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Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Opinion | Why one writes what one writes and a good way to go about it

To speak to people through writing is a great blessing and if you don’t do it already, please do try

Men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world. David Thomson wrote that as an assessment of the underlying principle of Howard Hawks’ film-making. I read that, and, in a flash, it evoked everything that I felt about how I should be writing what I write about. That was a long time ago.

I mostly write about education. In this column, and elsewhere. In my world, education is about saving and making the world. The few times that I write about something else, it is also in some way about saving and making the world. The struggle in this kind of writing is to make it somewhat readable. Who wants to read the heaviness of world-saving? Aside from this obvious pitfall of a tiny readership for such weighty matters, it is also a path of seduction to taking myself too seriously. This is certainly not worthwhile, particularly when I must plan any writing like a heist of time from my everyday life.

So, I decided a long time ago to write about individuals and their stories, mostly but not only about teachers, and from these stories, draw out a patina of how the world is being saved and made. Weightier matters would be written about only by implication, while only the rolling of chalk and the sounds of the classroom, as it were, were to be directly read. Sometimes, the picture is clear. Sometimes, it is hazy, and the piece becomes a mere vignette of a life. However, overall, it seems to have worked, or that is what many of my readers will have me believe.

After reading my last column, a friend was surprised: “You have been writing this column for 10 years? How and why does someone like you do this?" So, I shared with him how the comment about Hawk’s film-making crystallized what I was trying to practise, and then shared with him how and why I do this. The friend is as immersed in enabling rural livelihoods as I am in education. I wanted to persuade him to write for the public regularly.

I will share the same here, in the hope that some of you, who may be equally immersed in fascinating endeavours, which may well be about saving or making the world, will consider writing. Else, your wisdom comes to the public second-hand, through other writers, missing all that is lost in transmission across minds, if it does happen at all. Even more is missed in the choices of what is written about if those choices are not made by you. So, here is how and why I do it, in addition to the method of offering individual narratives.

First, all my material comes from my work. I travel over a hundred days to the field in a year. The “field" is where our work is, in some of the most challenging geographies of the country. I meet hundreds of teachers through the year and observe many of their schools. Almost all my stories are about them, or other people that I meet. Often, I don’t name them. It is to avoid triggering more difficulties for them. As it is, they are in a battlefield, facing challenges that most of us cannot imagine and against all odds trying to change the world, without any claim to heroism.

Second, over the years, I have become clear about the themes that I want to write about. These themes guide my observation of people and their stories. Occasionally an incident or a person is compelling enough for me to abandon my themes, but these are stories that I have no right to silence by my choices. These must be told as they are.

Third, in the past 10 years, a file has grown to 18 pages with 553 observations. These are just cryptic notations to help me remember people or incidents that are the primary peg for a story. Usually at the end of a trip to the field, I open the file and write down these pegs. Many stories I write about are a year or two or more after the experience. The longer a story sits in the file and sloshes around in the subconscious, the better it seems to come to life on paper.

Fourth, there is a rhythm that I have developed for the writing of this column. I think about what to write, which story to pick, for which theme, when I am out running early in the morning on any or all days from Thursday to Saturday. Then I write on Sunday morning. On the best of weeks, I am totally clear about not just the content, but also the structure, the start, and the end, before I get down to writing. In some weeks, I am struggling with even the basic idea. Usually the rhythm works well. On Sunday evening, I review what I have written and send it off to three of my friends who have all these years acted as my sounding board. Based on their advice, I edit the column on Tuesday and send it to Mint on Wednesday. The discipline to stay with this rhythm has been the key in being able to write consistently.

Fifth, I write in Mint because my sense is that a large proportion of the readership of this newspaper rarely encounters the kind of people and India that I write about. I want to help expand the congregation and not preach to the faithful.

Sixth, I see this writing as an integral part of my work. Advocacy for public education, the importance of teachers, and the role of education in the development of a more just, equitable and humane world.

Lastly, I enjoy writing. Through my writing, I can speak with people that I cannot otherwise. This is a blessing. If you don’t do this already, please try.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd

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