*Writing, especially fiction, seems like a trifle. There are people in need, others in distress

*Much writing, maybe even the best writing, is tragic

*Writing is the use of very imprecise tools — words — to help us imagine the most intimate and delicate of things — our thoughts and feelings


It will go unobserved. Maybe it deserves to. It is such a small thing in our season of disasters, but I find it difficult to write. I wonder if other writers suffer a similar constraint. Part of it is, of course, just the horror of the times. We wake up, day after day, to the news of disease and death. Writing, especially fiction, seems like a trifle. There are people in need, others in distress. We give aid and comfort where we can, highlight the concerns of those in need, and maybe silence serves best for us, for whom the pain is at a little distance.

But the problem is not just with the grief that we are surrounded with. Much writing, maybe even the best writing, is tragic. It is, after all, our pain that moves us to write as an effort to do something about it. For me, perhaps, a part of the problem is the aloneness.

Again, this seems counter-intuitive. Being solitary is no handicap for a writer. Writing requires things to make sense; we do that in many ways. But what is necessary is that the characters are logical. They need to make sense, and so does the world that they inhabit. This means, to be convincing, a writer must try and understand the characters she or he creates, and the world they live in. Sometimes this is natural and easy. At other times some small thing just does not make sense, and you have to spend hours, days, months, or even years trying to figure it out. In that sense both writing and reading are intensely solitary activities. The world we inhabit when we enter a world of fiction is accessed only through our individual imagination. We enter it alone, not in a group, because we all imagine things slightly differently.

This is the whole challenge of words. They are, at best, only an approximation. Only with mathematics are things clear, where one means one and only one. In the world that we experience, things are never so clear. For example, when we say “warm”, what does it mean? To one person it may mean 20 Celsius, to another it may mean 60 Celsius. They are both right, just as if we call an emerald green, and a ripe watermelon green, we are right, although the difference in colour is huge. This becomes that much harder when we talk of emotion. When we say somebody is friendly it can mean all sorts of things, depending on the culture and context. Two people reading the same book, by the same author, will have a completely different idea of what a “friendly” person is, even if the words are exactly the same.

Writing is the use of very imprecise tools — words — to help us imagine the most intimate and delicate of things — our thoughts and feelings. To have any chance of success, a writer must be able to observe, to identify particular ways of doing that help us see inside somebody else. And this is the aloneness of the pandemic for me. In isolating ourselves from the world, something that we must do for both our safety and for that of those around us, I am cut off from the world, from everything I require to see, assess and understand of how humans behave with each other.

Of course, we still interact with each other. Over phone, video calls, and even through social media. And yet I realise this is no substitute. On a normal day, even for somebody who does not really enjoy meeting many people, I would walk and see the world. There would be hundreds, even thousands, of interactions that I would observe. Most would be common things that do not really make any impact, but there would be a few — how a person holds their head, how somebody uses their hands while speaking, a way of walking, the way a voice lifts and falls. These are the bits and bobs of life, that I would pick up, almost unconsciously, and put away somewhere in the back of my head. Later, sitting over the plot of a novel, these are what I would draw out to see if they fit a character, a story, and how it would make sense.

Now I have almost nothing, nothing except the news of the grief that comes to us all in little waves and sometimes a flood. And, so, for my very selfish reasons, I wait for the world to become all right again, so that I can walk on the streets again, and just see and listen once again.


Omair Ahmad


Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas;

Twitter: @OmairTAhmad