Last year, I saw a man burn a book on stage. The book was Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses; the play, The Black Album, based on the novel by Hanif Kureishi. The novel and the play showed the enchantment fashionable socialists had for the men of faith who believed in something with enough passion to want to burn a book. There was a manic glee in the eyes of the misguided multiculturalist who burnt the book.
Last night, I saw another man burn a manuscript on stage, and he did so matter-of-factly. The play was Behud (Beyond Belief), in which the British Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti examined the attacks she faced when she staged her play, Behzti (Dishonour) in 2004. Behzti dealt with rape, physical abuse and murder in a gurdwara—the Sikh place of worship—and Sikhs were angry over such a depiction. Guided by a desire to be inclusive in the post-fatwa world of respecting communities, the theatre company decided to engage local Sikhs before the performance, thinking it would assuage their feelings. Instead, it emboldened the hotheads, and after angry Sikhs threatened the Birmingham Repertory, the play had to close. In Behud, Bhatti revisits that frightening episode. (She had to live in hiding for some time.)
The two incidents were separated by 15 years, but in that time, the space for artistic and literary freedom has shrunk, and the culture of taking offence has gained ascendance. When Muslims in Bradford and elsewhere wanted to get the government to ban The Satanic Verses, many in Britain were stunned: They had believed their self-image, of being a tolerant people who believed in free speech. They were stunned that British-born people could demand bans and burn books. A decade and a half later, when some Sikhs sought to get Behzti closed, they found support not only from within the community, but also from some in the establishment, including officials and politicians who preferred safety over freedom, agreeing that an artist had to understand the context in which she operated.
Both plays—The Black Album and Behud—raise fundamental questions about the way a free society negotiates space for artists. In each case, a powerful work has provoked a response, challenging viewers to step outside their comfort zones and to look at their own lives intimately, and question long-held beliefs. And in each instance, community elders, and young men, decide to take matters in their hands, to save the community’s honour.
They are immigrants with values from their home countries clinging to them, and so as not to appear racist, the new homeland has opted to celebrate the new diversity. Instead of insisting upon universal values, politicians, teachers and officials ask everyone to extol the differences, and respect cultural coexistence. In the process, some of the most conservative elements of these communities have ended up leading their communities, preventing their children, in particular their daughters, from doing anything that might bring shame upon the community. Defying that authority is obscene—it means flaunting your shamelessness. In his 1983 novel Shame, Rushdie wrote presciently, revealing his understanding of the people who would in a few years burn his book: “Sharam, that’s the word. For which this paltry shame is a whole inadequate translation. A short word, but one containing encyclopedias of nuance, which include embarrassment, discomfiture, decency, modesty, shyness, the sense of having an ordained place in the world, and other dialects of emotion for which English has no counterparts. No matter how determinedly one flees a country, one is obliged to take along some hand-luggage…(and) what’s the opposite of shame? That’s obvious: shamelessness.”
Shame is an externally dictated response to a societal construct, imposed by the group on an individual. It proscribes what you must not watch on TV, or read only with a torch under the covers, or listen only when others aren’t around; it forces the length of your hair, beard, and even skirts, and its absence makes you feel safe to take off your veil because no one will look and tell your brothers, parents and elders—the keepers of the community’s values. Rushdie defied that, and in The Black Album, Kureishi cheered that defiance, by showing the gradual transformation that his protagonist Shahid Hasan underwent, opting for freedom over blind faith.
In Behud, Tarlochan Kaur Grewal (Bhatti’s alterego) celebrated her victory differently: Even as a man burnt her manuscript, and the image on the wall showed a window engulfed by flames, letters of the alphabet defiantly fled the fire; a photocopier began spewing out pages of her manuscript—like those people on an island at the end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, who recite the books the authoritarian state has outlawed and burnt.
That, in the end, is the best weapon against the bigots: to remember, to share, and to tell these stories, again and again, so that even if they burn the books, our stories survive.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com