Literary festivals are becoming increasingly like maidan politics. The recent controversy at the Mumbai Landmark LitLive Festival only shows that many people are willing to travel on the Muslim gravy cart because Islam is the best little rock show in town at a given time.
V. S. Naipaul’s views on the Indian Muslim and Islam are skewed and, in many ways, reprehensible. However, did playwright Girish Karnad do the right thing by hitting out at him? My answer is an emphatic ‘no’. To those who are not aware, Girish Karnad is not a “performer”. His works have tackled historical themes and, if it is of any importance, he happens to be a Rhodes scholar. He has always worn his accomplishments lightly and I’d have listened to him with much interest if only he had not misused the platform he was given.
The subject he was to speak on was “My Life in theatre”. He found it boring. What happens to the audience who landed up there keen to listen to the maverick veteran talk on what he is so accomplished in? He said later:
“At the time of accepting the invitation to the festival two months ago, there had been no talk of Naipaul being honoured. When I learnt of it later, I did my homework. I have, of course, read his books, so the accusations were not without basis.”
If he had issues with the choice for the Lifetime Achievement award, he should have made it known to the organisers and told them he would like to speak on this (many more would have landed up at the venue), or boycotted the function and issued the statement which he ultimately made in his speech.
This is not a government award. Private organisers and groups can choose whoever they wish to. Naipaul had left, so who was he addressing? Does he assume people are not aware about his work, his stand?
While rubbishing the Indian obsequious attitude towards Nobel laureates and foreign Indophile sources, Dr Karnad himself relies on it:
“(William) Dalrymple has been attacking Naipaul’s views since 2005. What I find disgraceful is that the criticism came from Dalrymple (a foreigner) and not an Indian writer. Which is why I stepped up.”
Oh, please. People have been critical of Naipaul’s views for years (yes, this humble writer included), and it is a pity that Karnad ends up certifying the views of an outsider while holding Naipaul’s sources in contempt. (I am aware that there are many who think foreigners who write about India are doing a huge favour, and are objective. Let us not forget that dear William organises the Jaipur Literature Festival, and there is always the necessity to have a backup plan.)
There are a few accusations that I’d like to specifically respond to:
There are probably very few awards that are not in some way given for special reasons. Indeed, prominent names or those who find favour with prominent names often end up in short lists. Publishers’ lobbies exist and make certain some writers get there. Literary festivals are also part of this ‘deal’. It is a transaction first, plain and simple.
The other point is that such festivals depend on an audience. An audience tends to follow a herd mentality and will gather where ‘names’ are. Karnad himself talks about Naipaul’s literary merit, so how does he expect people not to be interested in it?
Does he have a problem only with the award?
“What was the basis of their choice? Is this an international award when the alternatives could have been Derek Walcott or Orhan Pamuk, who has a following here? Or was it an Indian award where the candidates for it then could have been M T Vasudevan Nair or Paul Zacharia. Or was the festival only honouring Nobel laureates? What are the terms of your nomination?”
Again, should he not have talked with the organisers when he discovered who was to receive it? Besides, on what basis is he mentioning these names? That they are not anti-Muslim? I say this because the Karnad strategy was to hit out at essentially this one aspect of Naipaul.
You would need to wear blinkers not to figure out that in the last few years, Naipaul decided to junk the “multi-culti” idea and embrace his version of nationalism from a safe distance. His friend and knight in India, Farrukh Dhondy wrote:
“The argument of his books, as with so much of his work, is a corrective to the Indian nationalist view of history which was generated in the country’s fight for independence from British colonial rule and in the interests of unity made scant mention of the process, cruelty, negligence, slaughter and destructive wars of the earlier raids and conquests of Muslim and later Mughal warlords and kings.”
Honestly, Naipaul is as much of an Anglophile as any foreigner. He has scant concern for roots, and when he saw resurgence in the form of Hindutva he started jumping like a cat on a hot tin roof. His was a screaming assertion based on his newfound political affiliations rather than any particular affinity towards history. He went to Islamic lands with a pre-emptive idea of what to expect, and naturally he saw domes and heard azaans and all the stereotypes that his head was muddled with.
He was not writing history and, as far as anyone could see, these were not promoted as historical truths. They were travels through lands by a person who knew what he wanted to find. It was like going to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower. As basic as that.
I really don’t care whether or not he is anti-Muslim so long as he stays off India, trying to add to the already incendiary situation. Karnad’s opening fire has not done much. Naipaul has been quiet for a while, and he took his little award and returned. It is not like he visited some site and confabulated with archaeologists about how this was originally a Hindu place of worship. Had he done so, there would be a case to argue against him.
In what could not be more ironical, Karnad mentioned how Salman Rushdie called Naipaul anti-Muslim. Yes, sure. Rushdie was begging the NDA government for a visa to visit India. Rushdie has his own little chip on the shoulder, so let’s leave that out.
Here is more from Karnad:
“One of the first things Naipaul did on receiving the Nobel Prize was to visit the office of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) in Delhi. He who had earlier declared that he was not political, “that to have a political view is to be programmed”, now declared that he was happy to be politically “appropriated”. It was then that he made his most infamous remark: ‘Ayodhya,’ he said, ‘is a sort of passion. Any passion is creative. Passion leads to creativity’.”
And why is he telling us this now? Karnad was addressing a group of people who are aware. There is nothing new. Worse, the whole ‘take on Naipaul’ sounds churlish.
Music and architecture:
“A point that strikes one immediately about these books is that there is not a single word in any of these books on Indian music. And I believe that if you cannot respond to music, you cannot understand India. Music is the defining art form of the Indian identity. Naipaul’s silence on the subject when he is exploring the whole of modern Indian culture proves to me that he is tone deaf—which in turn makes him insensitive to the intricate interweaving of Hindu and Muslim creativities—through the Bhakti and Sufi movements—that have given us the extraordinary heritage, alive in the heart of every Indian home.”
This is an interesting idea. But does one need to understand music to comprehend India? Would Karnad point out other books that have woven music into history to write about India? Just adding those as embellishment is not enough.
And he falls into the same trap as many others by using the Bhakti and Sufi movements. In contemporary India, which Naipaul writes about, people use regular religious music – bhajans addressed to specific deities and naats addressed to the prophet. Many of these have been commercialised – if you care to visit the pandals and shrines, or festivals organised by private companies. Besides, I doubt whether Dr. Karnad would be interested in understanding a Ganesh aarti to the tune of “Chal, chal, chal mere haathi…”.
He then moves on to archaeology:
“Of the Taj, probably the most beloved of monuments in India, Naipaul writes, ‘The Taj is so wasteful, so decadent and in the end so cruel that it is painful to be there for very long. This is an extravagance that speaks of the blood of the people.’ He brushes off historian Romila Thapar’s argument that the Mughal era saw a rich efflorescence of the mixture of Hindu and Muslim styles, by attributing her judgment to her Marxist bias and says, ‘The correct truth is the way the invaders look at their actions. They were conquering. They were subjugating’.”
The Taj is beloved because the foreigners throng there. If it was so precious to Indians, we would do something about the Mathura Refinery that is damaging it. Besides, poets have penned songs about the decadence – Indian poets in Indian languages. I thought Karnad would know. There is no rule that says writers should love everything that is important to a country – whether their own or of others.
Would Karnad expect that anyone writing on America should be reverential about the Twin Towers? Would he expect the writers not to be biased? Would he speak out against it? Many of us have a political stand, and if 9/11 comes in, which it must, then the Twin Towers would take on a different historical perspective.
Naipaul was defended by Farrukh Dhondy.
“I happen to know through years of friendship that Sir Vidia doesn’t hate Muslims. In fact Lady Naipaul and her family are Muslims, Sir Vidia’s adopted son and daughter and two grandchildren are Muslims and he appears to love the lot.”
Right. And his cat is named Augustus. So? I had written years ago that his other trophy, in the form of Nadira, has been a master stroke. The moment he is propped up as supping with the saffron brigade he can bring out his ace.
Sure enough, this is what has been happening.
Naipaul does not like the idea of Islam, of Muslims, and of Indian Muslims. His wife is Pakistani, remember, who recently wrote a pained piece about the suffering Muslim girls in Britain. This echo chamber is probably great for their marriage, but we don’t need it.
He can continue to write his bile, and as someone said it should be termed fiction. It hardly matters. People will take him on as they have done for several years.
Having said that, it might help those who have watched this controversy unfold that if you feel so strongly about anything then have the grace to speak out when it happens. If you seek a platform at an opportune time, then you commit the same mistake the person you are accusing of.
V. S. Naipaul’s views are one-dimensional, which is why people find it easy to read him. Simplistic stuff is very appealing because readers often like to be spoon-fed.
Girish Karnad should realise that this concern for Indian Muslims only reaches out to those listening to such speeches and later reading about it. The vast majority is not affected either way. And they are the ones who have to bear the political brunt of what happens when history is distorted. Not those of us who write, stage plays, and have the luxury to look back in anger.
© Farzana Versey