Jaywalk on Razor’s Edge

Montréal street art (Photo by Jody Freeman)

Dennis van Zuijlekom, Cutting Edge – From flickr under creative commons license: Share, Adapt.


A couplet from the ancient Indian philosophical tracts, the Upanishads, has been familiar to the western world for a long time as it appears in the epigraph of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, The Razor’s Edge. It reads:

The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over;
thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.

The translation makes me confused. The original Sanskrit verse in Kathopanishad ends with the words, kabayo badanti. Literally, it means “the poets say.” The Bengali translation by poet Rabindranath Tagore leaves no doubt about that. But why did Maugham – or maybe his guru Maharshi Raman – translate it as “the wise say?”

I am in a dilemma. Not over which word is appropriate – ‘wise’ or ‘poet.’ The question that stirs me is: can both Maugham and Tagore be right? Can both words be appropriate here? Maybe it depends just on the way you look at it. Who can meditate that the path to salvation – or liberation (now I am changing a word in the translation) – can only be compared to a razor’s edge? One who is wise, or one who is a poet? Can one attain this realisation through the acquisition of knowledge and processing of the knowledge through rational thinking, or by daring to transcend through poetic suspension of rationality?

Maybe I could solve this problem some day. But before that, it pulls and plunges me into another more severe problem from which I see absolutely no respite. Can it be that there is no duality here at all? The wise and the poet might be the same person. Maybe the poet is the wisest person in the world, and hence knows what it takes for one to attain liberation. And that is why the poet should be banished from the Republic. The poet is an enemy of the state – a subversive, a terrorist, an enemy combatant. The crime of knowing the path to liberation and telling people about it is high treason, sedition.

So what do the seditious poets tell us? That the path we have to tread is extremely treacherous. It can not only leave our soles bleeding, but also make us slip into a bottomless ditch if we do not watch every step.

Yet some people take this path. The dangers of the road do not deter them. Maybe they are even stimulated by the challenges of the journey. When we were young, some of us were very fond of the phrase, “Live dangerously until the end” (courtesy of Godard, not Nietzsche). “Learning to live dangerously” had become our motto. Very few could learn it properly and those who did developed a tendency to skid off from the path of life forever or, at the least, land up in a dark cell. We who dropped out of the course midway diverted to another path – called career.

It should have meant a smooth life. But I found – and I am not the only one – that this path, too, was strewn with thorns. Let me confine this narrative to my own experience. I was in the media. Journalism is an honourable profession, we are told. As an added attraction, a lot of people get to know you, and perhaps some of them respect or envy you. You get to know a lot of people, too, and some of them are perhaps so well entrenched in the corridors of power that you could not have dreamed of meeting them ever in your life unless you were in this profession.

But how many people know what happens in this hallowed world of the media? My first employer was a popular daily newspaper. Within some years of my joining, this 140-year-old institution with a great ‘nationalist’ tradition folded up without notice. The owner family’s patriarch had become too old to run the ‘news empire’ (very appropriately, the title of a column which he used to dictate during the last phase of his editorship). His children and grandchildren were either more interested in other occupations such as politics, or simply not up to the job. After a brief layoff, I found a slot in the foremost English weekly of the time. A decade later, the owners, one of the largest media houses in India, decided to discontinue its publication, along with that of a sports magazine. According to them, it was not fetching enough revenue. Not that it was not selling well, but the returns were not up to their expectations. It could have been a jute mill instead of a media house, we would have heard the same story – not making enough profit. And workers can never guess just how much profit the capitalists expect.

I was lucky though. The “largest selling English-language daily in the world” launched an edition from my city and took me in. My designation remained the same and my salary increased, but there was a crucial change that I had to accept. My previous two employments were ‘permanent’ ones and we used to be on a pay-scale determined by a national wage-board through collective bargaining with our unions. That era was over by now. Like everyone else, I was put on contract. The management’s ‘appraisals’ based on our ‘performance’ determined our raises and renewals. Well, I got both, along with frequent by-lines, more responsibilities and occasional pats of the back. I learned many new mantras. “My newspaper will be like a bar of soap,” the young owner announced after he took over the reins following his father’s death. The top executive of the group, who was known as ‘the Pope’ in media circles, came and addressed us. We must avoid doing stories about “the old, the poor and the ugly,” he advised, reasoning, “Nobody likes to read about them.” I tried to interject, “But this is a newspaper, sir. What if the old, the poor and the ugly make news?” With a cold look, he replied, “I’ll come back to you,” which, of course, he never did. Welcome to the world of new millennial journalism.

At some point, I decided to stop. The immediate irritant was a new editor whose behaviour I could not digest, but underneath, there was a desire for a change. I put in my papers and started hunting for a new job which I never got. I did not match the ‘profile’ they were looking for: much younger, more malleable and someone they thought would be more adaptive to the ever-changing ‘new’ technology. I simply became redundant. Fighting this redundancy, I began to learn to live dangerously in a different way. I have had to learn how to work more and earn less. I wonder who coined the word ‘freelancer.’ I am free, without a lance. My life is no longer like I used to know it. Precarity has overtaken security.

Meanwhile, many changes are happening in the world around me as well, not only in the domain of media. The flight of jobs from the most advanced capitalist parts of the world, the catastrophic restlessness among the ‘privileged’ working class of the North, the rollback of outsourced skilled work from the South, thousands of émigrés facing the threat of being sent back, millions in my own country living in fear of losing their livelihood – all these events are convincing me increasingly that I am no longer an island, I am part of a new class in the making.

Two centuries after Marx’s birth and about three decades after his ideology was pronounced dead, I have found the meaning of the ‘relative surplus population’ that he had spoken about in Capital. I realise that I have become a part of that. I have also realised with my life – and with the life of many others around me – how right he was when he wrote:

The consumption of labour-power by capital is, besides, so rapid that the labourer, half-way through his life, has already more or less lived himself out. He falls into the ranks of the supernumeraries, or is thrust down from a higher to a lower step in the scale. It is precisely among the work-people in modern industry that we meet with the shortest duration of life.

But then, will not the bell toll for us, too? For now I remember the first line of the couplet that Maugham did not quote. Nachiketa, the child protagonist of Kathopanishad who defied death to knock at the gates of heaven and question Yama (the lord of the afterlife), heard the call: “Arise, awake, claim the boon you are entitled to,” followed by the line about the razor’s edge. I offer a new translation for the precariat:

Arise, Awake, claim your rights, the poets say:

Walk the razor’s edge, liberation isn’t far away.

Maybe I have changed a couple of words. Maybe we can change it further and sing:

Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!
Arise, ye wretched of the earth!…

Montréal street art (Photo by Jody Freeman)

Nilanjan Dutta is a journalist and human rights activist based in Kolkata.