The Inner Worlds of Other People
On August 2, 1914, Franz Kafka wrote in his diary, “Germany has declared war on Russia. Went swimming in the afternoon.” The war he referred to was World War 1, which went on to kill 15-16 million people over the next four years, precipitated the end of the Ottoman Empire after seven centuries of rule, and announced the arrival of America as a world power. Decades later, as biographers pored over Kafka’s enigmatic but tragically short life, this diary entry caught their eye. To some, that sentence distilled the essence of Kafka — an insouciance towards the outside world. That the unfolding butchery of World War 1 and the unremarkable rituals of a middle-class life could cohabit in the womb of his mind, like twins biding their time in the amniotic fluid of being, led them to conclude that Kafka was one cold dude.
Responding to this charge of being emotionally unresponsive, Kafka’s great biographer, Reiner Stach, explained that the truth of the matter was more subtle. What Kafka sought to record in his diaries were not events in the newspapers but their significance as the Austro-Hungarian empire — which had spread over much of continental Europe, like algae over a pond — began to crumble. When some of Kafka’s private diaries were published, they belied both: the finely cut paranoias of his published works as well as accusations of being emotionally unavailable. What they revealed was the froth, the anxieties, and the contradictions out of which burbled up Kafka the man and Kafka the author.
In his diaries, Kafka had recorded thoughts, erotic charges, and private disappointments whose factual truth weren’t hard to parse but whose meanings were difficult to fathom. In parts, this difficulty was because, like most of our private thoughts, Kafka’s too were often marked by a wariness that revealed his recognition that the old world was slowly birthing something — what exactly, he didn’t, or his diary didn’t, record. A foreboding that the ground beneath his feet was slipping away isn’t hard to infer but harder to understand was what did Kafka seek to record by the very act of diary entry. Traditionally, unlike our times where the four horsemen of social media stalk our landscape — Instagram and Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr — the only place where such reflections could be jotted down was the diary. In fact, perhaps like in the case of Kafka, the diary was often the only place where many could become themselves, unburdened by the need to pose for refinement. It is where pages could be brim with vanities and prejudices, aspirations and conspiracies.
For some, traditionally, the diary was a place to record the uneventfulness of their lives, while for others it was a portrait of an abyss they stared into. Irrespective, for most diligent diary writers, it was a companion, an addiction, a paramour that listened to their confessionals with the patience of a saint. Some others have gone about the act of diary writing in an even more deliberate manner than Kafka. By deliberate I mean they think about form and language, content, and the fear of being judged by posterity; while Kafka sought to peel away the skin of society that had stood too long in the hot shower of social hypocrisies. For example, with her typical mixture of candor and conceit, on April 20, 1919, Virginia Woolf wrote, “What sort of diary should I like mine to be?” Then, after some thinking aloud, she arrived at a proximate definition: “I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through.” For her, a diary was a storehouse of her inner fragments.
In early colonial India, many Indians began to take to writing diaries. In Tamil, among the earliest of diary-writers was a man, now well forgotten, called Guruvappa Pillai who, among other things, travelled to the court of Louis XV in Paris to complain about the French in Pondicherry who had incarcerated his father. The year was around 1717-1719. In due course, Pillai became Charles Philippe Gourouvapa, with Louis XV himself as his godfather. We learn of the adventures of Pillai from his cousin Ananda Ranga Pillai, whose diaries from the period 1736 to 1799 filled “thirteen large registers”, copies of which now reside in the venerable Bibliotheque Nationale in France.
What is striking — one is indebted to the commentary of the scholar S. Jeyaseela Stephen who translated the diaries of Rangappa Thiruvengadam Pillai, which spans the period from 1761 to 1768 — is that these diaries were written with a heavy flavour of colloquialism. To some scholars of Tamil and Indian history, this usage of common folk language has derogated the value of these historical documents. Yet, ironically, it is in these private confessionals that the history of India may reveal itself to be more radical and less conforming to the ideologies of anti-colonialism that we retroactively impose on our past.
Perhaps, a century from now, future historians will look back at our Facebook posts and Twitter feeds to discover a society that rather willingly inverted the diary-writing habits of its ancestors and began to pour its inner thoughts onto public forums. They may think it is an aberration or, if they are perspicacious, they will see it for what it truly is: a desire to find meaning, be it as a confessional or as an aesthetic exercise, in an otherwise meaningless existence. Even Kafka, that great hermetic intelligence, couldn’t resist that.