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 of The Satanic Verses will not be able to grace us with his company there has been a security hassle.
When Rushdie tweeted that he had been informed about Mumbai mafia coming down to Diggi Palace Jaipur to assassinate him and thus can’t attend the fest, the situation soon got out of hand as the 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 oft discussed human right in almost all 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' between Siddhartha Gigoo, Tahmima Anam, PrasoonJoshi, Charu Nivedita, Cheran and 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 disapora, answered most questions with personal anecdotes and his views provided the listeners with two very 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.
Almost picking up from Cheran’s argument, Bangladeshi writer Tahmima Aman raised a very vital point that not only does censorship reflect the State at 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 distractive world wide web/e-books to the good old paperback or hardcover editions. Cheran lamented he way 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 weren’t being made in Bollywood, came up with an interesting suggestion for film makers. That they should not just throw in cuss words randomly into the script or lyrics or show a couple of explicit scenes to be subversive. Instead, subversion should occur at the level of plot, the issues being addressed in the films.
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 it at all occurs) happen on the basisof its “consequences.” 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 attended simultaneously, two talks, one which saw Amy Chua defending her new book “Tiger Mothers” as well as 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 a satirical take on the plights 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 even gleaned through them.
This tied up nicely with a widely agreed with comment made by Shoma Chaudhury during the 10:00session at Tata Steel Front Lawns. Most people who had come out to condemn 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 following a particular history of a nation closely which enlivened the discussion between Joseph Lelyveld, MJ Akbar, Sunil Khilnani, Aruna Roy, S. Anand moderated by Urvashi Butalia. While S. Anand’s acerbic attacks on the JLF organisers have captured the mass media 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)and that 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 also doesn’t stem out from a widespread ignorance about the multi-ethnic fabric which composes modern society.
After having waited for A.C. Grayling for over an hour to arrive and “defend” the European Enlightenment, one 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 but Steven Pinker nuanced this argument further. Pinker suggested that being rational in the judgment of things, even while freely expressing or questioning certain dogmas, must see to a proportion being maintained between the critic’s emotions and reasoning faculty. Every individual who questions dogma must remember 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 for 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, this formed the heart and soul of this discussion.
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 also 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.
(Samik Dasgupta is a post-graduate student of literature at Delhi University with a special interest in censorship and literature)