Democracy of disgust
The personal is political. And the political is personal too. Only the incurably innocent or doggedly somnambulant would refuse to recognise this. Literature — some more than others — helps us relate to the conflict between the two, shows us how one affects or balances the other. Through this, literature helps us understand ourselves and our world.
So it is not surprising that a writer who has brilliantly critiqued the personal as the political and the political as personal would speak his mind on the politics of the day. Nor is the rabid response to it a surprise.
Last week, U.R. Ananthamurthy, extraordinary fiction writer, essayist, poet and distinguished public intellectual, said he would not wish to live in an India where Narendra Modi was Prime Minister. This opened the floodgates of hatred from Modi followers. They hit out at the venerated 80-year-old, plastering the Internet with hate speech, calling him names, sending him money for a one-way ticket out of the country. (I hope he accepts the money and donates it to deserving causes that don’t interest these zealous givers.) Ananthamurthy was shocked. He had criticised Jawaharlal Nehru, he recalled, he had campaigned against Indira Gandhi and the Emergency, but he had never faced such coarse threats and abuse. “If this is not fascism, what is?” he wondered. “If this is the situation even before the elections, what will happen if Modi comes to power?”
When a few days later, he was asked by the media whether he still stood by his comment, Ananthamurthy replied: “I stand by my sentence with a modification: I don’t want to live in a world where Modi is Prime Minister.” It was not about anger or irritation or running away from an unpleasant situation. It was about heartbreaking disappointment and profound disgust. And in this Ananthamurthy is not alone.
For many Indians disgust seems to be the defining emotion for our current political situation. An age of unreason, marked by a chilling absence of ethics, shaped by violence, cradling debilitating discontent. It is not easy to be a silent witness to the steady demolition of the idea of India, especially if you feel strongly about equality, pluralism, justice and democratic freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
And for many, that disgust is not only because of the possibility of Modi, widely regarded as a mass murderer, becoming our Prime Minister. It is disgust for the whole situation that allows Modi to be a prime ministerial candidate. For the corruption that shapes public life, for the violence that powers our politics, for the failures in governance that permit sectarian violence, for the cold-blooded, politically planned massacres targeting particular faiths or castes, for the “honour killings”, for the absence of law and order, for a government that desperately tries (but fails, one suspects) to keep criminal MPs and MLAs in power going against a Supreme Court order. Modi merely crowns that mountain of disgust.
But why is Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party more of a monster than the Congress after the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi? Why is Modi’s BJP so icky-yucky if the deeply corrupt and quite sectarian Congress is not? I guess it is a matter of degree. And shame. Apart from the viciousness of violence in Gujarat, the revulsion springs from the shamelessness and lack of remorse that followed — right up to Modi’s recent admission that he feels as much remorse as he would if a kutte ka bachcha (son of a dog) came under his wheels on the streets. It springs from the smug satisfaction that is evident in the barefaced way the BJP carries on its much touted governance, speckled by encounter killings, brazenly blaming Muslims for terror attacks that may have been carried out by Hindu fanatics, for the way they need to dress Muslims up in skull caps and burqas to show their secular appeal in a theatre of the absurd. For their skewed idea of governance and development. For their audacious inauthenticity. For their contempt for justice. For their bare-faced, fish-eyed lack of shame. For not even having a trace of what in Bengali we would call chokkhu lajja, the shame in the eye. The shame that holds you back at the precipice.
True to form, the Modi brigade continues their abusive, uncivilised rampage against Ananthamurthy. Why can’t a writer just shut up and write, they scream, and keep his nose out of politics?
Not surprisingly, this argument of the illiterate exhibits not just ignorance of literature but also ignorance about Ananthamurthy. This is a writer who saw India break free, who was devoted to the idea of a new democratic India, a socialist writer who stepped out of his traditional priestly family to help build a casteless, egalitarian India, who dipped his pen in the wisdom of the ancient epics to show the way forward in a society wounded by rotting tradition and savage custom.
Ananthamurthy has always been very political. He has even tried party politics. His fiction does not just hold up a mirror to society, it shows in graphic detail and sparkling clarity what is wrong with it. Powerful novels like Samskara and short stories like Ghatashraddha (both have been made into films) made Ananthamurthy a literary giant in Kannada, one with a rare understanding of Indian tradition and an unwavering conscience.
For Ananthamurthy, literature is political — it has to respond to the challenges of the times. A writer does not write in a vacuum. He lives and breathes in a society and needs to be critically aware of his surroundings. Ananthamurthy believes that every writer needs to be a “critical insider” to their tradition, like Mahatma Gandhi was. “We, as writers, will have to be conscientious witnesses to the terrible events of our times,” Ananthamurthy said after the 2002 Gujarat massacres, “as well as act as citizens to restore sanity and compassion.” He believes Modi must be opposed because he is a very big bully and will break the spirit of India, creating a country of spineless, unfree cowards.
In the cacophony that has become the mainstay of our politics, voices of sanity often go unheard. Democracy is about freedom of thought and debate, about our critical engagement in governance. We forget that as citizens we have a responsibility to speak out. And not be cowed by the barks of hate-mongers. We must not allow lowly rabble-rousers to rob us of this basic right. Even if we are deeply disgusted.
The writer is editor of The Little Magazine