Books: Essay

What Happens When Nothing Happens

Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became a Tree; Aleph; Rs 599; 244 pages
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We overlook the beauty of stillness as we get lost in the ant crawl of everydayness

I REMEMBER IT QUITE distinctly, even after what would most certainly be more than 20 years—the afternoon when Mani Kaul’s film, Uski Roti, was broadcast on Doordarshan. I was in my late teens and therefore naturally inclined towards the more conventional kind of cinema—where narrative was curated to create lifelikeness, where plot was a utilitarian toy meant to give pleasure. My reaction to Uski Roti, a film about a young woman making rotis for her truck-driver husband who passes through her small town occasionally, was, as is obvious from a review I wrote at the time, ‘boring’. I did not understand why something so common—making rotis for a husband—had to be the subject of a film. A few years later, in college, a professor offered me an interpretation. “I was bored,” I’d told him, about my memory of watching the film. “But that was exactly what Mani Kaul wanted to do—to make you experience the roti- making housewife’s boredom,” he said.

That was the first time I encountered someone trying to explain the ethos of ‘nothing happens’, though the professor evaded embracing its aesthetic. That phrase, of course, comes from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Critics have taken Beckett’s words literally, as a version of self-criticism. When I consider the accusation that ‘nothing happens’ in Beckett’s play, it is not of the tramps Vladimir and Estragon that I think. Instead it is the solitary tree in the play that comes to my mind. The leafless tree in Act I and the same tree with a few leaves in Act II. In the marginal difference between the tree of the two acts lies the key to whether or not anything is ‘happening’ in the play. For the aesthetic of ‘nothing happens’ proclaims, subtly, that something is happening even when nothing appears to be.

One cannot, of course, ever know why one remembers certain things and not others. But when I began writing what would eventually become a book that would hold in it a record of my desire and consequent journey to approximate the emotional economy of trees, it was to the tree in Waiting for Godot that my thoughts first moved. Most people do not remember that tree—in it is an index of what Matthew Hall called the human’s ‘plant blindness’, a natural and conditioned tendency that makes men not notice the existence of plant life in the (social) world. It might have been my disgust with what I saw as the new human craving for fame, in its various incarnations, that made trees, with their indifference to PR and the fame industry, attractive to me. The mind has its own surreptitious networks and one is never sure about the direction in which water flows and gathers.

A retrospective investigation of my childhood, performed with a kind of seriousness that allows the act of remembering to become charged with invention, reveals a moment in a school concert where I am on stage with a few classmates. We are 10 years old, in red and white checked dresses, white bonnets with delicate pleated margins. The spotlight is on us. Suddenly, I decide to look for my father in the audience. It’s dark and I can’t see anyone. I become conscious of the light on me, on us, and though I cannot see the eyes I’m looking for, I know they are gazing on me, for it is the character of eyes to seek light. It is the moment when I realise that I like observing more than being observed. And another fundamental truth—that light, human-orchestrated light, always illuminates movement and not stillness. It is that stillness that we characterise as ‘nothing happens’, almost always subsumed by the magnetism of motion, of things ‘happening’ on the surface, the ant crawl of life. In other words, the stillness I’m speaking of is the life of a tree.

Soon after, I was reading Robinson Crusoe. Apart from the life-changing adventure, the shipwreck of course, the novel was basically faithful reportage. It was a diary of the day’s events and just that, a record of facts. Nothing happened in it, nothing climactic—there was no sex or romance either, or any of the tropes that make narratives of this kind the highest TRP-grosser on Travel and Living. Crusoe, defined by his lack of choice, lived a life without the artificial climax of weekends or the duress of weekdays. The days were similar to another and yet also remarkably different. Defoe, without quite being conscious of it, gives us a prescient narrative on where the journey of this new form—and hence the ‘novel’ of course—would go. Crusoe, having managed to retrieve writing material from the ship, begins maintaining a journal of his life on the island. It is structured diurnally, days being added to days, a record of nothing-happens days. A little way into the novel, two things do begin to happen: Crusoe, unsure of the length of his stay on the island, decides to ration his use of ink and paper. The second follows from the first. He decides to exercise choice in his reportage for the first time: he will choose which events he will record and those he’ll discard. For me, this has always been an allegory of exclusion that would come to shape the narrative of the novel, not just its standardised codes of beginning- middle-end plot moves but key decisions regarding events and things considered as important enough to find a home in it. Defoe, who’d set out with the desire to do the literature-is-an-imitation-of-life gig, extending his role as a journalist into that of the novelist as diarist, made the novel begin with this natural investment in ‘nothing happens’ before he would prompt the process of selection to help shape fiction into something like the conventional novel as it exists today. Of course, the practitioner of ‘nothing happens’ would stand this kind of selectiveness on its head, by keeping in their writing only what was seemingly important and ignoring the apparently significant. As Amit Chaudhuri said of reversing this process of selection: ‘The things I use are the things that real memoirists... would throw out of the window. The moment I realised I could talk about not only myself, but something totally unimportant... and bring these completely inconsequential things into this hallowed domain [of the novel], that energised me and took me out of literature and its legitimate subjects into something new’.

Peace hardly gets press; air, unless polluted, is never the subject of debate; life must always be represented as being in some ‘state of emergency’

I was, of course, a schoolgirl when I first read Defoe’s—and arguably English Literature’s—first novel. These thoughts would come to me later, but even with a child’s intuition I realised what awaited me in adulthood—a privileging of the event over the non-event. There are no histories of childhood (and certainly none of infancy) because it is only a conglomeration of non-events, a period spent in preparation of the events that will give significance to adulthood. These hierarchies, with their readymade scales of importance, would label anything outside it as ‘unimportant’ and ‘non-serious’.

It’s the same thinking that privileges the workings of the day over the activities of the night, the workdays over the weekend, which only goes on to show that whether the classifications are natural or artificial, the barometer is still the same. It is the same impulse that prefers motion over stillness, taking the former as a shorthand for life, for being ‘alive’, preferring the sprinter over the meditating figure. That is why ‘nothing happens’ becomes an easy colloquialism for boredom, in life as in art. Thus it was a surprise to me when I first read Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. I, who hadn’t ever thought of my pre-globalisation mofussil life as boring, filled as it was with encounters with the sensuous and the superfluous, the two categories that enrich a life like mine, was surprised to find this description of her small town by a woman Mishra meets in Kottayam: ‘It is such a backward small town. Nothing happens here.’

‘Nothing happens’ is, quite obviously, a bureaucratic dismissal. Bureaucracy— think of the forms any institution makes you fill up—has no place for the life of the senses, for the everyday. The categories in the information slips are a record of events, and so these forms, like the novels of the post-industrial age, depend crucially on the idea of eventfulness. They are based on the odd—is it okay to say ‘stupid’? —presumption that every day is like the other unless something ‘life-changing’ happens. It is bureaucracy along with the notion of segmented time fostered by capitalism, as in the difference between the character of workdays and weekends, that has made us resistant to the character of the ‘nothing- happens’ periods in life and literature. We want our novels to be Friday nights, frantically condensing time while simultaneously providing a release from it. It is the same heightened sense of impulse that makes us alert and agile and strangely buoyant at times of war and riots and other forms of violence. Peace hardly gets press; air, unless polluted, is never the subject of a debate on television; life must always be represented as being in some ‘state of emergency’.

I had no language with which to articulate my discomfort, my unease with narratives that, in spite of the empathy of their content, as in the essays by the Subaltern Collective for instance, ended up privileging one way of looking over the other. I can see it, only retrospectively of course, that what I was looking for was the democratic gaze, one that did not value one object in the frame over the other. Again, Chaudhuri’s advice to would-be novelists is to ‘give nothing centrality, because writing is about continually shifting weight from one thing and moment to the other’. The closest analogy I could think of then was a piece of music—was it possible for us to say that one part of a song was more important than the other?

I was in university. The buzz of romance, real and imagined (both equally important, even if ‘nothing happened’ in the latter), made me see the difference between eros and erotica, the non-event versus the event; only the latter seemed worth any investment. The same was true of education: attendance audit, which marked hours spent in the classroom, was what constituted the institutional definition of education. The time spent elsewhere, under a tree or in the canteen, didn’t count. And yet, all of us, including officials who kept count of lectures attended, knew that the real kind of education took place outside that routine, when ‘nothing happened’.

It was around this time that I would encounter a book that would tell me what I was feeling, but for which I didn’t have a language. The book was Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address, a novel by a writer who would, as I’d soon discover, spend his career demolishing differences and discriminating aesthetic and ethical stances between what constituted the ‘important’ and what the ‘unimportant’, he who’d say that it was possible to see history as junk and junk as history.

‘And yet the story would never be a satisfying one, because the writer, like Sandeep, would be too caught up in jotting down the irrelevances and digressions that make up lives, and the life of a city, rather than a good story—till the reader would shout ‘Come to the point!’—and there would be no point, except the girl memorising the rules of grammar, the old man in the easy-chair fanning himself, and the house with the empty porch that was crowded, paradoxically, with many memories and possibilities. The ‘real’ story, with its beginning, middle and conclusion, would never be told, because it did not exist.’ These lines from the novel—‘and there would be no point’—would hold in them my understanding of life and its narratives.

When I would begin thinking about plant life and their life outside what constituted ‘the point’— ‘power-point’ having invaded the way we presented thought—it was to this ethic that I must have subconsciously returned to. For plants—is it because they lack eyes and the consequent ways of seeing?—cannot discriminate between king and peasant, Hindu and Muslim, the literate and the illiterate. Allied to this is their easy habitation in the eventless territory I’ve been describing. For therein lie their charm and their mystery: so much is happening that is invisible to us (the reason that so many books about plant life have the word ‘secret’ in them: the secret life of plants, of seeds, and so on) that we take their seeming changelessness as a close approximation of lifelessness, the same kind of misreading and charge that the ‘nothing happens’ aesthetic has had to constantly encounter. Much happens, to the rhythm of natural time, which we, conditioned as we are to the calibrations of artificial clock time, do not notice.

When I told my closest friend about the subject of this essay, he, with his characteristic wit, said, “Nothing happens? You mean, like ‘Shit happens’?”. He was being frivolous, but it came to me in an epiphany—how even ‘shit’, that trope of all that is bad and wrong and scary and unjust, had more currency in the literary stock market than ‘nothing’, and how remarkable it was that literature’s transactions with capitalism had reduced life – and the truest lifelikeness, its ‘everything’, if one may —into that one word which is a euphemism for emptiness. Or I might be complaining too much. Perhaps I, like Lear, am the only one who doesn’t get that the ‘nothing’ in Nothing Happens is actually Cordelia’s ‘nothing’?