I am sadly coming to the conclusion that the only people who do more harm than its fanatical opponents to any radical position are a class of its loyal supporters. No, not just loyal, ‘royal’. There has come into being a royal class of radicals of Third World backgrounds. They bear a passing resemblance to those eccentric, radical aristocrats of the 18th and 19th centuries who broke the taboos of middle class custom with so little effort. There were very few of them, but some — like Lord Byron or Lady Montagu — remain unforgettable.
These aristocratic radicals of the past did not have to make an effort. They had been born outside the constricting circles of middle class propriety or aspiring working class morality. Our ‘royal radicals’ are somewhat like them: they adopt radical postures, sincerely, while occupying spaces of considerable safety. They read out ‘banned’ books in literary festivals, knowing well that there is no chance of such fluent protest leading to the lifting of the ban. They might not know it, but there is even less chance of actual harm coming to such radicals, so different are the spaces that they occupy from those in which anger and violence boil over. Stupid fanatics protest on the streets and provide front-page photos for roving pressmen, while our royal radicals go on to write for the Guardian and lecture in New York. A court case or two is the most they have to countenance, and, unlike Manto or Chughtai, they sometimes hold dual citizenships!
This ability to be radical in one space and reap its benefits in another is something that the aristocratic radicals of yore did not have. Neither did they have a corresponding blindness to their own privileges.
Yet, one cannot blame the royal radicals of today for their fashionable protests. Mostly one supports their protests. Yes, religions should not interfere in our daily lives. Yes, books should not be banned by states. Yes, yes, yes. The list of agreements is endless. Except that there seems to be a kind of moral problem in being radical in a place in ways that are fully endorsed in another place, and more so if it is this latter space that determines the international traffic of power, capital, reputation and visibility.
I am not talking of Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. The so-called fatwa — I prefer to call it a death threat — against Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran is a misleading milepost in this discussion. It was an anomaly because Rushdie’s safety was actually threatened in his safe First World space. And this could happen because a fundamentalist leader appealed to fanatical followers and had the machinery of a ‘rogue state’ to back up this appeal. This almost never happens to our royal radicals. And don’t misread me: it is good that it does not.
But it is not good that our royal radicals seem so unaware of their privileged spaces of enunciation. Take, for instance, these recent lines from Jeet Thayil, whose poetry I have long admired, in the Guardian: “[There] is no underground art movement worthy of the name in India. The edge does not exist; it never has. There are no radical writers or film-makers or playwrights or painters, because Indian artists are so concerned with what their Mummyjis, Daddyjis, Auntiejis and Unclejis think that they will choke themselves before they make the impertinent noise.”
Once again, while I agree with Thayil’s objection to self-censorship, it strikes me that this is the kind of statement that can only be made by a wilfully Anglophone Indian: One who chooses to see things only in English, perhaps because he has (consciously or not) decided to speak predominantly to some people in a particular space. Has Thayil forgotten the names of artists and writers like Sher-Gil, Manto, Pash, Habib Tanvir, Safdar Hashmi, M.F. Hussain etc? Some of them, unlike our royal radicals, bore the brunt of their radicalism on their bodies (Two from just the six listed above were killed). In what sense can Thayil claim that Chughtai and Mahasweta Devi are not radical in their own ways? Did the art cinema movement not take place, or spawn only mimicry in India? And what about those ‘ordinary’ men and women who died and continue to die for some radical ‘underground’ cause or the other?
We are not even entering the matter of literary radicalism: Can the indexes of radicalism in one language be simplistically used to judge what may or may not be radical in another literary tradition? Even the kind of formal radicalism that Thayil seems to be celebrating can be questioned from other spaces: To break up ‘meaning’ had truly radical effect in the space of Anglo-American colonial dominance, with its huge, solid, unified monoliths of History, Truth and Reason, but would it be anything other than empty mimicry for many Third World writers struggling to gather the shards of their own histories, truths and reasons broken up by that very Anglo-American colonialism? In that context, even ‘mainstream’ authors like Iqbal, Faiz and Tagore were often just as radical within their literary and cultural contexts as, say, Burroughs. As for the private, drug-suffused ‘radicalism’ of many modernists, well, at least in India certain drugs have long been part of very ‘public’ systems of worship and meditation!
It is too easy to talk to the British about the purported lack of radicalism in India, long constituted as a place of stasis, and in any case even the most radical British reader is unlikely to have heard of Pash, Habib, Faiz and Devi.
One indication of this is the fact that it is only in privileged First world spaces that one can talk of ‘artistic’ radicalism in dissociation from social or political radicalism. Thayil, like me (but probably more so), can enter those spaces. He can live safely in them, letting the mobs rampage elsewhere. But his decision to see the space he is commenting on from that privileged space reduces the force of his radical plea to many. Finally, it is in this sense that the royal radicals do more harm than good. They enable their opponents to throw out the baby of radicalism along with the dishwater of their privileged enunciation of radicalism.
Tabish Khair’s latest novel is How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position.