Mumbai: Playwright Girish Karnad, speaking at the Tata Literature Live! festival in Mumbai on Friday, took the audience aback with his unexpected criticism of V.S. Naipaul for his “rabid antipathy towards Indian Muslims”, and asked for an explanation from the festival’s organizers on why they had honoured the author with the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Naipaul was awarded the honour at a function on Wednesday night at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), the festival’s venue. Karnad’s remarks came as a surprise at his session, which was scheduled to be a 1-hour masterclass of sorts, on his life in theatre.
Extemporizing from his notes, Karnad spent 40 minutes of his hour-long speech putting a bend in the river of gushing Naipaul tributes. “Apart from his novels, only two of which take place in India and are abysmal, Naipaul has written three books on India. The books are brilliantly written,” Karnad said. “He is certainly among the great English writers of our generation. But right from (India:) A Wounded Civilization, he has never missed a chance to weigh in against Muslims, accusing them of having savaged India for five centuries.”
Karnad’s remarks covered a range of Naipaul’s writing, from his characterization of the history of Hampi to his views on the Mughals. “Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in 2001. In London in 2000, word was that Naipaul would never get the Nobel because of what he’d written about Indian Muslims,” Karnad said. But he pointed out that Naipaul was awarded the Nobel barely months after the 9/11 attacks.
Naipaul’s political and social opinions have divided his audiences before. Most recently, in 2011, controversy broke out over Naipaul’s remarks on women writers, all of whom, he said, were sentimental and unequal to him. His views on Islam have also drawn repeated criticism in the past. Karnad recalled, in particular, that Naipaul attended a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) meeting in New Delhi in 2004, where, on being asked about the Babri Masjid demolition, he is reported to have said, “Ayodhya is a sort of passion. Any passion is to be encouraged. Passion leads to creativity.”
In this context, Karnad said, it was particularly dubious to honour a writer in Mumbai, a city where more than 1,500 Muslims had been murdered in the riots following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.
Karnad’s remarks were met with applause, but clearly displeased the festival’s organizers.
“This was supposed to be a masterclass, and you are not a master on Naipaul,” said festival director Anil Dharker. “We expected to hear you speak as a playwright. To use this stage for this purpose was rather impolite.”
“I’m imitating Naipaul,” Karnad responded.
“We came here to hear about theatre, sir, not about Babri Masjid,” called out an unidentifiable audience member. Karnad spent the remainder of his session speaking off the cuff about the nature and history of theatre in India.
Novelist Farrukh Dhondy, who accompanied Naipaul to the BJP cultural wing meeting from where his remarks on Ayodhya were reported, says they were “a complete misquotation. He had no views on the Babri Masjid, and said only one thing about it then, that building it was an act of hubris”.
Dhondy, a friend and frequent interviewer of Naipaul, was in conversation with him on the night of his award, but did not have a chance to respond to Karnad in public. “I want to put to bed the notion that Vidia is against Muslims,” Dhondy said. “Islam, as he’s said before, is not his business. He has explored, among others, the phenomenon of Islamic conversions, by a legitimate form of inquiry. He’s never written anything about it in his novels.”
“Vidia has strange opinions, but he doesn’t deserve the sort of character assassination he’s received. For a distinguished playwright to link his Nobel Prize to the aftermath of 9/11 is stupid.”