Molly Gloss’s The Grinnell Method, and other thoughts

It’s so difficult to not sound grand when you begin something. Especially when you write. That, if anything, is the prime marker for our times, and the central source of conflict: avoiding sounding like you’re about to change the world with your sentences. If anyone still labours under such an idea, I have difficulty imagining what could drive them to write, or think that way.

It’s easier said than done, however, for intrinsic to any kind of writing is a desire to produce a sequence of words, and various strings of meaning, that is different from anything else that has come before. And any kind of desire is utopian in some way or the other, even when it seeks self-effacement. 

The literature of self-effacement is often mistaken for the impulse for non-involvement. The only way you can make sense of the bewildering array of data today accosting you from every direction is detachment. It’s a dicey game: you veer too much in one direction and you’re prone to miss what is lying under your nose. You involve yourself too much and again, you’re liable to miss out on seemingly smaller details, which might reveal themselves later to be more relevant than you’d initially thought.

Take Molly Gloss’s novella ‘The Grinnell Method’ as a case in point: it is littered with references to birds, techniques and a way of measuring the world that might seem irrelevant to people who are too busy with other things to pay much heed to them. The story is about a woman who takes notes and makes sketches of birds systematically. She does not betray much in the way of emotion if the tone of the novella is anything to go by. But in her systematic approach, and in her very detachment, we find a deeper need to negate the self when encountering the Other. It might not be entirely possible, and language, in its very nature, precludes absolute interference with the world. But she tries. And in trying, she bares an essential side to her being that transcends the scientist, the note-maker, the recluse: she is trying to make sense of the world by paying meticulous attention to those who are voiceless: the birds, and the waterfowl. In them is a key to understanding not just her predicament as a woman who desperately wants to be heard in an establishment that actively ignores woman voices, but also something much larger, more inscrutable: the silence, that blessed silence that permeates everything, that can be ‘heard’ in a sense if we are to just root the small silences out of everything that goes unrepresented and unnoticed under the heft of more ‘pressing’ concerns.

Molly Gloss’s timely novella – timely, in spite of being published in 2012 – brings to mind something more recent. In the school shootouts at Peshawar, Pakistan, some 180 school children died as they were murdered by insurgents seeking revenge. Calling the act ‘unprecedented’ would be damning those very children who were its victims with sensationalist brand of media mystique. Any thinking and reasonably aware human being knows that such events have been happening, are happening, in various guises across the globe. This is not to take away from the gravity of the situation, but merely to drive home the callousness of the adjectives showered upon such incidents. They are nothing new. Whether they could have been avoided or not is a different matter altogether, and will depend upon your own ideologies.

Nevertheless, it was thought provoking, even more so in light of yet another event that took place almost parallely: an oil spill at the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans in West Bengal, home to several rare species of animals and plants, chief among them perhaps the Bengal Tiger and a certain rare species of Dolphin. 

There have been countless deaths since, I’m certain, but the social networks had been awash with news of just the former. Not a single ‘status update’ seemed concerned with the latter. As an aside, I’d like to point out that that’s exactly what it feels like nowadays: the status updates are divorced from the people themselves in their throwaway quality, emerging as entities as if of their own volition, with the recklessness and exuberance of human emotion. It’s as if the social collective are all simply machines trying out all the possible permutations and combinations, like that age old fable of monkeys trapped in a room with typewriters, churning out all the works of literature by pure probability.

One would expect even a single such proclamation to be sympathetic to the plight of the ecological life in the Sunderbans, but sadly that was not the case. I am aware of the dangers of taking such a view. I had not made such a notion public, not out of fear at a backlash, the possibility of which was certain, but because I’d come across as being yet another soulless activist about to use a sensitive event as an excuse to have my say about the general indifference plaguing the masses when it comes to matters concerning the non-human world.

But isn’t it a sign of political naivete to ignore one at the cost of the other? The media would have us believe that whatever it sees fit to be news is all the news there is,but we know better, ironically enough thanks to these very social networks which have been such a boon in dispensing with disparate chinks of information, eclectic as they are.

All of these bits and pieces form an elaborate, beautiful, often bewildering tapestry that begs to be evaluated as a whole. It is only then that the individual pieces can be interpreted in relief. I do not think I am unfair in my analysis of this plight, despite being certain that I am guilty of ignoring far too much that falls outside my current intellectual radar.

We return then to Molly Gloss’s novella, which I’d initially meant to be the chief subject of this article, but look how I’ve deviated. I am now sitting in a bus chock full of people. I wanted to say ‘cackling’, ‘sonorous’, ‘bombastic’, but then I’d be falling victim to that same wrongheaded fascination with adjectives. How many of them are bothered about Peshawar? How many with dolphins in some backwater region populated with thousands eking out a frugal existence, co-existing with Nature? If I am to stay sane, I have to tell myself, and I have to believe: several. Or at least enough. ‘Enough’ will do, for now.

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