Writing Lives

The term life writing refers to a wide range of materials of self-inscription and self-representation, which includes autobiographies, biographies, life histories, diaries, memoirs, letters and journals. The existence of life writing material can be traced as far back as the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations; autobiography – undoubtedly the most popular form of self-referential writings – came into trend with St. Augustine’s Confessions1. However, the intervention of Marxist, poststructuralist and postmodern theories and cultural studies has added new dimensions to it2. The notion of a unified and coherent self has been displaced with a conceptualisation of the self as fragmented and multiple. Life writing has evolved into a highly politicised mode of inscribing human identity as people from different segments of the society (even the subaltern and marginalised sections) get an opportunity to make their voice heard and articulate their subjectivity. Today, in India, we come across life writings by dalits, tribals, servants, nuns, sex workers, actors, artists and even thieves. Special mention has to be made of experimentation with various forms of life writing by women as part of a larger project of highlighting the stark contrast between ideological constructions of women and their actual lived experiences. This is indeed a welcome development because it upholds the idea that every person’s life is worth recording and reading; traditional elitism and parochialism that were trademarks of the auto/biography genre has to be eschewed. Because, in the past, such a hegemonic world view forestalled many precious lives from being documented and we have lost them forever in the obsession with grand narratives.

Life writings are being seriously studied by scholars and researchers, cutting across the disciplinary borders of literature, anthropology, history, media studies, and sociology3. An interdisciplinary approach towards the study of life writing material has proven to be more fruitful since these narratives are now treasured as social documents, archived for future generations. Many centres of learning have started offering courses4 on life narratives; there has been a plethora of seminars, workshops conferences, journals5 in this field of study. As a result of these movements within the academic circles, traditional literary canons are now being recast to include life writings.

An earnest approach to life writing is bound to be confounded with puzzling questions. How do we define a life? How do we select a life for writing a life narrative? How do we decide which lived experience to be included in the life narrative and which one should be excluded? Whose life is worth studying: is the common man’s life as important as the life of an eminent personality? As stated earlier, autobiography is one of the most popular and frequently scrutinised forms of life writing; this form of self-referential writing had its origin in Western philosophy’s obsession with individuality and an autonomous self. Indian philosophy and subsequently the culture held the society above the individual and his/her self. In Telling Lives in India: Biography, Autobiography and Life History (2004), Stuart Blackburn and David Arnold observe that life narratives from the subcontinent have the paradigm of collectivity as their underlying theme. They surmise that this might be owing to the fact that in India, identities were founded on caste and religion; this does not mean that life writing tradition was absent in the Indian context, till the advent of Western education introduced the autobiography to us.

The tradition of autobiographical writing, as idealised by the Western Enlightenment concepts, cannot boast of a long history in India. According to Udayakumar, “the late emergence of autobiographical writing in India has been viewed at times as a sign of civilisational difference or historical lack: it has been argued that the idea of a reflective individual subject, essential for the development of the genre of self-writing, was alien to Indian culture or unavailable in the country until the colonial encounter” (419). Bhikhu Parekh elaborates: “…all forms of self – assertion, including the desire to perpetuate one’s name after death was frowned upon…Moksha, the ultimate goal of human life, consists in liberating oneself from all sense of selfhood, including that of self – conscious agency” (155). Ananda Coomarswamy adds, those who are concerned only with the development of the inner, automatically ignored and belittled the outward development of personality and self; the ultimate goal is to escape from the narrow prison of ‘I’ and ‘me’. According to him, “anonymity…is one of the proudest distinctions of the Hindu culture…and the early writers have preferred to be invisible, by ascribing the authorship to a mythical or famous poet, thereby promoting truth” (119). This position has been contested in recent years by anti and postcolonial scholarship, with a growing acknowledgement of figures of individuality in pre modern and early modern India. The turning point, however, was the Indian Nationalist Movement and the struggle for independence. Surendranath Banerjee, one of the early Indian autobiographers, remarks: “…the need for reminiscences such as these has become all the more pressing in view of recent developments in our public life when unfortunately there is a marked and perhaps a growing tendency among a certain section of our people to forget the services of our early nation – builders” (67). In the wake of nation – building, life writings very often functioned as moral treatises, as modes of interpellating the reading public by setting systems of moral standards. This strategy was particularly employed in the history textbooks for students, while recounting the lives of the prominent figures of the Indian freedom struggle6.

The protagonist’s self is redeemed by narrating certain anecdotes through which he/she is transformed and subsequently eulogised. However, life writings are ultimately meant to affirm individual self – worth; the underlying urge of all these narratives is to share one’s unique experiences with the readers and consequently, the inherent politics of self – representation and identity construction materialises. In the contemporary digital culture, life writings including autobiographies, testimonies, interviews, blogs etc have added another dimension – the evolution of a different kind of public, or culling the concept of American theorist Lauren Berlant, the intimate publics. Such intimate publics come into being “when a market opens up to a block of consumers, claiming to circulate texts and things that express those people’s particular core interests and desires” (Berlant 5). For instance, a life narrative by a Dalit acquires the magnitude of a collective story when others empathise with the subject of that narrative. As Berlant suggests, “the autobiographical isn’t personal…In the contemporary consumer public…all sorts of narratives are read as autobiographies of collective experience. The personal is the general. Publics presume intimacy”(vii). Briefly speaking, the boundaries distinguishing the two domains – the public and the private – are in the process of being disintegrated and rendered indistinctive.

Taking account of the multicultural, multilingual scenario of the Indian context, focus is on life writings from the country. This issue of the journal will explore some of the hitherto less explored or perhaps even unexplored forms of life writings like obituaries, sculptures, graffiti, painting, visual life narratives like photographs, cartoons etc. This introduction is aimed at placing Indian life writing within a historical framework and simultaneously examines the politics at play in writing lives, especially in the postcolonial context. This section will end with a thesis that life writings are to be placed within the framework of Cultural Studies with some conclusive observations.


Life writing is beset with so many challenges; assembling the diverse, complex experiences of a person into a coherent, well – knit structure creating an illusion of narrative unity is a daunting task. While there are many established conventions of telling lives, being practiced in different parts of the world, the general framework almost always remains the same. Usually a life narrative begins with genealogy, then childhood, adulthood, maturation of the individual; sometimes, extending till the death of the subject, in the case of biographies7. When the life narrative predominantly deals with traumatic experiences, a pattern or narrative structure will be more or less absent in most cases. Though the events are normally arranged chronologically, they are selected based on the discretion of the narrator/writer. The politics of life writing is basically the politics of this selection/omission process. The narrators/writers can turn out to be myth-breakers or myth-makers, depending on their respective individual agendas. The numerous life writing material on Mahatma Gandhi, including his autobiography My Experiments with Truth, illustrates this fact. Among the diverse narratives available to us about one of the most important political figures in twentieth century India, there are encomiastic biographies which iconise Gandhi as well as debunking narratives which rewrite this image of Gandhi.

According to Sidonie Smith in Reading Autobiography, it is not just about the then and now anymore; there are four different dimensions of the subject – the real/historical I, the narrating I, the narrated I, and the ideological I. The real/historical I can be located in a particular time and place; “the articulation of an ensemble of subject positions, corresponding to the multiplicity of social relations in which it is inscribed” (Mouffe 376). Traces of this dimension of the subject can be found in various social documents like institutionalised archives, family records, anecdotes in life narratives by others and so on. The narrating I is the person who tells the story of the subject from multiple points of view namely first person, second person, third person. It is important to note that the narrating I record only a part of the experiential history linked to the story that is narrated. The narrated I is the object, the protagonist of the narrative, the version of the self of the subject as presented by the narrating I. Sidonie Smith identifies these multiple ‘I’s in reference to autobiographies. The same principle, however, can be applicable to biographies as well. The critical difference is the distinction between the narrating and narrating ‘I’s; in an autobiography (or any life writing material in the first person, the two ‘I’s are the same person; while in a biography they are separate individuals.

The ideological’I, according to Paul Smith in Discerning the Subject, is the concept of personhood culturally available to the narrator when he or she tells is writing a life; an individual’s life is narrated in such a manner so as to promote some ideology or the other. An interesting case study in this regard would be that of the ‘national autobiography’. Here, the conceptualisation of a nation is treated at par with, if not with more importance than the individual; this is aimed at exploring “how the construction of a new self is linked with the construction of a new polity, a new world” (Holden 7). Again, Mahatma Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth can be treated as a good example; the growth of an individual, identified as the father of the nation, parallels the growth of national consciousness and the achievement of an independent nation-state. In such narratives, often merges with the ‘we’.

While investigating the politics of life writing, this introduction will focus primarily on the ideological I and the factors that influence its evolution. The reading public has a huge influence on the presentation of a subject; the selection and omission of certain lived experiences by authors, the preference given to certain ‘saleable’ selves by editors and publishers – are, to a large extent, governed by the market, or more specifically, the reading public which comprises the market. This does not mean that the politics behind writing a life is limited to market forces and profit margins. Life narratives can be considered as potent and prevailing ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) and sites where subjectivities are constructed. Thus, every life narrator becomes an ideologue and life writing becomes a medium of interpellation. In The Development of Greek Biography (1971), Momigliano remarks that Western life writing was an “instrument of imperial propaganda” (48) or “a vehicle for unorthodox political and philosophic ideas” (96); it could be “the natural [that is, officially sanctioned] form of telling the story of a ‘Caesar’ or a capital offense under the tyranny of Domitian” (99-100). The life narrator, in short, functions as an agent of the hegemonic or counter – hegemonic bloc and thereby, attempting to manipulate civil society through his or her literature. As result of this ideological intervention, the image of the subject is being constantly made and unmade in the discursive space; the so-called ‘real’ subject is languishing elsewhere, unwilling to be revealed. The life narrative is transformed into a cultural artifact in which various ideologies are hailed or contested. Sometimes narrators employ direct ideological propaganda and at other times, it is executed via various narrative strategies.

In the case of biographies, there is always the question: on whose behalf is the biographer speaking? A lot of elements are at play here: the ideology and norms which constructed the biographee’s identity, the values which are a part of the biographer’s identity/ self etc. In some cases, the narrated I’s ideology and the narrating I’s ideology complement each other but on other occasions, they inevitably contradict one another. Life narrators sometimes take a conscious effort to omit, certain controversial and questionable episodes in the lives of their subjects, from their narrative. A careful analysis of these so-called ‘gaps’ may help bring to light the narrator’s ideological inclinations as triggering motives. Every life narrative, thus, turns into an ideological, textual site of power-play. It is safe to say that writing lives involves politics and such documents are far from being neutral, objective or ‘truthful’.


Even though the practice of life writing was prevalent in the Indian subcontinent way before the advent of the British, the literary form of the autobiography had a profound impact upon those natives who had the privilege of a Western education; they embraced this form as a vehicle to construct the modern Indian subjectivity. This ‘modern’ self was pitted against the passive ‘Eastern’ self, which believed in self-sacrifice. People who wanted to talk about their memories of the repressive force of colonialism and the subsequent trauma, resorted to the autobiographical narrative as their medium. Postcolonial autobiographies became potent discourses of resistance, used to ‘write back to the centre’. Horung and Ruhe, in Postcolonialisrn and Autobiography, unveils: “Autobiography in its widest definition seems to provide a convenient genre to embrace the crossroad cultures from East and West and to launch an emancipatory political and cultural program” (qtd. in Huddart 3). David Huddart highlights the role of postcolonial theory in celebrating other subjectivities by “displacing universalised subjectivities associated with Western thought” (4).

The late 1980s witnessed the collation of two areas of scholarship, which were hitherto running along parallel tracks – postcolonial studies and auto/biographical studies. Issues such as power, culture and identity politics put auto/biographical texts and practices within the rubric of postcolonial studies. At this juncture, the generic and theoretical constraints contained within the term ‘autobiography’ became a burden for the natives. This has subsequently initiated a project of deconstructing the auto/biography as we know it, within the purview of poststructuralism and postcolonialism. Thus, the auto/biography widens its framework to include new hybrid forms, which result from a mixing of genres – autoethnography, testimonio, prison memoirs8 etc. become powerful modes of asserting identity for the postcolonial subjects. Postcolonial life writings have emerged as discourses of protest and acts of ‘truth-telling’ from the point of view of the colonised. As scholarship evolved, every life started to be considered as worthy of documentation.


The study of life narratives in our cultural context pose a complex situation before the researcher because we need to be very cautious of the theoretical tools employed. It is not easy to pinpoint one theory and the most viable alternative is to accept the cultural differences and look for fresh approaches. There is a tendency to adopt Western theoretical approaches, without due consideration for suitability and viability. The need of the hour is to recast existing (pre – dominantly Western) approaches into a more flexible ethnic, indigenous mould. I would argue that bringing life writing within the purview of Cultural Studies is important in the Indian context and some of the entries in the journal corroborate it. At the same time, there is a crying need to develop indigenous theoretical approaches, keeping in mind disparate issues like ethnicity, race, class, gender etc. which are unique in our multicultural context.

Conventional narrative patterns and structures of power may be revised, through the policy of accommodation; every voice, including same sex and transgender shall get space to inscribe their subjectivities. However, celebration of such differences may be possible only by deconstructing or recasting the existing theories which are predominantly Eurocentric. In South Asia, life writings by queer, transgender and the other subaltern groups are creating a niche of their own in academic discourse as well as the market; as readers how do we analyse these texts? Do they bring to the fore the need for a separate aesthetics to study such life texts? The answer is in the affirmative; subaltern and luminal life writings need a separate aesthetics as they cannot be studied within the framework of mainstream culture. It is a known fact that writings of the so-called ‘othered’ groups focus on the question of identity and are often narratives of protest. Dalit life narratives may be taken as a case here and we need to develop a separate and unique Dalit aesthetics, keeping in mind the Dalit consciousness. Sharankumar Limbale in Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature (2007) rightly argues that it is inappropriate to approach Dalit literature from a “reverential and sympathetic perspective” (103) as middle class criticism cannot evaluate them properly. On the other hand, Dalit literature may be considered as a movement, “a vehicle for their pain, sorrow, questions and problems” (105). It is rather a “life – affirming literature. All the strands of this literature are tied to life” (105).

A new aesthetics for subaltern life narratives as well as those writings from South Asia has to be developed from ‘within, taking into consideration our cultural diversity. Cultural studies approach may be the first step towards that goal. However, dismantling of Western theoretical structures may be a radical step and it would suffice if we deconstruct some of the approaches, in view of the diverse cultural background. If we can develop our own indigenous approaches to analyse different stories without the Western theoretical baggage, it would be very fine. Instead of looking at the conventional narrative patterns and aesthetic elements, or rather the ‘literariness,’ we may give emphasis on life writings as outpourings of lived experiences. Indeed, language (mainstream, so as to cater to common readers), is the handicap of many a subject, and they are more often forced to borrow the voice of the writers. So the in such narratives may have the influence of the writer who is the ‘other,’ and very often autobiography tends to become a biography in which the ideological predilections of the latter are forcefully and sometimes rather clandestinely incorporated. Then what is the predicament of the subject? Cultural life writing studies approach has the potential to discover rich areas within our native cultures which were hitherto ignored or overlooked. In fact, life writing offers a minefield of knowledge upon which valuable discourses may be generated.


In the context of globalisation, life writing acquires different dimensions – due to the free flow of information, people and commodities cross borders all the time; national borders have become porous and identities fluid. Today, we witness cultural assimilation and hybridisation. On the other hand, such threats posed by globalisation have effected a reverse trend also – the tendency to assert one’s identity. Needless to mention, the role of life narratives in celebrating diverse identities is undeniable. A sound knowledge of our culture and the individuals’ life experiences form our rich cultural heritage and we owe much to our past. We cannot cut the umbilical cord of the past. Reading of life narratives is an act of sharing and it vindicates concern of fellow human beings. Life narratives are mirrors which reflect our cultures, through which we see our faces which sometimes look good and sometimes distorted!

In view of the growing importance of life writing studies, this special number is conceived in such a manner that it is an ensemble of articles, translations and interviews by a crop of young researchers in this field. The present volume includes twenty one entries and they are conveniently divided into seven thematic sections – identity, women’s life writing, nationalism, memory, life writing and visual culture, life writing in translation and interviews. In each section, the theme is introduced first which is followed by a brief introduction to the concerned entries. It may also be added that the thematic divisions are flexible and they are closely connected.


1. St. Augustine’s Confessions (4th century AD) tells the story of St Augustine’s conversion into Christianity. This involves a process of physical and spiritual wandering, as Augustine charts his development from babyhood to manhood and a journey which takes him from his birth place in Thagaste, in North Africa, to Carthage where he taught rhetoric, to Rome and then Milan where his conversion finally happens. As his biographer Peter Brown has suggested it is a “strictly intellectual autobiography” and “a manifesto of the inner world” (qtd. in Anderson 20).

2. With the advent of postmodernism and other theoretical approaches, the unified self promoted by the Enlightenment was replaced by the modern self which is disunited and fragmentary. ‘1’ is multiple and slippery and thus life narratives are approached and analysed from different perspectives. Whose life is worth recording is an age old question. In the past, life historians chose only the lives of the so-called ‘great’ and ‘famous’ to narrate. Samuel Johnson was perhaps one of the early critics who challenged this notion and he argued that any life was worth recording and it was not proper to stick to a hierarchy in selecting lives for narration. In modern period, and today we can see that anybody can write one’s life and publish it. It may be added that with the digital revolution, people have the opportunity to publish and share their experiences online through forms like blogs and social networking sites like Facebook. We know that such a democratic trend is a welcome change.

3. Of late, social scientists have started giving due seriousness to life writings, mainly to explore certain questions concerning cultures, which include the views of the minorities, behaviour patterns of certain ethnic groups etc.

4. In India, in the post 1990s period, one can see so many universities like EFLU, Delhi University, Mahatma Gandhi University etc. including life narratives as part of their syllabi. Dalit writings is an area which is taught across various universities in India. Autobiography is perhaps the most popular area which is studied and researchers from different disciplines have done commendable work in areas like autobiography, biography, slave narratives etc.

5. The journal a/b:Auto/Biography Studies is published biannually by the Department of English, University of North Carolina. The back issues may be accessed via the journal’s home page: http://facstaff.uww.edu/ hoganj/ab.htm. Another useful journal, Auto/Biography is the bulletin of the British Sociological Association Study Group on Auto/Biography whereas biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly is published by the Centre for Biographical Research, University of Hawai, Manoa. Index is available on the journal’s homepage: http://www.hawaii.edu/uhpress/journals/ biography. Other journals which deal with topics from life writing include Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, Prose Studies, Narrative and Mosaic.

6. Several life narratives, especially children’s biographies of great people are aimed at disciplining children which ultimately implicate them in the process of constructing a nation. In fact, they function as moral treatises, cultural apparatus aimed at moral edification and social conditioning. Here, Gandhi’s life stories may be taken as good example as they teach children the importance of imbibing certain redeeming values such as truth and non-violence. Anant Pal’s Amarchitrakatha series is a striking example which informs the readers about the need for preserving certain perennial values and qualities followed by certain characters, both fictional and historical.

7. It is taken for granted that every biography and autobiography starts with genealogy and family where a subject’s roots are traced. In fact, it is of zero point origin for the life in question. Robert Elbaz argues that during the eighteenth century, “this concept of zero point had extended from the realm of the individual self to that of the social whole” (70). Natalie Zemon Davis suggests that in sixteenth century France, the family system played the double function of placing persons within a patriarchal structure while positioning them within a larger social field (53-63). For more details, see the works, Robert Elbaz’s The Changing Nature of the Self: A Critical Study of the Autobiographical Discourse. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1987. Print and Natale Zemon Davis’. “Boundaries and the Sense of Self in Sixteenth Century France.” Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality in Western Thought. eds. Thomas C. Heller, Morton Sosna, and David E. Wellbery. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1986. Print.

8. Prison writings have often been an act of political resistance. Narratives of self-generated from prisons formed a rich corpus of life writing in South Asia and such self-perceptions of middle class prisoners contributed substantially to Indian life histories (Arnold 29). In India, prison narratives ranged from jail diaries to polemical pieces to be published in newspapers and they appeared between 1890s and 1940s, i.e., during the freedom struggle. It is an undeniable fact that occasional incarceration forced many activists cum writers to “redefine their sense of identity and purpose, particularly in relation to the prison’s other inmates, the officials, warders and convicts … appeared illustrative of the nature of state and society under colonial rule . . . (31). Among the prison writings in South Asia, autobiography forms a vast corpus and we have Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth as a good example. V. D. Savarkar’s account of his imprisonment in the notorious Cellular Jail at Port Blair is a narrative of more than five hundred pages. “The prison becomes the nation, or rather the nation in the making, populated by heroes as well as demons . . .” (41). Thus, prison symbolises not only the “callous brutality of the colonial regime,” but also “the defiant suffering of India’s imprisoned youth. . .” (41). The Autobiography of Malcolm X ( 1965), of an African-American convict is a world famous prison writing, so is Selections from the Prison Notebooks by the Italian Marxist and political theorist, Antonio Gramsci. ‘Witnessing’ may be regarded as a sub-genre of testimonial writing, an” … act of being present to observe or to give testimony on something, witnessing is relevant to issues of how subjects respond to trauma. . .” (Smith 207). According to Kelly Oliver, ‘witnessing’ has “the double sense of testifying to something that you have seen with your own eyes and bearing witness to something that you cannot see.” (18). Such narratives are usually addressed to another person, real or imagined, with the possibility of a response.


Arnold, David and Stuart Blackburn. eds. Telling Lives in India: Biography, Autobiography and Life History. Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004. Print.

Banerjee, Surendranath. A Nation in the Making. Delhi: Oxford UP, 1925. Print.

Berlant, Lauren Gail. The Female. Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 2008. Print.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda. The Dance of Shiva. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1982. Print.

Epstein, William. H. Ed. Contesting the Subject: Essays in the Postmodern Theory and Practice of Biography and Biographical Criticism. Indiana: Purdue UP, 1991. Print.

Holden, Philip. Autobiography and Decolonisation: Modernity, and the Nation -State. London: U of Wiscousin P, 2008. Print.

Huddart, David. Postcolonial Theory and Autobiography. London: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Kumar, Uday. “Autobiography as Way of Writing History: Personal Narratives in Kerala.” History in the Vernacular. ed. Raziuddin Aquil and Partha Chatterjee. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2008. Print.

Limbale, Sharankumar. Towards An Aesthetic of Dalit Literature. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan, 2010. Print.

Momigliano, Arnaldo. The Development of Greek Biography. Cambridge Mass: Harvard UP, 1971. Print.

Mouffe, Chantal. “Feminism, Citizenship, and Radical Democratic Politics”. Feminists Theorize the Political, eds. Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott, 369-84. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Parekh, Bikhu, “Indianisation of Autobiography.” Debating Gandhi A Reader. Ed. Raghuramaraju A. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

Smith, Paul. Discerning the Subject. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988. Print.

Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. London: U of Minnesota P, 2001. Print.\


RAJESH V. NAIR. Is Assistant Professor of English, Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam.

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Is Assistant Professor of English, Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam.

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