Don’t shoot the messenger

It is easier to be the Prime Minister of India and keep quiet than to be an author and speak your heart out.

October 09, 2015 11:12 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:33 pm IST

Nayantara Sahgal. Photo: Virender Singh Negi

Nayantara Sahgal. Photo: Virender Singh Negi

Authors can never be winners. We have one yardstick for us, quite another for our authors. Somehow, we expect them to be the wisest, the most caring, sensitive souls on earth. Morally upright, removed from politics, selfless, accessible and illuminating. And, I dare say, shining examples of unimpeachable excellence. So when authors keep to themselves at the time of a natural calamity or a man-made one, it is concluded that they live in their Ivory Tower. The more generous commoners argue that they would say their thing through their novels or poetry – art and literature is a reflection of life, isn’t it? And when the novelists or poets do speak out at the perceived danger to our norms and values, they are still questioned; about their intention, their timing, their previous silence. Denied the right to rectify the past mistakes, if any, they are damned if they speak, damned when they don’t.

Regret seems a luxury best not allowed to our authors. Aren’t our authors the moral guardian of society? Nah! They are not always allowed to be. Looks like it is easier to be the Prime Minister of India and keep quiet when the nation is crying for a word from you than to be an author and speak your heart out.

Look at the sad case of poor >Nayantara Sahgal . All these years she has written with a certain freedom, certain fearlessness. Thus when the veteran spoke out after the Dadri lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq and Modi’s studied silence, it should have surprised none. Her tone had a ring of anguish, her words did nothing to hide her sense of pain and despair at the growing threat to life and limb from the Hindutva elements.

(Ashok Vajpeyi. Photo: The Hindu)

Even as she returned the Sahitya Akademi award that she won for her work “Rich Like Us” in 1986, she pleaded for a statement from the Prime Minister on the subject. “Justice drags its feet. The Prime Minister remains silent about this reign of terror. We must assume he dare not alienate evil-doers who support his ideology,” she wrote, arguing to protect the right to dissent. “India’s culture of diversity and debate is now under vicious assault. Rationalists who question superstition, anyone who questions any aspect of the ugly and dangerous distortion of Hinduism known as Hindutva – whether in the intellectual or artistic sphere, or whether in terms of food habits and lifestyle – are being marginalized, persecuted, or murdered.”

We, as a society, ought to have stood up and applauded her, and indeed others like Hindi luminaries like Uday Prakash and Ashok Vajpeyi and noted Urdu poet Rahman Abbas. Instead, quite the opposite happened. Playing right into the hands of the Hindutva brigade, many questioned her timing, some even read into it a pathological hatred for the ruling party. “She said not a word after the 1984 Sikh riots and accepted the Sahitya Akademi award in 1986. She did not speak out after the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the Gujarat violence,” they argued. Seems a reasonable argument from outside. Now for a minute put yourself in Sahgal’s shoes.

Would she not have been worse off not defending the right to speech, indeed, the right to life? Wasn’t she critical of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and the excesses of the moment? True, she may not have been as vociferous in 1984 or 1992, but does that deny her the right to rectify her mistake, if any? Would not we, while analysing her works and life a few years down the line, have said that she confined herself to the life of a recluse living in Dehradun, only emerging occasionally for a book launch or a lit fest?

Would not have there been an unstated lament that she did not speak even once against the Hindutva brigade? Reminds me of the plight of Rabindranath Tagore who renounced knighthood after the Jallianwalan Bagh tragedy but many wondered what happened to the Nobel. That argument was both facetious and mischievous. Much like the present criticism of Sahgal and company.

(Uday Prakash. Photo: PTI)

Pray, if she had not said what she did, would many of us have been as alive to the danger that faces the nation these days? And what she wrote had more meaning than just anger. “The right to dissent is an integral part of this Constitutional guarantee….A distinguished Kannada writer and >Sahitya Akademi Award winner, M.M. Kalburgi , and two Maharashtrians, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, both anti-superstition activists, have all been killed by gun-toting motor-cyclists. Other dissenters have been warned they are next in line. Most recently, a village blacksmith, Mohammed Akhlaq, was dragged out of his home in Bisara village outside Delhi, and brutally lynched, on the supposed suspicion that beef was cooked in his home….It is a matter of sorrow that the Sahitya Akademi remains silent. The Akademis were set up as guardians of the creative imagination, and promoters of its finest products in art and literature, music and theatre. In protest against Kalburgi’s murder, a Hindi writer, Uday Prakash, has returned his Sahitya Akademi Award. Six Kannada writers have returned their Awards to the Kannada Sahitya Parishat.

In memory of the Indians who have been murdered, in support of all Indians who uphold the right to dissent, and of all dissenters who now live in fear and uncertainty, I am returning my Sahitya Akademi Award.”

Eloquent? Yes. Did she succeed in moving our people? Yes, some of them. Others sprung to the defence of the powers-that-be. Unfortunately, the resignations and the attendant questions will not get a word from Modi. His speech, delayed and an exercise at deflection, is a stain upon silence. His face betrays no concern. It is but vain to expect him to show sensitivity towards the dead, be it Kalburgi or Akhlaq. After all isn’t he the one who equated the death of the innocent in Gujarat-2002 with a puppy coming under the wheel of the car? Death fails to move him. Moral nihilists feed him and feed off him. The authors, the poets are a breed apart, sensitive, and blessed with tender heart.

Today I am reminded of celebrated journalist Sham Lal’s words. “Time is hard on writers, particularly after the causes they fought for have been won, lost or overtaken by events,” he once wrote. In their loss lies a nation’s tragedy.

Also read >Poet Satchidanandan resigns from all positions in Sahitya Academy

(The author is a seasoned literary critic)

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