The emptiness of literary protest

The drama at Jaipur was a spoof of political protest — two narcissistic teenagers playing politics without creating the substance of one

The Jaipur Literature Festival saw the long shadow of The Satanic Verses displace any other controversy or literary debate. Four authors read out sections from the book to protest against Salman Rushdie’s absence, triggered in part by a threat to his life.
The spectacle of the reading created an empty drama that left me oddly dissatisfied. Let me be clear. The ban on Rushdie’s work is not justified. Freedom of speech and creativity are vital issues when the state like a giant termite is eating up our freedom. But as writers, we have to ask what our responsibility for the riots or deaths that might follow the lifting of the censorship, is. I think Rushdie is a fabulous writer. But he was unfair to himself when he saw the protest at the festival as a defence of his work.

Let me state my understanding of the event. The writers, especially Hari Kunzru, critic Amitav Kumar, poet Jeet Thayil and filmmaker Ruchir Joshi, read out sections from Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. The book is banned and in that sense, the act was a violation of law. As protesters, as resisters, the writers should have stood their ground and stayed put. Instead, they left, fleeing the place, fearing arrest.
Suddenly, the drama took on a different connotation. An act of protest appeared flimsy, almost adolescent. It emerged as an act of cowardice. Instead of adding to the politics of protest, they made a laughing stock of themselves. One realises that the logic of literature and the grammar of protest have their own separate demands.
Protest has a code, a system of norms. It demands conviction and courage. It demands clarity of messages. This protest did not follow a satayagrahic code. It was not an act of civil disobedience, which refuses to obey an unfair law and stands its ground, by challenging the law, confronting it and accepting the punishment. The protest would have meant something.
A Thoreau or a Gandhi or Solzhenitsyn would have gone to jail. If Kunzru and Amitav Kumar had done that, they would have won respect. Now they sound merely like attention-grabbing diasporics. Worse, they reinforce stereotypes between an English-speaking elite and the regional culture. Literature has to break stereotypes, not reinforce them.
There was something adolescent about the act; something weak-kneed about the way they left town hinting that the organisers had suggested it. Courage cannot be a mere capsule or byte on TV. What could have been an act of eloquence in defending free speech, a critique of fundamentalism, a challenge to the state turned out to be empty liberal rhetoric, mere sentiment without political substance. Instead of heroism, what we had was empty heroics.
Contrast the behaviour of a Kunzru or a Kumar with a Teesta Setalvad, an Aruna Roy or a Medha Patkar. They might have shared their sentiments about Rushdie but their protest would have carved a different message. It would have a sense of courage, a readiness to debate, a sense of the other, not the body language of arrogance, of an argument that cannot stand bodily ground. As aesthetic, ethical, political performances, the reading of The Satanic Verses was an empty, over publicised performance. As a literary act, it was absurd drama, which let the state and the fundamentalists off the hook. Instead of emphasising the power of literary protest, the authors reduced themselves to one constituency among a set of competing constituencies at election time.
Suddenly the state looked more responsible, and the Muslim clerics more embedded. They appeared as if they had their feet on the ground thinking reasonably.
Let us compare this superficial act with other recent protests. Anna Hazare may not be a liberal like them but he stood his ground. His word was his bond. He understood the authenticity of the oral word, its autonomy from the written text. Kumar and Kunzru, as oral performers, emptied the word, serving as echoes of a text which lacked the power of the word as a bond. They were slapstick portrayals of literary courage rather than exemplars of it. You do not create the Arab Spring or the Hazare movement with performances like that.
In fact the mullah feels his life and lifestyle is justified before the cowardly literariness of the two authors. The drama at Jaipur was a spoof of political protest. Anyone who has looked at protest over the century would merely see two narcissistic teenagers playing politics without creating the substance of one.
Let me suggest something to our two literary lions. There are forums of debate all over India. There is a wonderful theatre group which debates literature every year and beats the Jaipur festival hands down. It is the theatre-cum-literary festival at Hegudu, Karnataka. Here a community hosts and debates work of literature from all over the world. Writers like Ashis Nandy and U.R. Ananthmurthy have often been there to debate literature and politics. Please come there over the next year and see how democracy and literature can work together.
It will show you that fighting censorship is not a rhetorical act but a lived drama which cannot be enacted only in the power of virtual space. Protest has to be embodied even in an age of digital courage. It is clear that literary lions may not always be political lions.
Please understand that I may admire your writing but I do not think life and work get separated in politics. Protest is the one place where the life of a book and the book of life blend. Here is your chance to prove me wrong and add to the conversation between literature and democracy.

The writer is a social science nomad

Comments

Excellent piece. The sanest

Excellent piece. The sanest voice to emerge from that Tower of Babel.

Good for you Shiv! Lovely

Good for you Shiv! Lovely piece. Need more social science nomads in this country!

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