Free speech: a long journey

Free speech: a long journey
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First Published: Sun, Oct 31 2010. 09 37 PM IST
Updated: Sun, Oct 31 2010. 09 37 PM IST
Meet Vikram Kapur—he loves the city in which he was born, and likes to call it Bombay, and not Mumbai. He collects old photographs of his city, lovingly and admiringly looking at old images of Hughes Road before it became Nyayamurti Sitaram Patkar Marg. He runs a small business, a shop selling sports goods, and calls it Bombay Sporting Goods. As expected, the Shiv Sena doesn’t like it; it insists that the shop be called Mumbai Sporting Goods. Kapur decides to defy them. He wants to reclaim the city from such politicians and toys with the idea of running for office. He gets murdered.
Kapur is a fictional character Rohinton Mistry imagined in his third novel, Family Matters. Set around the life of a Parsi family, and drawing heavily on the theme of the Shakespearean play, King Lear, the novel continued Mistry’s love affair with the city in which he was born. It was a love story filled with pathos, for in his novels Mistry shows us the city’s underbelly, of the small people who come to the city with big dreams, ask for little, and get less. Family Matters showed the shrinking of the city’s cosmopolitanism as parochial forces like the Sena gained ascendance.
Mistry might feel vindicated, having presciently noted the trajectory of Bombay’s decline into Mumbai. Rajan Waulkar, vice-chancellor of Mumbai University became the poster child of acquiescence to bullying when he hastily withdrew Mistry’s acclaimed previous novel Such A Long Journeyusing his emergency powers, after an undergraduate student aspiring for political leadership of the Shiv Sena’s youth wing, the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena, complained that the book made disparaging remarks against his party and his people. His claim to lead the youth wing rests on what he considers his inherent birthright—he is born in the Thackeray family.
Such A Long Journey is a thoughtful narrative about the scarcity-prone India at the cusp of the Bangladesh war of 1971, when Gustad Noble, a bank clerk, gets enmeshed in a conspiracy to assist the Mukti Bahini, the India-backed armed group fighting for Bangladesh’s freedom. He is brought to the shadowy world by an old acquaintance who is an intelligence officer, loosely based on the life of Rustom Nagarwala, who allegedly imitated prime minister Indira Gandhi’s voice and got a State Bank of India officer to hand him Rs 60 lakh after the phone call, ostensibly for Bangladesh’s liberation.
The junior-most Thackeray’s complaint is vague, and political analysts might see his grandstanding as part of his desire (and his father Uddhav’s desire) to regain political ground, ever since Uddhav’s bête noire, his cousin Raj Thackeray, began wolfing down the Shiv Sena’s jhunka bhakar through his party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
Mistry’s is not the only novel to show Mumbai’s parochial patriarchs. Earlier this year, Murzban Shroff, coincidentally another Parsi author, faced a lawsuit from an activist called Vijay Mudras, who was upset that a character in one of his stories referred to Marathi-speaking people as ghaatis. Shroff’s collection of stories has been widely acclaimed—it was called Breathless in Bombay, but it was disliked by the mindless and mirthless in Mumbai.
Shroff didn’t think poorly of Marathi-speakers—a character in his story did. If all characters in every work of fiction are to behave impeccably, what will become of our epics? Will the Mahabharata be withdrawn because Duryodhana asks Dushasana to drag Draupadi by her hair? Doesn’t that scene humiliate women and glorify violence against women?
The views of a character are not the same as those of the author. This was the point deliberately misrepresented during The Satanic Verses saga, where the Ayatollah declared a fatwa on Salman Rushdie who had written about the hallucinations of a character losing his mind, imagining that he was founding a great religion.
Hindu nationalists get riled when they are compared with Muslim leaders declaring fatwas. But the difference between those who want Such A Long Journey or Breathless in Bombay banned and the clerics who hate Rushdie—and the cartoonists of Jyllands-Posten—is marginal. Their threats chill free speech.
Many years ago, poet Gieve Patel wrote a moving poem, called The Ambiguous Fate of Gieve Patel: He Being Neither Muslim nor Hindu in India. Patel looked at the rage on each side, seeking the blood of the other. “To be no part of this hate is deprivation,” he wrote, adding: “Bodies turn ashen and shrivel. I only turn my tail.”
As the two Thackerays fight it out to prove who is more intolerant, the loser is the city and what’s left of its intellectual life. They infantilize a great city, their creeping fascism almost stepping out of the pages of Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, where the Sena appeared as Mumbai Axis.
The fictional Kapur is lucky; he doesn’t have to see the day a fine university removes a novel from its syllabus out of fear, and we turn tail.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Oct 31 2010. 09 37 PM IST
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