The role of a writer
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What is the writer’s role in a society? Is it to be the nation’s cheer-leader, producing patriotic poetry that warms the hearts, the kind that the poet Adil Jussawalla more accurately described as “patriotic rubbish”, in his introduction to New Writing in India, the path-breaking anthology he edited in 1974? Or to be the nation’s entertainer, writing feel-good novels celebrating picaresque, pedestrian pursuits of a naukri and a chhokri, or a job and a girl, which Chetan Bhagat says is what the young Indian Dream is all about?
Or is the writer meant to provoke, forcing us to look at reality in a way not seen, even if it is visible? To reflect on the silences, the pauses and the parts that we ignore because it might make us uncomfortable? We rush about, inch by inch, thinking we have covered miles, but do not reach anywhere, as the Gujarati poet Niranjan Bhagat wrote in his poem, In the Aquarium. But what of those apparent silences that the poet uncovers and we don’t; the sound she captures and we don’t hear?
Those sounds force us to confront ourselves, to see what has become of us. In Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the poet Baal says: “A poet’s work—to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.” The writers who have disapproved of the Sahitya Akademi’s silence over the murder of the Kannada scholar M.M. Kalburgi are doing just that—they are pointing out the Akademi’s inadequacies, which are also ours, and some of us don’t like what we are being shown, so some of us abuse the writers, virulently.
The aim is to bully the writers and make them silent. How dare they question? Why should they challenge the state? Stuff happens; a writer gets shot; a book gets banned because we don’t like it. It is a big country. Such bullying has gone on for years now. A novel cannot be imported; a writer who flees her own country and seeks refuge in India feels isolated and often humiliated; a painter is forced into exile; a rationalist is hounded out of the country; a publisher withdraws a book because that is the practical thing to do; another rationalist is shot; a novelist commits ‘suicide’, saying he won’t write fiction anymore; and then, a scholar gets shot at his doorstep. More than a quarter century has passed since the import of The Satanic Verses was banned, and assassination, the extreme form of censorship, is now a reality—Kalburgi is dead, and except for the writers who have spoken out, few have expressed outrage. If you are upset, don’t write, the minister of culture advises the writers. In other words, be silent. Or, more to the point—shut up.
The meaningless question, which begins with “what about”, is tossed around as though it is a winning debating argument. Why didn’t you protest then? Isn’t it because of this? And what of that? Surely this is an example of manufactured dissent, a minister says, scarcely aware of the irony that what he is after is what Noam Chomsky called manufacturing consent. And the chorus acts on cue, rising and screaming, ridiculing and insulting the writers. Mass derision follows as though the writers’ protest is a graver crime than Kalburgi’s murder. Except that to protest is a right, and not a crime.
And so the writers persist. Uday Prakash cast the first stone; Nayantara Sahgal followed, and that became the tipping point, and the list has grown gloriously, now including some of the most well-loved names from India’s many literatures—Kannada, Hindi, Punjabi, Marathi, English, Urdu, Kashmiri; there are Sikhs and a Parsi, Hindus, Muslims and Christians in the list, and only one of them happens to be related to Nehru, a coincidence over which she has no control, just as this is a phenomenon over which nobody has any control.
In 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a ground-breaking essay, called In Defence of Poetry. There he said: “Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called, in the earlier epochs of the world, legislators, or prophets. For [the poet] not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time.” He called poets the “unacknowledged legislators” of the world, a phrase that the late Christopher Hitchens borrowed as the title for his 2001 defence of writers who challenge autocracies.
It is a profound thought, yet, at its core, it represents a simple, powerful truth—the right to dissent.
However, for the ill-mannered critics of India’s unacknowledged legislators, it is what Rushdie, in his novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, called P2C2E, or a process too complicated to explain.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi-