It must be clear by now that Collected Thoughts is no longer a weekly blog, as it was in the first six months of its life. It is no longer even a fortnightly blog, as it was in August. The best I can write right now is a monthly post. I’ll try not to do so on the last day of the month, but I can’t make any promises.
Many years ago, I was spending a weekend with an aunt when I came across a book on her shelves that was a collection of magazine columns by a writer whose name I recognized but whom I had not read. With the first line of “Do-Re-Mi” in mind, I started at the very beginning, which is a very good place to start (especially a book). In the foreword (which was really a preface, since it was written by the author), the author says that he always wrote the column on the day it was due. I remember shuddering with awe as I read that. It meant that he was more than a good writer; it meant that he was a fearless writer. I was in the throes of writer’s block at the time, and I wondered if I would ever write again, let alone write with such panache. I ended up spending the weekend with the book, perhaps to the disappointment of my chatty aunt.
I have since realized that writer’s block is mostly imaginary, but the fear of writer’s block is a very real thing. Technology has changed our metaphors. I no longer fear the blank page; I only fear the blank screen. But it’s the same thing. And it will keep plaguing me unless I do something to conquer it. That may take years, but I am going to attempt the feat today, by writing this post even though I have no idea what it is about. If I die trying, tell them I’d like my tombstone to say something more eloquent than “Uh.” And they should make it sound happy, not grave. I’d write my own epitaph if I weren’t at a loss for words. Although, as a writer, being at a loss for words is writing my own epitaph.
One day last week I came across a YouTube video on the Kargil War, which was fought between India and its neighbor to the west between May and July of 1999, just months after I had relocated to Los Angeles. Kargil, a district in the remote windswept region of Ladakh in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is not far from the Line of Control.
The LOC, which is considered Asia’s Berlin Wall, demarcates that disputed territory known in India as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and in its neighbor to the west as Azad Kashmir (azad meaning free). As one who was born in India I do not love my former neighbor to the west’s definition of freedom, but this post is not about loving my former neighbor’s definition of freedom. It is about gaining my own freedom.
The video I stumbled upon last week is an interview between NDTV’s Barkha Dutt and certain Indian soldiers, held in a bunker in Kargil. The video has an eerie quality – and I’m not referring to the visual quality. That is superior considering the circumstances. The eerieness stems from knowing that these men may not live to see daylight. Barkha, we know, survives (and long may she live), but while watching the video I tried putting myself in each person’s shoes and imagining how it must feel to be this close to a very violent death. I’m always close to a very violent death while driving the LA freeways, but war is played on a different stage. (“War is played” is ironic, so please don’t tell me I know nothing about war. I don’t have firsthand experience, but that’s not why I am using the stage metaphor. If I didn’t have writer’s block, I’d have been more creative.)
While watching the Kargil interview I thought constantly about the fear the men were facing even as the camera was rolling. They were in the midst of war; the interview might be abruptly terminated by enemy fire or the command to get up, get out, and fight. When Barkha Dutt asked how the soldiers dealt with fear, young Capt. Vishal Thapa, with a perspicacity beyond his years, said this:
Fear is something that is natural because we’re all humans. But then . . . the . . . reason why we’re here is to overcome that.
Thapa is a Gurkha. For him to admit fear is significant. As the legendary Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw famously said, “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or is a Gurkha.” Happily, Thapa survived Kargil, and the video ends with another interview with Barkha Dutt, ten years later. He had attained the rank of major by this time, and no doubt he has received other promotions since.
What does Vishal Thapa’s insightful comment in 1999 have to do with my writer’s block today? A lot. The young captain was attempting to overcome the fear of losing his life that night in Kargil, and I am writing this post in an attempt to overcome my lesser, but no less real fear of losing my writing ability. Or losing touch with the place from where writing originates. Some writers call this the well, which I think is an apt metaphor.
There’s something both terrifying and comforting about wells. I’ve always been a little afraid of them, perhaps because they’re so gloomy – dark and deep like Robert Frost’s woods, and not as lovely. But wells also have something cheerful about them. One of the merriest sounds I’ve ever heard is the clink of the bucket as it hits the water and then gets filled to gurgles that echo all the way up to the well’s mouth. I heard this sound years ago, in a village near Hyderabad where I was spending a couple months, and I haven’t forgotten it.
Sometimes a well is so dark that you can’t tell if it has any water. You will find out only when you let down your bucket. When I wrote the first sentence of this post, I was lowering my bucket into a well that may have run dry – but at some point my bucket hit the water!
So I have overcome the fear of writer’s block this time. I’ll probably face it again, and when that happens I hope I’ll lower my bucket again. If you’re facing a fear of any kind, I hope you’ll do the same. Here’s wishing us well.