Some readers feel that I jumped the gun and celebrated freedom, and failed to anticipate what happened to academician Ashish Nandy in Jaipur, filmmaker Kamal Haasan in Tamil Nadu and writer Salman Rushdie, who was ‘uninvited’ from visiting Kolkata. We live in difficult times, and, often events overtake written words in forms and manners that cannot be prejudged or even remotely predicted.
I am not going into the details of what happened to these three fine minds or their plight, but share some vignettes from my personal interactions with all of them, spread over the last two decades, and let readers form their own opinion and decide whether these artists deserve the harsh treatment that has been handed out to them.
I met Ashis Nandy for the first time in 1988 in the company of Shiv Visvanathan at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi. He spent nearly three hours talking about two outstanding Indian scientists — J.C. Bose and Srinivasa Ramanujan — and multiple trajectories of science. From liberating to being ruthlessly misanthropic, science seemed to straddle multiple horses, and it was Nandy’s eloquence, laced with humour, provocation and sarcasm, that helped me overcome my romantic idea of science and my own unidimensional understanding of its use and its intrinsic value. Since then every meeting was a chance to widen my own positions and to reduce my own certainties about a range of issues that are confronting us.
At a private festival
The late scriptwriter and an associate of filmmaker K. Balachander, Ananthu, introduced me to Kamal Haasan in the mid-1980s. Since then, I have spent many hours discussing with Kamal Haasan not just films but literature, politics, society and things that ranged from profound to trivia. In the late 1980s, he organised a private film festival at his home to look at the entire work of German avant-garde filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Screenings were always followed by intense discussions. It was during one of those evenings, Kamal read out a poem by Bertolt Brecht titled “The Burning of the Books”.
“When the Regime
commanded the unlawful books to be burned,
teams of dull oxen hauled huge cartloads to the bonfires.
Then a banished writer, one of the best,
scanning the list of excommunicated texts,
became enraged: he’d been excluded!
He rushed to his desk, full of contemptuous wrath,
to write fierce letters to the morons in power —
Burn me! he wrote with his blazing pen —
Haven’t I always reported the truth?
Now here you are, treating me like a liar!
Ananthu pointed out that also among the books burned were those of the great German-Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine, who in his 1820-1821 play Almansor accurately predicted, “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen. (Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”)
When artists were defended
My last meeting with Salman Rushdie was at Barnes and Noble in New York. He read out a short story, In the South, set in Chennai, in Besant Nagar to be precise. Line after line, as it rolled off his tongue, made my wife and I look at each other meaningfully as it mirrored this southern metropolis more truthfully, with its best and worst coming out starkly. Post reading, he told us that Chennai is a place where one can be endlessly argumentative without the fear of being lynched.
Let me just recollect one paragraph from his memoir, Joseph Anton, and leave the issue to the readers to introspect: “He was not, after all, the first writer to be endangered or sequestered or anathematised for his art. He thought of mighty Dostoevsky facing the firing squad and then, after the last-minute commutation of his sentence, spending four years in prison camp, and of [Jean] Genet unstoppably writing his violently homoerotic masterpiece Our Lady of the Flowers in jail. The French translator of Les versets sataniques, unwilling to use his own name, had called himself ‘A. Nasier’ in honour of the great Francois Rabelais who had published his first book, Pantagruel, under the anagrammatic nom de plume of ‘Acofribas Nasier’. Rabelais too had been condemned by religious authority; the Catholic Church had been unable to stomach his satirical hyberabundance. But he had been defended by the King, Francois I, on the grounds that his genius could not be suppressed. Those were the days, when artists could be defended by kings, because they were good at what they did. These are lesser times.”
Can we honestly deny that these are lesser times?