Saturday, November 9, 2013
South Asian Ensemble
Summer and Fall 2013 Vol 5 No. 3 & 4
The unprofitable work of literature
The oldest memories with me include a balding and bespectacled old head reading a book held up by a hairy hand with cracked brown skin. A reflective grin spreads or shrinks, prompted by mysterious proceedings in the magic mirror in front.
Memory’s selection tool functions strangely.
Sood Uncle. He ran a shop that never had more than… ten books? A banyan had grown in the shop’s forehead, hanging down like hair from aging eyebrows. Seven steps into the shop you faced darkness that tasted damp with the odor of rats’ droppings. I bought my first books, on credit to be paid by my mother’s brother, from Sood Uncle. My mother’s mother once confided to me that this Sood Uncle was a legendary kanjoos. Unlimitedly kanjoos, she said.
Why did he run a book shop? I had never seen anyone other than himself there. Not even a departing buyer’s shadow. Did he do it to read the books he was supposed to sell? Was the shop a retreat from a hostile wife’s nagging intrusions? I remember my uncle and I stayed at his house for a week or so when he with his wife had to go to Bahrain to spend some time with their son. It was a bookless house, strictly and austerely bookless.
In my memory he is the only book seller who actually read books. He must have made no profits in the business.
Writers have often noted the peculiar demand of their vocation. That they have to transact in used currency – the currency of words – and work on it to produce novelty. The work of literature consists largely – not entirely, though – in this. Yama, the teacher in Katha Upanishad, tells Nachiketa that immortal truth is produced by rubbing against each other, one upon the other, two pieces of (the oh-so-mortal, termite-loved) wood. For the sake of this truth, Nachiketa has spurned the offers of all wealth… all other wealth.
Perhaps here is one secret of literature’s immortality: the value that your labour’s work produces in the stuff, already available, of mundane exchange.
In this secret stands disclosed the indistinction, extremely demanding, between production and creation.
The indistinction, achieved as much as glimpsed, transfigures the nature of profit.