Monday, June 4, 2012

Censorship exposes the fragility of the intelligensia and the state

[Article for the thehoot on the Jaipur Literary Festival 2012]Over the last few weeks, as everyone geared up for the largest literary festival in Asia, speculations had been rife regarding the presence of Salman Rushdie at the Jaipur Literary Festival 2012. Unfortunately, on the eve of the second day of the festival, we were informed by the festival authorities that the author ofThe Satanic Verses would not be able to grace us with his company due to a security hassle.

 When Rushdie tweeted that he had been informed about the Mumbai mafia coming down to the fest venue to assassinate him and thus would give it a miss, the attending intellectuals came down on the festival organisers for failing to give Rushdie the requisite protection facilities. Coincidentally, the phrase “freedom of expression” turned out to be the most discussed human right in the talks of the second day of JLF 2012. Rushdie’s shadow had arrived to haunt us.

Tata Steel Front Lawns was the venue of an animated discussion on 'Creativity, Censorship and Dissent'amongst Siddhartha Gigoo, Tahmima Anam, Prasoon Joshi, Charu Nivedita, Cheran; it was moderated by Shoma Chaudhury. While every author condemned the recent instance of curbing of one’s right to voice one’s opinion, the problem of censorship was carefully dissected in the context of various communities and whether instances of censorship can afford for us valuable sociological lessons regarding the state and its subjects.

Cheran, who writes on the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, answered most of the questions with personal anecdotes and his views provided the listeners with two pertinent social problems allied to the notion of censoring literature - the diminishing readership of books and the censorship promoted by the “intelligentsia”.

Cheran doesn’t face censorship among speakers of his mother tongue or the language in which he writes. In fact, his fame rests on the Malayali translations of his works. What is lamentable is that no one reads Tamil literature anymore, and this amounts to an absence of censorship of Cheran’s works in the Tamil literary world.

Picking up from Cheran’s argument, Bangladeshi writer Tahmima Aman raised a vital point that not only does censorship reflect the State in its most fragile condition in dealing with its subjects but it also amounts to books being read, driving people away from the lure of the distracting world wide web/e-books and back to the good old paperback or hardcover editions. Cheran lamented the way in which the intellectuals at a university had come down upon a play he had directed and the conservative culture that’s still in vogue in Tamil Nadu.

Prasoon Joshi, on being asked why enough subversive films aren’t being made in Bollywood, came up with an interesting suggestion for film makers. They should not just throw in cuss words randomly into the script or lyrics or show a couple of explicit scenes just to be subversive. Instead, subversion should occur at the level of plot. He elaborated by saying that the plot should deal with social issues of a subversive nature.

My most memorable incident from this session was the two questions raised by the co-founder of Bangalore Slut Walks. She asked whether an author should seek to be self censoring or should censoring (if at all) happen on the basis of its “consequences,” i.e.-the socio-political response to a text that is being read. Secondly, she wanted to know how authors struggle to balance a personal experience against the over-bearing responsibility of being politically correct. Owing to a shortage of time, the listeners never found out the answers to these two questions.

Next, I simultaneously attended, two talks, one which saw Amy Chua defending her new book “Tiger Mothers” and the other, a very informative debate between Gandhians and Ambedkarites. Amy Chua argued as to why her text should not be read as a self-help manual but as a satirical take on the plight of a Chinese-American woman’s dilemma in bringing up a second generation. She shared her views on how people pass judgment on texts without ever having read them.

This tied up nicely with a widely agreed with comment made by Shoma Chaudhury during the session at Tata Steel Front Lawns. Most people who condemned Rushdie’s misfortune hadn’t read the text for which he had been banned and the audience seemed only too eager to agree. No one urged any publisher or author to launch a campaign for the re-publishing of The Satanic Verses.

It is this idea of reading literature and closely following a particular history of a nation closely which enlivened the discussion amongst Joseph Lelyveld, MJ Akbar, Sunil Khilnani, Aruna Roy, S. Anand; it was moderated by Urvashi Butalia. While S. Anand’s acerbic attacks on the JLF organisers have attracted the mass media’s attention, most of us have forgotten to notice that a pertinent aspect of “freedom of expression” was spelled out in this discussion. That “freedom of expression” should not amount to the hearing of a handful of voices (the leaders of a movement who may be removed from the ground root struggles of his followers) andthat only a section of society condemns censorship of certain texts as long as it doesn’t harm their vested political interests. This talk actually made one wonder whether all the hue and cry over censorship doesn’t stem from a widespread ignorance about the multi-ethnic fabric which composes modern society.

After having waited over an hour for A.C. Grayling to arrive and “defend” the European Enlightenment, I was surprised to hear him speak about the fallibility of reason, its wielder-man, and scepticism which empowers an individual to question widely held dogmas. Freedom of expression was one of the fundamental outlooks of the European Enlightenment, as suggested by Grayling. Steven Pinker nuanced this argument further by suggesting that being rational in the judgment of things, even while freely expressing or questioning certain dogmas, one must see to a proportion being maintained between the critic’s emotions and her/ his reasoning faculty. Every individual who questions dogma must distinguish between the things he can criticise and the inevitable biological truths which if criticised, might purport to an offensive value-less remark.

This seemed like a perfect nugget of thought to call into question some of the language problems discussed in the session on ‘Inglish, Amlish, Hinglish: The Chutneyfication of English'. Here, Rita Kothari, Tarun Tejpal, Ruchir Joshi were in conversation with Ira Pande. Freedom of expression doesn’t only refer to the content of one’s argument but also the form in which the argument is presented to the listener.

Arguably, most speakers seemed to agree that the chutneyfication of English has benefitted both languages and that changing times necessitate changing modes of communication. Hindi has not stayed stagnant, it has modified itself to accommodate the consciousness of a fragmented and geographically widespread Indian society. Some sixty years back, this kind of expressive capability would have seemed impossible to imagine.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


You are behaving a little weird today.

No no, I am really sorry I asked that question. So, yeah, where were we?

Riding Streetcars?