Vikram Kapur

At the short end

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.  

Behold these lines from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front: ‘Incidentally, it’s funny how often the miseries of this world are caused by short people — they are so much more quick-tempered and difficult to get on with than tall ones. I have always tried to avoid landing up in companies with commanders who are short — usually they are complete bastards.’

Insensitive. Stereotypical. Presumptuous. Some of the words that come to mind after reading those lines. And I am a tall man. If I were short, I’d be positively offended. And what I have quoted is the tip of the iceberg. When you get into the novel’s subtext, short people get decimated in ways that would make any short person bristle. There is the schoolmaster Kantorek — selfish, shrewish, and short. There is Corporal Himmelstoss — pitiless, sadistic, and short. Detestable characters both.

Such a vitriolic diatribe against short people and not a single call to ban the novel in India. Not even our India where creative freedom is in a state of incredible shrink while righteous indignation bloats into the incredible hulk. Maybe I just gave someone an idea. Outrage, after all, is one of our biggest growth industries. All the usual suspects on the political right are making a killing. Even TV anchors have got into the act. A certain bespectacled gentleman out of Mumbai has become so adept at the art of being angry that his TRPs are going through the roof. Anger, if done right, is a truly compelling spectacle — loud, action-filled, and brimming with passion. Then why not someone who wishes to make a name for himself by taking up the cause of short people? After all, a lot of Indians are short. Possibly more than the ones that are not. Furthermore, shortness cuts across caste, religion and region. And certainly no government, regional, local or national, can expect to be elected without the short vote. So there is potential

Has All Quiet on the Western Front escaped censure in India because it is a foreign rather than an Indian story? I wonder. But then being foreign did not spare the movie Last Temptation of Christ. We banned it even though it wasn’t banned in the Christian West. Even the movie version of The Da Vinci Code got into trouble. Yet Remarque’s novel, as well as its movie version, can be procured all over India and, for that matter, taught at the university level where it can prey unfettered on impressionable minds.

Of course, we all know why All Quiet on the Western Front does not raise the kind of hackles Salman Rushdie routinely does or Ashis Nandy recently did. Indians are just not organised around being short or tall as they are around caste, religion or region. No group exists to create a hullabaloo if the sentiments of short people are hurt and there is, as of now, no short vote bank. If such a group or vote bank were to come up, then surely this novel would be on the chopping block. Until that happens, though, Remarque can be seen to be exercising his freedom of expression, however insensitive, in a free state.

I wonder if it would have been a different matter if Remarque were railing against, say, God. But then, again, maybe not. Rohinton Mistry called God ‘the Bloody Fool’ in A Fine Balance, and there was nary a whimper. Hence, it seems as long as you don’t give God a name, you can say what you want about Him without being lampooned. We are not sensitive about God. What we are sensitive about is religion.

So, as long as you train your hurtful pen on God or some group that is not organised enough to create a ruckus, you should be protected by the freedoms enshrined in our constitution. Shrinking as they are, they have not shrunk that much. Bear in mind, though, that does not mean they won’t. The mob is a highly dynamic organism that changes shape and form before you know it. When M.F.Husain painted Hindu goddesses in the nude in the 1970s, there wasn’t even a ripple of protest. In the 1990s, those same paintings kicked up such a firestorm that the guy was forced to exile himself from India.

So who knows maybe one day the hulking juggernaut of righteous indignation will bloat so much that All Quiet on the Western Front will find itself on the chopping block for being insensitive to short people. Then, invariably, other works will be in the dock for being insensitive to tall people. And then there are works insensitive to thin people, fat people, fair people, dark people…

You know a day could come where we might be scared to write a word.

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 4:29:31 AM |

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