Uday Prakash is one of the few front-ranking writers of contemporary Hindi fiction to enjoy a multi-lingual readership. His Sahitya Akademi-award winning novel, Mohandas (2010), has been made into a Hindi film starring Sonali Kulkarni. His books have been translated into English and German. Longlisted for the American Literary Translation Association's 2014 National Translation Award, Prakash's The Girl with the Golden Parasol has been published by Yale University Press. Through the pages of his novels and short stories, the slum child, the labourer, the sweeper, the judge forced to retire, the schoolteacher, mark their noisy protest. This is a world the writer knows. A former assistant professor at JNU, Prakash stays in Vaishali, a once dusty margin in between Delhi and Ghaziabad now ringed by malls and luxury hotels. Here, he talks about the provocation behind his decision, the subsequent social media furore and the fratricidal Hindi literary establishment.
MM Kalburgi was killed. You want to return your Sahitya Akademi award. Some people say they don't see the connection.
So many incidents of suppression and violence, not just physical, happened in a short span of time. AK Ramanujan's book was banned, Wendy Doniger's book pulped, Govind Pansare killed, and others attacked, UR Ananthmurthy asked to migrate to Pakistan. And now Kalburgi. A Sahitya Akademi award winner and former vice-chancellor of a university is killed, yet the HRD minister or the Sahitya Akademi has not come up with even one statement of displeasure or anguish. I was in my village when the incident happened. For six days there was no electricity. And I thought this is not a government that cares for us.
Earlier governments were better? How do you define your politics?
Politicians should be asked that question. I have received only one recognition from the state and I wanted to return it. I'm not with the Congress; the question of being with the BJP does not arise; the Left does not consider me Left. But I'm a citizen-writer and I know what is happening around me.
You were acquainted with Kalburgi?
I have met him twice. My novel Mohandas was translated into Kannada and English, which I consider an Indian language. Kalburgi had written against idol worship but the quote that is ascribed to him - that in his childhood he urinated on idols - is wrong. Kalburgi was referring to a sentence of UR Ananthmurthy but people started saying it was his. A writer works differently through myths and metaphors, they should not be taken literally.
Myths have their uses.
Faiz Ahmed Faiz never worked by denouncements. During Zia-ul-Haq's authoritarian regime in Pakistan, he wrote the poem 'Hum dekhengey.' He wrote'…bus naam rahegaa Allah kaa/ jo Gaayab bhii hai haazir bhii/ jo manzar bhii hai naazir bhii(Only Allah's name will remain/He who is absent and present/He who is both the sight and the one who sees). Revolution and the Day of Reckoning are both yet to come. Faiz cleverly uses a sacralised religious notion as a metaphor for social revolution in the secular sense.
The murder of a writer is unconscionable. Without in anyway connecting the two, do you feel that Rationalists and Marxists also need to understand the material basis of bigotry and superstition?
The Marxist poet Muktibodh worshipped Ganesh; he had a photograph of Tilak in his living room; he wrote a poem on Shivaji, so Indian Marxists have their own cultural mythologies. You can't compare them with others. But the new economy wiped out the middle class, which is the class from which Marxist intellectuals would come. So the story of their uprootedness begins there. Myths and superstitions, it is true, can play a positive role if you re-interpret, read and understand them well. In my story Warren Hastings ka Saand, some said I had become sanghi, an RSS man, because the story showed sympathy for a cow! Cows do have minds, memories... Where does the 'magic' of Marquez's magic realism come from? From the myths and superstitions, the smaller faiths and the pluralism of his continent. Half my family is Christian. I'm a Shaiv by birth. My wife does not belong to my caste. My daughter-in-law is French. So who am I?
Yogi Adityanath, regarded as a Hindu ultra-nationalist, felicitated you at a function. How does that tie in with your opinion of the present political set-up and the return of a literary award as a critique of its policies?
On my cousin's first death anniversary, I was invited to the college of which he had been the principal. He was a VHP member but then I also have relatives who are with the Left. It was a kind of family gathering. I had no idea Adityanath would be present. Later I came to know he was the chairperson of the governing council of college. No money, no shawl, I was just presented with a glass memento but it was enough for hundreds of emails to be circulated, and some writers to demand an explanation on why I was sharing a dais with Adityanath.
In 2010 when you received the Sahitya Akademi award were you as critical of the government of the day?
Even then I was critical in my speech. But in life, there are some eternal enemies, they will not change their mind about me. It is the duty of the Akademi to help, assist and protect writers. But they are not fulfilling those duties. Do a caste census of the Sahitya Akademi winning writers and the people running the organisation, and you will see which castes are dominant there. In the Akademi's directory of writers, they did not even include my name till some people protested. Language tells you many things about a society. In the Hindi department of most universities, even the peon is a Brahmin.
You wrote about this in 'The Girl with the Golden Parasol.'
I didn't argue against the caste system by quoting Vedas and scriptures but through a love story that pointed to the long history of intermingling among castes. No caste can claim purity so on what basis can you have a caste system?
From Bhartendu Harishchandra's conservative Hindi-Hindu linguistic project to the Hindi literary tradition of dissent embodied by literary figures such as Muktibodh and Shamsher…as a writer, where do you place yourself?
Bhartendu's tradition of purification continues till today. Arabic, Pali, Prakrit words have been removed from Hindi; tatsam words (words taken originally from Sanskrit without any change) dominate. The Hindi being taught in various academic courses, I do not understand it. We have to realise that the Hindi spoken in different parts of the country is different. At a lecture, actor Balraj Sahni, who was from Jalandhar, said in Bombay, he had learnt his Hindi from Bimal Roy.
The belief in the purity and uniformity of culture is the condition that made possible Kalburgi's murder. Can your gesture be seen as more than an individual's act: the trigger for a larger cultural politics of resistance?
Nathuram Godse killed Mahatma. A single act can become a sign, a signal. It has ripple effects. Artists, activists don't have commandos, and the government or some organisation should protect them. Writers, as Barthes said, are like prophets. They write; they have no other business.
Is the middle ground possible?
They have wiped away the liberal moderate space. Are they trying to make this a multi-fanatic society? There used to be a buffer zone. The artist's space is on no-man's land. It's a grey area. A space where people can meet after ceasefire.