M is for Money: 500 pounds a year
Money is important; we all realise this in life, but is it essential for the creation of art?
Think about this scenario for a moment: from now on, for the rest of your life, you are paid Rs. 50000 a month. Come rain or hail, snow or sunshine, you will be paid this money. It’s not winning the lottery, it’s even better; by no means will it afford you luxury, but it will fulfill almost every need a person can have while living a nice life. At times you may have a job, at times not, but this amount keeps coming in. The value of this money is subjective of course: to some, it may mean unprecedented indulgence, and to others, a tiny dent in what they might already have. Yet it can’t be denied that this money will cover a good room in an apartment, basic monthly utilities, and even a bit of going out.
What comfort of mind does this money afford you?
For a woman to write fiction, Virginia Woolf said, she must have 500 pounds a year and a room of her own. 500 pounds a year would mean a very comfortable life for a woman at the time, and hence here we started with the amount of Rs. 50000 a month. Writing fiction, on the other hand, may largely be understood to mean creating art, or following a passion, with the intent to put it out in the world. It could be photography or painting or music and doesn’t necessarily have to apply to writing alone. For all these activities require a degree of seclusion and introspection, especially if one were to attempt to monetize it: a room of one’s own.
Money certainly can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you many important things that make it much easier for the creation of art. Money can buy you time, which you may then utilise in pursuing these interests. Money can buy you the comfort of not doing certain chores. It can buy you the freedom of mind when it is not thinking of making ends meet. So if now until forever, you have fifty-thousand rupees coming to you every month, will it make it easier to write that book? To think about perfecting a craft that you so often think about but always push out of your mind - perfect it enough in order to be able to monetise it?
When I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in university, it felt like a mind-blowing realisation that there is so much at work in the world that we don’t always see, that meritocracy might be a wobbly myth, and that certain people are able to take bigger chances because they have less at stake. It felt transformational. So much was impossible, I felt, if there wasn’t money. Money was needed to follow dreams.
And yet, a couple of semesters later, another teacher taught us and said something that struck more of a chord. Criticising Virginia Woolf, she talked about what 500 pounds a year could mean. Sure, the comfort, the security, the access to more art and education, the ability to say no to what is unappealing, and yet, she said, art is born in poverty. In the face of marginality and oppression, the will for art and expression is stronger than ever. How else could Dalit writing have made waves over the years? How else could the desire for expression through rap and hip-hop in Mumbai’s slums have taken Bollywood by storm? “For genius like Shakespeare is not born amongst labouring, uneducated, servile people”, Woolf had said, but how are then India’s most meteoric rises found in labouring, uneducated people?
There is no way that I’m romanticising poverty and lack of means, no way that I’m pointing out a silver lining. Money is important; we all realise this in life, but is it essential for the creation of art?
‘The first dissent to oppression always comes from a place of privilege,’ says Indu, the protagonist of my recently released fiction novel, Once upon a Curfew. “Did you expect a little girl to rise from the ranks of slum dwellers and become the Prime Minister?” She’s confident that only a place of privilege, a room of one’s own, can bring about a real change. However, she is slowly disenchanted when the Emergency is imposed and her idol abuses the powers given to her.
Money is a slippery notion; at the outset, it seems to run everything in the world, and yet time and again we realise that the most important things in life have nothing to do with money at all. Many are taught that it is a necessary evil. The more of it one possesses, the more it seems to provide a great life, paying for indulgences and experiences that make life better. But this very act of bettering life with more money ends up destroying it, as more money necessarily leads to more consumption, which then spirals into an endless loop of wishes and gratification. Where then is the space for art?
So are 500 pounds a year and a room of one’s own really needed if a woman is to write fiction? Perhaps. Very often, lost in the hustle of household chores and family, it’s unlikely that women find a few hours to themselves in the day. In my novel, Indu decides to open a private library for women, a space for them and them alone. And 500 pounds a year, well… I remain convinced - of course, material wealth is a great platform for kickoff, but the best of art comes from a place of poverty and oppression. You only have to know the story of a certain boy wizard to be sure.