Locked up in his Mumbai home for over two months now, poet, lyricist and screenwriter Javed Akhar may have had no inkling that an international honour like the Richard Dawkins Award was coming his way. Meant to felicitate "a distinguished individual from the worlds of science, scholarship, education or entertainment, who publicly proclaims the values of secularism and rationalism, upholding scientific truth," the recognition however, does not come as a surprise to most who have followed Akhtar’s writing and commentary, whether on the Citizenship Amendment Act trying to snatch away voting rights or his fight against the burqa, naqab and purdah practices. In an interview with Mint, he talks about the surprise award and the fact that artistes should consider it a privilege, not duty, to impact society. Edited excerpts:
Q. Your wife tweeted after your win that Richard Dawkins has been a hero for you. In what way?
Ans. For a very long time, in fact, from my college days, I have been, what you call, a non-believer or an atheist. But whatever ideas I had developed were totally on my own and I was blissfully unaware that there is someone who writes about rationality or an atheistic point of view so seriously. It was about 20 years ago that I came across Mr. Dawkins’s best seller The God Delusion and it was the first time I had a book that talked about my beliefs, or rather, my disbeliefs. It was an eye opener because there were many things in it that I had thought on my own and many others that gave me a new insight about the point of view that I had nurtured for such a long time.
I also discovered Christopher Achen and Sam Harris besides Mr. Dawkins, whom I have much respect for. In fact, Mr. Dawkins, who has been the torchbearer of this new ideology or revolt against traditional religion, I had the opportunity to meet at a book fair in Jaipur where we shared a stage and I expressed my respect and admiration for his work. Two days ago, I received a text from him telling me about this award which I wasn’t even aware of. It was a huge and pleasant surprise. I’m very honoured and touched. I had no idea that my statements, critiques or speeches reach that far.
Q. Do you think the role of an artiste or creative person becomes even more important in advocating a rational line of thinking in a socio-political climate like the one now?
Ans. This idea that it is the responsibility of the artiste doesn’t appeal to me. I see it as a privilege and right to affect society and its aspirations, address its hurt and hopes. It is not the duty of an artiste. If he is doing it as a duty, he is taking on a job and it is not coming from his inner being.
Q. Does it seem like a challenge in a country like India with such diverse points of view?
Ans. Yes. There are people in every segment of society, in every community who tend to take offence, who are actually looking to take offence and don’t miss half a chance to do so. Of course there are people who are religious, and who have respect from the depth of their heart for certain ideas, or for history and mythology. So you have to be careful and sensitive about things and other people’s feelings, you can’t be a daredevil about it. But even while maintaining due respect, you have to say what you have to say.
Q. Do you think honours like these will help more Indian artistes say what they feel?
Ans. I hope so because they should know they are being heard all over the world. There is no reason they can’t do that. Their voice is reaching every nook and corner of the globe so they should know they are not voiceless.