5.11.12

Karnad, Naipaul and Areas of Darkness

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:

Sycophancy:

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. 
Anti-Muslim:

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.

Muslim love:

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

10 comments:

  1. >>willing to travel on the Muslim gravy cart because Islam is the best little rock show in town at a given time

    hope you have not copy-righted this one :)

    there might be more gems, let me read up the rest.

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  2. FV,

    If Naipaul can be condemned in toto solely on basis of his opinions about Islamic invasion of India, then even Karnad can be trashed as a raving idiot based on this one episode, his career in art be damned.

    The irony is that you are guilty of the same 'crime' you mock-accuse Tughlaq Karnad of. You have ridiculed (with malice) and then condemned people to hell solely on account of their being perceived to be anti-Muslim! Need a hint as to the name?

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    QUOTE: "Islam is the best little rock show in town.."

    I think sekulaarism is the hallal-est circus in town. The clowns have funny red beards and caps and here too, they keep throwing random stuff at each other!

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    QUOTE: "...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."

    Ah!! never heard you saying it about the bollywood Khans, Farooq/Omar Abdullah, Salman Khurshid, Javed Akhtar and the rest of the Love Jehadis. Or is it unsekulaar to say so? Besides, you seem to be unaware that you are unilaterally ascribing motives to Naipaul. Remember this topic was offered to you by Tughlaq Karnad, and not by Naipaul.

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    QUOTE: "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."

    ???????? Did I say 'raving idiot' some time back? Must not repeat the term! Where is the Thesaurus when I need one?

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    QUOTE: "Simplistic stuff is very appealing because people like to be spoon-fed."

    This applies squarely to most of the sekulaar discourse. Pro-Muslim? Hail!! Anti-Muslim? flog!! There are only two shades to everything- green and, well un-green!

    Thankfully, spoon-feeding works only with infants and they are known to grow up faster than expected.

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    At the end of it, let me say that I have always found Tughlaq Karnad to be a an overrated megalomaniac actor. I am no more afraid of the snooty art-world elites floating in stratosphere! Can I make a speech thanking Naipaul for that?

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  3. Its kind of funny that the only reason I know about this event is because you wrote about it. Not to defend Mr Karnad but I think this was a perfect place for him to air his opinions and dislike for Mr Naipaul. Like you said most common folk don't know Mr Naipaul very well, may be they heard about him but really have no particular feeling for him. Lets be honest he is only known in a very select circle of people. A few might have read his writings and have an opinion and he is now more famous for winning the Nobel but that's the Nobel prize, winning it makes them famous even if we have no idea exactly why they got it and how they are better than others.
    Here we have a nice little gathering of people who are hopefully most familiar with both of them. So he just took the opportunity, even if its not the appropriate place to do so. May be at his age he doesn't care what is appropriate or not, just wants his opinion heard by people who have some understanding of what he is trying to say. What better place to diss a guy than where he just got some kind of honour? It seems to have served the purpose, Sir Vidia will now hear about it, perhaps stew over it and Mr Karnad can sleep easier having made his point.

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  4. Hitesh:

    Hmm, everything is copyrighted, but looks like the 'gems' dried up!

    ---
    F&F:

    Nope. I have condemned people for crimes. One is not looking for love. Get over it. I have accused Karnad, not mock-accused him.If you read up some stuff supporting him you will know the difference, i.e. if you choose to. Incidentally, I don't yet have a clue about your stand.

    Oh, of course, you've mentioned pseudo-seculars. One size fits all...

    Re. Nadira, remember we are talking about Naipaul. And yes, I have mentioned the others when relevant.

    And this topic has been written about before Karnad "offered" it to me.

    Had the lady been in Pakistan, you might not have been so sympathetic towards her.

    Simplistic stuff is not confined to discourse on religion. Many ideas are left unexplored. But then, a Thesaurus might not be of much help to figure that out.

    Also, kindly explain your use of the term "raving idiot". What is the context? And what are you raving about?

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  5. Sai:

    I am holding my ground on this. Karnad waited for ten years, and came prepared, did not give any inkling of what he planned.

    If he thought this was the right time, he could have called for a separate press conference. I might add, he quoted Kannada writer Shashi Deshpande mentioning Rushdie. These people have short memories. Ms. Deshpande had lambasted Rushdie when he left out regional literature from an anthology of Indian writing, and was dismissive about it.

    Re. Naipaul, he was well-known in literary circles and among readers well before the Nobel. In fact, many said he got it too late.

    Such festivals are essentially ego trips and good for networking.

    I stick to the opinion that Karnad would have come out better had he boycotted the event.

    PS: Am glad there are some things you discover here. Mumbai Mirror picked up the Daily Mirror report on the Chinese man suing his "ugly" wife today. I wrote and analysed it three days ago :-)

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  6. Safdar:

    It’s good that people like Karnad speak against anti-Islam bandwagon, else you will ONLY hear about Islamic-terror, Jihad and barbaric invaders…and slowing everyone around me will start believing in it (as they believe that Gujarat has come from rag to riches in last 10 years )
    Following are my disagreements with your objections,
    1. Don’t feel sorry for audience as they anyway must have enjoyed his talk (even if they didn't agree on content)
    2. People may have written about Naipaul's views, but does it sparked a debate like this. It takes a person like Karnad to shake the elite. (As you point out common man don’t give a s%#t)
    3. Isn't it very naive to think that Karnad
    • Should ask for an approval from organizers about the content/subject of his speech
    • Ask "basis of choice” for the honor, did he get any answer from organizers even now?
    4. Mentioning Rushdie was like quoting Nitish Kumar's view against Modi to a BJP follower
    5. Totally disagree on "speak out when it happens", Karnad does not write or speak so often. It’s okay to speak when you have time and audience. “Der aaye durust aaye”

    ReplyDelete
  7. FV,

    QUOTE: " Incidentally, I don't yet have a clue about your stand."

    Gee thanks! Exactly my intention. My personal opinions are not of much consequence. I am just a nobody with no say, my internet connection notwithstanding. What is important are the questions. Hopefully they will make you (and other proponents of the same stands as taken by you) realize the hypocricy.
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    QUOTE: "..kindly explain your use of the term 'raving idiot'"

    With pleasure. I read the two back-to-back sentences (quoted in my comment) and could not get the connection between them even after stretching my imagination. Unconnected words and sentences said in succession indicate insanity. At least to a mind that considers itself sane! The first sentence makes monumental assumptions about Naipaul while the very next one goes on to talk about his wife's writings about girls in London et al. The insinuated logic, if not dismisssed as idiocy, would be termed sinister.

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  8. no they did not.

    >>jumping like a cat on a hot tin roof.

    although, in another discussion thread it is said that he had held his views for a long time.

    >>It was like going to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower.

    But, we are all guilty of it at one time or another. There is a widespread frustration about corruption and tyranny in developing world but its mostly a religious fundamentalist movements in disguise.

    >>The Taj is beloved because the foreigners throng there.

    Naipaul is controversial because he is Sir Vidia with Nobel. He is also John McEnroe of English Literature.

    >> they are the ones who have to bear the political brunt of what happens when history is distorted.

    they are the canvass on which history is painted; time and again.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hitesh:

    Holding views for a long time does not mean you cannot hop around when you have a special audience.

    But, we are all guilty of it at one time or another. There is a widespread frustration about corruption and tyranny in developing world but its mostly a religious fundamentalist movements in disguise.

    Do we visit places to see just how fundamentalist movements are? And if we do, we might be accused of going with a prior idea and choose only to see that. As I mentioned in the Eiffel Tower example.

    Naipaul is controversial because he is Sir Vidia with Nobel. He is also John McEnroe of English Literature.

    The latter is a matter of opinion. He got the Nobel and knighthood after his controversial positions. Because of them? Who knows.

    >> they are the ones who have to bear the political brunt of what happens when history is distorted.

    they are the canvass on which history is painted; time and again


    History is selective. Over painting distorts further.
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    F&F:

    Only because you take a hazy position, do not justify it as exposing hypocrisy. That’s way too lame.

    The Nadira comment you refer to was a response to Farrukh Dhondy. If anyone is being sinister it is you, for you have chosen selectively. It is quite obvious to anyone that I have questioned Karnad here. My views on Naipual do not need a new hinge.

    Next time you post here, keep in mind that I will not, repeat will not, tolerate intemperate language, especially from someone who does not appear to make connections. That is something you need to find out about yourself.

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  10. Safdar:

    I thought there were too many “pseudo sekulaars”, according to some, who spoke up against anti-Islam bandwagon. Is there a ‘debate’ even now? I am afraid but Karnad has gone berserk. He is giving interviews calling Naipaul an “old fogey”. It has become a tamasha, and no one is enlightened. If they are only because of this, I would doubt their ability to think. And this controversy has not reached the common man, anyway.

    Re your point about Karnad and the organisers, I did not say he should have sought approval for his speech, but he was asked./had chosen a subject. This is normal protocol. It is not your house or the corner adda. The citation mentions why Naipaul got the award. Surely, it is not for walking his dog, if he has any.

    Karnad mentioned Rushdie.

    Totally disagree on "speak out when it happens", Karnad does not write or speak so often. It’s okay to speak when you have time and audience. “Der aaye durust aaye”

    So, ten years ago when it apparently affected him a lot, he went about his life quite okay with the crap. He is well-known within certain circles – he would have found a forum, especially for a topic like this. There is always an audience for it. The ‘Der aaye durust aaye’ is perhaps a lot of lightening that struck him.

    I am afraid, but we disagree.

    ReplyDelete

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