When we consider a poem like “The White Man’s Burden”, all the enchantment of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” fades away. When we realise that Enid Blyton’s books were full of racism and sexism, and that we were happily oblivious to these prejudices as we read them, we cringe. More egregiously still, when we think retroactively of the “groupie” culture of 70’s music, we balk at all the statutory rape that took place.
Especially if you write, perform, work in policymaking, or teach, such examples are worth reflecting on. From actions to accidental slippages, they tarnish entire bodies of work. Whether or not one is in the public eye is irrelevant. Accountability shouldn’t be motivated by criticism, but by one’s own conscience. What would you do differently, looking back at your own work?
A few weeks ago, a friend posted a poem that I wrote when I was 17 on Facebook. I commented with a disclaimer, which she was sweet enough to insist was unnecessary. But to me, it was. You see, the poem contained the word “androgynous” as a reference to Plato’s androgyne, the being made of two halves so as to be a perfect whole, who need not seek love beyond the self. But if I were to write a similar poem now, half a lifetime later, it would not even occur to me to use a word that belongs as a queer identifier, because my own understanding of the word has changed.
Similarly, when I was doing the final proofs for my new book, The High Priestess Never Marries, I removed a playful reference to the Mahabharata’s Dronacharya, who demanded that the tribal archer Eklavya sever his thumb, from a story. When I had written the story five years ago, my understanding of caste was less evolved than it is now. To put it simply: I wouldn’t make that joke now because I would no longer think it was funny. I had been wrong, whether I knew it or not. How many times had I read a book and thought of how much better it would have been if it weren’t for that completely unnecessary drop of indigo in the milk: “fat” or “dark” being used interchangeably with “unattractive”, period pieces which used racial pejoratives like “savages” outside of dialogue, elitist self-identifications like “TamBrahm”, and so on? How can I leave that bad taste in someone else’s mouth, when I know better now?
Norms and languages evolve. So do we. And we must remember: while we owe it to our own personal growth and to the audiences that we hope to reach (whether that’s in a book, in a personal conversation, or on Twitter), we are all works in progress. We’re all continuously changing, and if we’re open to it, we’re continuously learning. I wonder what I’ll think of my recent writing in 15 years. I wonder what I will find problematic then. My point is to say that it’s okay. We grow most when we have the humility to know that we don’t know everything. The best disclaimer, and the best apology, is to delve deeper and do better.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 13th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.