I spent this Monday afternoon hanging on the edge of a capacity crowd at the Mumbai Press Club, at a reading of Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, organized by the Citizens’ Initiative for Peace. In between the readings, people stood up to speak variously about the unravelling political fabric of the city and the country, the sanctity of the academic process, the creeping fascism of the majority, the mendaciousness of the Shiv Sena in general and Aditya Thackeray in particular, the declining respect for the rule of law and the dubious qualifications of Mumbai University vice-chancellor Ranjan Welukar—“or whatever his name is”, as one speaker said irritably. Someone quoted Beckett.
The discreet and utterly predictable charm of the bourgeoisie? Someone encroaches on our constitutional right to expression and the only people who turn up to protest are greying Gandhians and earnest college students. Since the capacity of the Press Club terrace is around 80 on a cold day, and it is shaded by the trees on the edge of the Oval Maidan, it’s not hard to feel a little self-righteous, hemmed in and apparently cut off from the currents of the city at large, as though we are forced by virtue of our beliefs to confine ourselves to this shrinking Anglophile circle of light in an ocean of unreason.
This was far from the truth, of course. My fellow audience was made up of fine upstanding public—in the Mumbai sense of the word—many of whom have fought hard to break out of the sort of imposed elitism that various bastions of Indian leadership have been great at leveraging against their critics. How else to describe the predicament of Anand Patwardhan, a film-maker whose Ayodhya documentary, Ram Ke Naam, has been shown exactly once on cable TV in the last 18 years because it’s been banned, or channels are too scared to run it? Patwardhan and artistes like him are not alien ideologues who pop into public life expressly to endanger people’s interests. Their mandate, in a broad sense, is to reflect, and comment on, public sentiment. Not exactly the work of the bon-bon eating classes.
Patwardhan was there to read out the statement Mistry mailed in from Canada, and which was reproduced extensively across Mumbai papers on Tuesday morning. Mistry harangues Welukar and the university with a very resonant moral seriousness. Paternalistically, he ended with some recommended reading for Aditya Thackeray, Mistry’s fellow-Xavierite and Mumbai University-kar. Even the book-burning fraternity can quote Tagore by heart, but Mistry’s other piece of advice was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, never easily taught in post-colonial academic circles. Did he particularly remember the book’s history, as one recast from sacrosanct classic to questionable, even hurtful object lesson, thanks to Chinua Achebe’s magnificent excoriation? If he did, I salute him for making the recommendation.
It’s not hard to see why Such a Long Journey offends people who haven’t read it. Quoted out of context, that stuff about Marathas and bhaiyyas can give anyone a headache. It is the sort of book that should ignite debate, that calls for public polemic about the fault lines of a city that, call it Bombay or Mumbai, has always and tragically accommodated as many variants of disunity as it has of solidarity. It invites comment on why those whose real grievances about real linguistic and cultural divisions are represented via bizarre political theatre, instead of finding voices in lecture halls and newspaper editorials.
It is, in short, an apt cornerstone for the questions that crop up endlessly and in different languages away from the Press Club terrace, questions perhaps too broad and too complex to be covered in a debate—such as it is—over one circus of faux-Falangists and their minions. But there are cracks in every wall. I was sitting behind a crowd of the earnest college students I mentioned earlier. Several turned up in spite of ongoing midterms, and I recognized more than one as part of the same group that has been instrumental in drafting and publicizing this online petition, a document as sober and serious as Mistry himself might have wrought. They are waiting, they told me, to get through exams before they reach out to organize their fellow students. They sat politely through the readings and initial speeches, all conducted by people several decades older than them. As the event wore on, they leaned forward, tapped their chins, mumbled, muttered, rolled their eyes, and, once the third or fourth deploration of the ideology of the Sena had occurred, began to mutter among themselves.
“This is not the point,” I heard more than one of them say. “This is really not helping.” ”Say something!” ”Why isn’t someone saying something?” ”Were you going to make the same point?” ”Why aren’t you saying something?”
Finally, one girl stood up and marched to the front of the terrace. “If we’re going to go off into discussions of the book’s literary merit or whatever, this is never going to end,” she said. “This is a procedural issue. If we don’t treat it like that, we’ll never get anything done.”
Amazingly, she had the last word. I liked her and her fellow students, who applauded her unequivocally. They know their outrage legitimizes nothing. Perhaps they agree with their opponents that the forums of debate afforded them are already skewed. They are not the ones drawing the battle lines in a fake battle. They can only claim their rightful place as part of the public, as much as their sword-carrying classmates. They know they have to get stuff done, the way Patwardhan did for Ram Ke Naam, court by court and channel by channel. This is not the time to keel over rasping “The horror, the horror”.