long as the quest remains. If it’s a prejudice and not a fact, it will naturally wither away in due course.
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