The Quintessential Interview

This week I interviewed the two most illustrious people I’ve had the privilege to interact with, within the city- Professor Rana Nayar (Department of English, Panjab University) and his wife Aruti Nayar (Editor-in-Chief at Spectrum, The Tribune). They’re both literary veterans and have affected countless lives in the city with their words and work.
This was evidently the happiest I have been while conducting an interview because the two of them radiate the most extraordinary ebullience and affection.

“Well I’ve been in the teaching profession for the past thirty five years.”
“And I’ve been in the field of journalism for the past twenty three years.”

Q: What made you take the decision you did, regarding your career? Was it something about your childhood?
Mr. Nayar: Let me be very honest about it, I wasn’t very clear about my profession when I was in school or college and in our days there was no scope for any kind of counselling, it was more of a family decision as to what you were going to be. And my family didn’t decide what I should be, they decided what I should not be. They wanted me not to become an Engineer; it was expected of me to go into Engineering because I had sciences. But I just drifted into Arts in college, did Economics Honours, NOT because I wanted to, but because English Honours wasn’t available in our college.
(He breaks off into a roar of laughter, while she looks at me and smiles with an expression that reads, ‘the usual.’)
And then I landed up in Baring Union Christian College, a small college near Amritsar, it had a very good
reputation, especially their English Department. Even today when I tell this to people they find it rather intriguing that I left the University in Amritsar for a small college on the outskirts. But they had a very fascinating profile, every year they used to admit some 20 students for the M.A. course, and that’s what made them so exclusive and every year, the topper from M.A. English used to be from that college so that’s what attracted me. That’s when I came in contact with some very fine teachers, who shaped the person I am today and also motivated me to become one. So it was rather late in the day that I decided to become a teacher. But it was a conscious decision, in that I said no to becoming a civil servant. My father always wanted me to be one, like most middle class parents and I was quite a rebel, I told him that I won’t become a civil servant?because he wanted me to be one.

Mrs. Nayar: I was always good at English and I started writing even before I passed out of school. And I started publishing my work in The Tribune. There’s usually a gap after tenth when you join college so my mother said, “Why don’t you learn some stitching?” And I refused, saying that the tailors’ mustn’t run out of business. I wanted to write. I used to write in my diary and I used to read a lot; loads of classics. I had a very good rapport with the Irish nuns, who taught in my school, so they gave me books and encouraged me to express myself. What truly made me serious about my decision to be a writer was an English assignment in Class 5. It required us students to imagine ourselves to be Jo, the lead in Little Women, a book by Louisa May Alcott, and write something. So I ended up writing a very moving letter about Jo’s father’s homecoming. I used to write so passionately even about the simplest of things, like polar bears. I called them the monarchs of the arctic.
I wanted to publish, so I wrote to the Editor, The Tribune, asking him whether they would accept an article written by a 16 year old; and?I got a reply very soon. He said that merit is the only consideration. So my first article was published when I was 16 but till then I hadn’t thought of becoming a journalist. When I finished college, we got married. It was a year into my Masters in Psychology, that I left it and after my daughter was born, I finished my Masters in English from Panjab University through correspondence. And contrary to him, my heart was just never set on teaching. I mean, it’s the same content year after year, honestly. After my Masters I wrote to The Tribune and got selected and gradually, in my own way I realized that I’m just a drop in the ocean, if I’m not making a difference with what I write. Women empowerment and revolution was always very close to my heart.

Q: How did you land up in Chandigarh?
Mr. Nayar: Well I think I just had to. It wasn’t much of a choice really, more of an economic push that brought me here. I landed up in Simla, at St. Bede’s, in search of a job. And I had simultaneously been trying to get into Panjab University, because that would’ve meant coming to my own state and it was closer home. It was with my third try in 1999 that I got the job.

Mrs. Nayar: When I finished college, we got married. And it was a year into my Masters in Psychology, that I left it and after my daughter was born, I finished my Masters in English from Panjab University through correspondence. And contrary to him, my heart was just never set on teaching. I mean, it’s the same content year after year, honestly. After my Masters I wrote to The Tribune and got selected and gradually, in my own way I realized that I’m just a drop in the ocean, if I’m not making a difference with what I write. Women empowerment and women’s issues have always been very close to my heart.

Q: (to Mrs. Nayar) Were there any hardships that you encountered, being a woman who chose journalism at a time when it wasn’t mainstream?
Not really, because it was at a very crucial juncture in the sense that, a month before my joining The Tribune, my father passed away. And it got very difficult with the hours I had to put in but everyone was very supportive. Rana has always stood by me to help me optimize my potential. But it was hard, because the kids had to be left in the creche but he would get back home early and he pitched in completely. From the time the kids were born to raring them. In fact it’s been an interesting reversal of roles; he says he’s been more of a mother and I’ve been more of a father. And I find it rather amusing to read all these articles nowadays about ‘the new age man’ but back then in the eighties when gender roles were so clearly defined he used to say, “They’re my kids, that’s all.”

Q: (to Mrs. Nayar) What is your opinion on the ‘quality versus mass appeal’ debate?
You’ve got to make a distinction, it all depends on your target audience. But this is true for any audience, using difficult words or jargon hinders communication. You shouldn’t be showing off your knowledge, the aim should be to communicate your thoughts, feelings, or perspective towards the target audience. Toning down is different from dumbing down. You should just be able to build up an argument.
However, as a woman I’ve seen that they are generally dismissive of us. Now of course, there are a lot more women in journalism than there were twenty years ago. It was just presumed that women will write on ‘softer’ topics like fashion or culture and not politics, international relations or economics. Now it’s a paradox, more women have come in but subsequently the space has shrunk. Nowadays, in the newspapers, articles are shorter, pictures are bigger. I think when you do that, when you purposefully dumb your work down, you underestimate the intellect of your readers. And ultimately it’s about the connect, when people give you feedback. They say, “Journalism is literature in a hurry.” Anyone who picks up the newspaper should comprehend the information.
I feel the purpose of journalism has been lost. Earlier it was about reaching out to people, education, information. Journalists were crusaders, they said that it (journalism) was the fourth pillar after Executive, Legislature and Judiciary. It’s not the ‘watch-dog of democracy’ anymore, it’s the ‘lap-dog’ now.

Q: (to Mr. Nayar)?What sort of change has there been in the traditional writers and the contemporary ones??And do you think that English as a language has lost its essence?

Well I’d say there’s been a very stark decline in the quality of writing. I find it very difficult to read the contemporary writers. I am for the classics, because they’re forever, you can turn to them anytime. Dickens, Virginia Woolf to name a few. As far as the current lot is concerned, I can say that there’s been a clear deterioration in the style of writing, because language is one thing that a lot of people take for granted. Not many people work on their language, they think they know their language. I’m probably saying that because I learnt it the hard way; I didn’t go to a convent. Children forget that reading and writing are two activities that have to go on simultaneously. They don’t practice their writing enough, which is primarily the reason for their thin engagement with the written word. The printed word has become ‘unfashionable’ as they call it now and consequently their competence levels have been affected.
There is one thing that I have learnt about language. If you don’t have ideas, then language becomes a poor substitute for it. And if you do have ideas and limited language, you can still carry them off.

As far as the essence of the language is concerned, it is a dynamic entity. And now there isn’t any English, there are Englishes. There was a time when there was just Queen’s English but now that is dead with all the colonies gone. Now there’s Tamil English, Bengali English, Marathi English, Punjabi English, Hinglish, American, Canadian and the like. We have to respect that diversity. Linguists will say that this is how it has to be.

Q: A word of advice that you’d like to give to young writers.
Mrs. Nayar: They must read. There’s no substitute for reading. They should try different authors and styles so that they know what’s being done and then locate themselves somewhere in that. There’s no point writing in a vacuum, oblivious to what is happening around. Secondly, there is no shortcut for hard-work. A bit of humility will do them good. There’s always a lot to learn, to imbibe, to assimilate. They must give themselves exposure to world literature and different kinds of writing.
And for aspiring journalists, a code of conduct must be followed. Even though journalism is no longer a mission, there’s always a certain amount of sanctity to it. You are performing the function of representing the society. If you want to make money don’t become a journalist, become a businessman. You must have a deep commitment and personal integrity. Focus on a lot of people, there’s a lot happening behind the limited number of people that newspapers cover. Cut out the sensationalism, you have your 24×7 news channels for that. Never compromise on your work, as a journalist. We’re having a moral crises in journalism, papers are being run by the corporates. We must strive to change that. And for the locals, it’s important to give Chandigarh a character of its own now that there are generations that have been born here and aren’t immigrants.

Mr. Nayar: I ditto what she said. And just because you know how to write, doesn’t mean that you’re a writer. One has to work very hard on evolving a distinctive style and voice. You become a writer not when you learn to string sentences together, you become a writer when you acquire a definite voice. And that’s a lifelong project! A lot of commitment and reading. Also, Elliot said, “If you’re a poet at 18, everyone’s a poet at 18. The emotional journey at that age makes a poet out of you. And if you’re still a poet at 25, you should start taking yourself seriously.”

  • 18. Writer. Theatre Artist. Liberal thinker and 2am philosopher (with a terrible sense of humour, you've probably figured that out already). Still contemplating which side to be on, in the feminism debate. My write-ups are my mirrors; for the information I don't cover in them, there are always wordpress information boxes.

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