Our literary lives in India today — and, here I mean us, the city-dwelling, English-speaking, bhasha -loving — lie suspended, face up or down, depending on the free booze at the party, between lit fests and bitch fests.
Not that gossip is anything new for the publishing and literary world. But, at times these fests attain political shades of grey. Dissent, open criticism and protest in our literary lives enjoy a sort of scandalous reality-TV-like excitement. Freedom of speech, laced with or without copious amounts of free wine, needs defence, and finds self-righteous voices hung-over on expensive alcohol, and camera lights are ready with all sorts of ammunition. Not that one is against free speech. It would not be possible to write this if it weren’t for such voices. But when it often becomes a manufactured moment of scandal, we lose sight of something more basic in the cacophony around the many issues raised.
Recently it was the Karnad-ary on V.S. Naipaul, whose far too many friends defend his right to be disrespectful, by defending anything obnoxious said by him. The debate however was given a lot of attention, rightfully so, while including all sides and points of views.
All this hullaballoo certainly suggests a healthy moment in the world of letters. However, a point Girish Karnad raised was quite relevant — the silence, on certain important issues, of the larger literary and publishing establishment of this free-speech touting nation.
Now that the affair has settled down a bit, we could use this point to look at something deeper: for what it says about the publishing fraternity (a word used more frequently than “sorority” or “community”). About the very people who give these writers a platform, who make these books possible — by publishing them, selling them, celebrating them. At a time when the features and business sections of newspapers indulge in the shining, glitzy side of Indian publishing, with stories galore of boom and glamour, maybe we need to pause a bit and look inwards. And look to finding voices that can raise uncomfortable truths about these men (and women) of letters, who also constitute the literary world, and who shape histories, literatures and opinion without pushing their pens. Voices that are either stifled or denied the platforms of ideas the Karnads and Naipauls enjoy.
About five years ago, still wet behind my publishing ears, my arrival led me into areas of darkness after some encounters with publishers and editors and, of course, writers. Cheap talk about women was, and is, a regular feature not just at private dinners hosted at the dull India International Centre in Delhi, but also at the endless book launches and book fairs and festivals across the world, where the boys’ clubs (for, despite all the woman power, it is still a man’s world) of all ages indulge in the most vulgar dialogues that beg more than just diatribes.
The back-slapping and high-five-ing at a terrible joke cracked on a colleague’s breast size or something even more derogatory — sneers at the “homo pansy” writer — have an air of such camaraderie that they dissolve the hierarchies of the publishing house — CEO to sales executive — in a frightfully false face of egalitarianism. This happens everywhere, I will be told. Though, every October, at Frankfurt Book Fair, the publishing world’s yearly pilgrimage site and my past employer, we were saved from many such moments since a lot of these men are found lurking around Bahnhofsviertel (the red light area, need I clarify?) in Frankfurt, avoiding any sight of familiar faces while they make most of their “business trip of the year”.
While the famous ones like Naipaul take the flak for appalling comments on women, countless men in suits — the secret fraternity — continue harassing, teasing and disrespecting numerous women in their vicinity, or during that night at the launch or the next morning. Surely these people are given no awards, at least not public ones, no lifetime achievements. Though in cases where it might be openly questioned, short public memory brushes things under the carpet. This comment of mine is not to ignore, but in fact to highlight the daily battles that many of us have been fighting, and which we continue to fight, against such unacceptable outrageous behaviour.
A few Jaipurs ago, at an evening party, I was in a room full of men and women in the business of books, when an openly gay writer walked in. A certain giggle erupted in the group next to me, catching my attention. Unaware of my sexual orientation, they were all too eager to share the joke — something silly yet offensive about the author and his alleged penchant for young boys. After I protested, the tones eventually got politically correct. The group religiously avoided me thereafter. I still see the people from that group now and then. They don’t just stop at homosexuals.
At one of these fests (there are far too many now to keep track), an editor — a woman — from a large publishing house, casually talked about how efficient “chinki” people were, while referring to a former colleague of mine. Aghast and enraged at this racist comment, I said something suitably caustic, only to be later accosted by her husband, a man also in the world of letters, for being rude to his wife. I felt compelled to leave the party.
Some fighters for freedom of speech, their Gandhian-isms intact, pass comments beyond belief on issues like caste. A publisher of some repute, recently mentioned to me in a rather patronising tone about a “lower” caste publisher rising the ranks, a classic case of “upward mobilisation” and climbing the ladder, a fact he found gossip-worthy. His publishing catalogue boasts of doyens of world literature and also has some Dalit writers and women’s voices.
It is easy to talk feminism or racism with such people and we would never find a politically incorrect statement uttered in public. This is history in the making, symptomatic of a civilisation being wounded.
It does not end here. Prejudices and hypocrisy, misogyny, homophobia, racism, bigotry — subtle or open — abound in our world of books and literature, with people that are posted there acting as self-appointed guardians of our conscience, our intellects and more. Party to this celebration for a while, I write this with a generous mixture of rage and guilt. But I wish that we encouraged and found more Karnads (apart from a few brave ones already standing up) to hunt down and strip those Naipauls among the believers hiding in boardrooms and at book festivals. Their glasses are always up for a refill.