A while ago I was trying to dream up a story. In the story, my young hero’s sister has an arranged marriage and moves to the United States from India. I could dream up the humdrum of the colourful wedding, of the bridal finery, of the perspective of the female protagonist’s reaction to the whole cacophonous affair. But as my mind travelled to the inside of this sister’s head, I drew a blank.
What was going through our sister’s head moving to a new country with a strange man? Did she feel powerless not being able to be the engine of her own destiny? Did she feel empowered by the social status that a good groom and a good marriage bestowed on her? Did she feel lost? Did she feel regret at not having pursued her studies or training further on her own? What would she do now?
Sure there are lots of stories out there involving women from the East having arranged marriages moving to either the “freedom” of the West or to complete alienation and isolation in a foreign land. They are all creatures of destiny driven by systems of male dominance or convention going through the kind of arranged marriages that were probably a reality in my grandparents’ generation. Maybe not even then was life so lacking in nuance and three dimensionality as some of those stories would suggest.
So what could be the story of my contemporary generation?
My whole intention here was to imagine a character that would not be a stereotype, that would be a round character, not flattened out by what society would have us believe, simplistically speaking, be what is.
But here I drew a blank as I realized I had never known any such person myself. All the Indian women I knew had come to the US for higher studies, had led a graduate student life in their initial days, had not even remotely tied their destinies to an unknown person in a foreign country. Hence, I had nothing to draw on to build this character. Yet I knew there was lots here. Lots that could turn into a story. But the gap in familiarity was huge.
So I let this character go for the time being and tried another track.
One is a man from a middle-class family in India who studies to become an engineer. Driven by his ambitious mother whose personal ambitions were thwarted once she got married at age nineteen, he is a mediocre student who studies fourteen hours a day to get into an engineering college and finally makes it to the USA for higher studies. (And perhaps gets married to our hero’s sister as a good prize for his efforts without having to take away much from his fourteen hours of studies for dating purposes. Maybe his mother finds the match through the internet?)
I realized that this man is almost completely a stereotype. Does he exist? He does exist as the social pressure driven “nerd” character derived from Indian and American TV shows, newspaper accounts of the rare suicides of young men disappointed during engineering entrance exams, and general ideas floating around my world. I did not know very many people personally who were like this. Hence this was probably an exact reproduction of a stereotype that I could describe only as an outsider.
The other man is someone who has grown up in a very liberal atmosphere, has not been able to fit this type of the conservative, useful, socially productive man, spends his time hanging out at the alternate movie theatres of the city, writes mediocre poetry, looks at all social constraints with disdain but is acutely aware of the ideals of masculinity in his contemporary world that has taken a turn for the former man who he comes face to face within my story.
Now this man I know. I have known dozens of such men. If I put such a man in my story, he would take over the story and eat up all my other characters. The stereotypes would have a hard time surviving faced with flesh-and-blood characters I’ve known.
Now what is a writer to do? The inside of the head is not a good enough space to find real people in. And you find no one there who you have not already met in the real world.
- Does this mean that a writer should go out there and meet as many kinds of people as possible?
- Is living in the inside of your head bad for dreaming up characters?
- Do imagined people come from the inside of the head who just need some layers to be added to fit the world of the story?
- Or rather, do characters come from the outside world we inhabit? Do we simply process them through our story-telling mind as a window pane frames a view?
- Is real memory of people and places an absolute necessity as a vital fodder for the imagination?
- Is social isolation and long hours of isolated work bad nourishment for the storyteller’s mind?
- Or does an isolated writer produce fewer but intense characters and a “social” writer produce a world teeming with people?
- Or might it be that isolated writers simply write stories that are different from the “social” writers?
I know that there is no one simple answer to these questions. I guess I’m just trying to understand the effect of isolation or its reverse, a social presence, on writing.