Why do we protect the freedom of literature and the arts and deny the same to others, even if they might use a similar creative medium or idiom?
Salman Rushdie said in an interview:
“I really worry about how it’s become so easy to attack books, movies, paintings, works of scholarship there have been so many attacks in recent years. That trend worries me a lot. It’s partly driven by expediency. It’s easier to stop something than defend its right to happen. The police tend to blame the writer, painter, filmmaker for being a trouble-maker, rather than defend them against the actual trouble-makers creating threats, sometimes violence. I worry we’re getting things upside down – were not defending what we need to defend.”
Is there some sort of hierarchy where only a bound work of writing or a framed painting on canvas can claim legitimate freedom? There is a rich oral tradition where stories could well have undergone much change along the way, with different versions depending on who was relating them. These formulated new myths. Then, there is a thriving culture of graffiti art, slam sessions, stand-up comedy.
They are live and not likely meant to become history, although given the short attention spans today this is probably how history will be recollected – a sum of jokes, scrawls on walls and the sound of a verse slammed into our consciousness.
|Azad Maidan rally|
Where does a cop’s poem figure in this narrative? Her target was Muslims who held a rally in August last year against minority killings in Myanmar. It had turned violent. Her poem got into trouble; she has now apologised. The report in TOI states:
Traffic police inspector Sujata Patil has apologized for writing a hate poem that was published in the Mumbai Polices bulletin, Sanwwad. The poem, which had left the city police red-faced, had termed the Azad Maidan protesters as traitors and snakes and suggested that the rioters should have been gunned down.
In her apology she writes, “My poem was about crimes against women. I have written my feelings about atrocities against women. My intention was not to hurt anyone’s religious sentiments.”
No liberal would sympathise with her. The reason would be that it is hate speech directed against one community, a group. Here is one bit: “Had we cut off their hands nobody would have complained. We feed milk to the snakes and then talk of harmony.” Should we treat her words in literary or political terms, when politicians resort to such language often? This is a rhetorical query, for the expression of freedom can never be absolute. It is relative to a situation and relies on a mindset. In that sense, it is reactionary.
However, if we apply a certain standard for this cop, then we need to introspect about other forms of expression too. The argument proffered by writers and artists is that there cannot be such shackles on creativity. A work of writing or painting is not geared to incite hate. But, does it not?
Zero Dark Thirty has been criticised for its ‘tolerance of torture’. Its director Katherine Bigelow giving her version said:
"But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen."
Unfortunately, the reaction goes beyond the torture as expressed by some viewers:
|Snapshots of responses|
These are reflexive responses and might not have a long-lasting impact.
The cop’s poem would have reached all the police stations and a force of 44,000, which is often a lot more than the number of copies most books sell. However, due to the media attention it got for its ‘hate-filled’ message, it reached many more people. So, who should be censored and censured here – the poet-cop or the newspapers and television channels?
A pertinent point here is that, like political hate speech, this poem could influence the police. It is a known fact that there are a number of cops who are biased, to begin with. The poem is not merely a creative work; it is an expression of just such a preconception. Let us begin with the premise that we are all prejudiced in some way. How do we judge the impact of what we express? Does self-censorship not contradict artistic license? Is there a simple yardstick for all of us to follow across cultures?
And, on a larger scale, the question is: should individual expression not be used as a standard collective opinion? Undoubtedly, it ought not to. Individual creativity may be influenced by the environment, but it gets filtered through an intricate process between subject and response. Yet, fairytales too can be analysed for political meanings. It is a minefield and reality is perception here.
Therefore, much of the symbolism may not register as creatively as it was meant to be expressed. It will be read in a soap-box scenario. What does one do, then?
The Jaipur Literary Festival is once again in the news, and not for books. The rightwing RSS does not want Pakistani writers to be allowed to participate. Just the other day, the country’s hockey players were sent off home. The reason this time is that earlier in the month there was a firing incident across the ceasefire line at the border in which two Indian soldiers were killed, their bodies mutilated. Much has been written about it, including an Indian armyman’s denial. While this sparked off varied emotions, from anger to remorse to schizophrenic talk of war and peace among political parties and civilians with social network accounts, it did not stop diplomatic ties.
The Hindutva groups are using nationalism as their calling card. It really is an assertion of their political credo. Is it any different from last year when some Muslim organisations protested against Salman Rushdie’s participation? There was devious literary politics at the time. He was to read from Midnight’s Children and not The Satanic Verses, which is banned in India. Who started the fire? Why did four authors read excerpts from the banned book when it was not on the agenda? Was it an act of rebellion or a marketing strategy that got the festival a whole lot of additional publicity?
I say this because the New York Times piece on this year’s festival shows a photograph from last year. In the foreground is the back of the head of a skull-capped man, an unmistakable reminiscence. A ghost that will transmogrify into another demon, with another set of strictures.
Despite my love for words and art and all things creative, I do believe that the artiste cannot and does not live on an island. If we wish to show the mirror to society, we cannot afford to ignore the fact that it also holds our own reflection.
I do not like what the cop wrote. I do not like what some authors write. I understand symbolism. There is a difference between the two. In intent and expression. But the cop, crossing all boundaries, is the pariah here in the elite and rarefied world of arts. A litterateur who might milk tragedy, and agitate about being beaten by the system, by fundamentalists, by riots, and probably write such angry, hateful words would continue to be the pampered poodle. This I do not understand.
Those who claim to fathom nuances seem to selectively miss out on these layers.
© Farzana Versey