Edited by: Zenya Siyad
Over the course of three English courses at Ashoka, my idea of capital-L Literature has changed to that of lowly-l literature. My first English course was Professor Jonathan Gil Harris’s Literature and the World. His precept that “one can be clear and complex at the same time” has allowed me to relocate authors from the pedestal I put them on to a coffee table, where I can freely converse with them. This novel idea that crystalline clarity and compound complexity can not only coexist, but it is the nervous tension of their amalgamation that paves the way for great literature, has allowed me to read through a wider lens to accommodate a myriad of interpretations. It helped me discern that the writer’s words are not the elucidative holy grail of a story, rather a skeletal guide to fill with my musings.
Take, for example, the narrative style of Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North which allows you to comprehend the profundity of vicarious living. That one person’s narrative can be entirely about someone else, to an obsessive extent where the narrator doesn’t realize that “it’s a picture of him frowning at his own face from a mirror”, has mirrored in my worldly fixations. While an employee of language usually turns inwards to reflect, it allowed me to go out of myself to read characters both vicariously and in a vacuum. My characters have since held round table conferences instead of bilateral interactions, and I have presided over these colloquiums with the air of an arbiter.
Any discussion of literature necessitates a mention of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid’s parable that the only way to ephemeral order is through eternal chaos further invalidates our efforts to cling to the author’s side of the story. We cannot have preconceived notions about a story if they are subject to incessant metamorphoses. When the writer draws us in as partakers of their story, we might as well contribute to writing it with them. Ovid’s axiom finds its way into the World, too, for there is no paradoxical dichotomy, only the compatible coexistence of clarity and complexity. We project our qualms onto the banal platitudes of our lives, but we have only to accept “the concord of this discord” (Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) between clarity and complexity, most imbibed by literature, as inevitable and rather beautiful in order to read a text comprehensively. This metamorphosis of an author’s singularity into their readers’ plurality led me to the realization that it is not only Ovid’s poem, but literature itself, that is an ode to life.
My English courses have, dare I say, metamorphosed me from a passive reader into an active participant who engages with the story to add a personal dimension to it. If every story is a reimagining of experiences that ricochet from one corner of the world to the other, then I must have shared my life trajectory with the characters I read. I have felt Helena’s agony at Demetrius’s rejection, Desdemona’s devotion, even in death, and Miranda’s hope at the prospect of a brave new world. These courses have conditioned my proclivity to a manner of reading that has brought all these characters to life.
Stories are travelers, and I, seduced by their wanderlust, have gathered multitudes of souvenirs through this course: a thread that Ovid started, and we have continued, spinning; an ellipsis that can convey more than heaps upon heaps of weighty words; my marginal quarrels with Shakespeare; and finally, the lowly-l that I will always cherish.