A matter of debate
VS Naipaul’s view of history may not be as rounded as it should be. But many historians and authors are known to use a particular focus to their approach to history. Anil Dharker writes.india Updated: Nov 09, 2012 23:39 IST
Dear Girish Karnad,
By now our little skirmish is not only over, it has a happy ending. A couple of days after your fiery speech at Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest, I rang to invite you to the next edition of the festival in 2013. To speak about theatre, I added. Yes, you said. And that should be that.
Except it isn’t. Our ‘little skirmish’ isn’t very little, what with every newspaper of note, and every national TV channel, and every blogger worth his weight in words, has gone to town with it. You and I have appeared on the same TV channels, though regrettably, not at the same time. I suppose you were busy going from one studio to another, so what I — along with very many viewers — saw was a pre-recorded interview. No matter, though I would have dearly loved to question you on some of the things you said.
When you think of it, your grouse is not so much with me, as with VS Naipaul. I come into the picture only as an accessory to the “crime”, so to speak. Your real adversary in the duel is the Nobel laureate though it’s a strange duel with only one combatant present (you, of course). The other ‘combatant’ is not only unarmed, he is not even aware he has to fight.
That is my second complaint. My first is obvious: we had invited you to speak about your life in theatre, a subject you accepted; the audience had packed NCPA’s Experimental Theatre to listen to you speak on this topic… Yet without so much as a by — your — leave you launched into your attack on Naipaul. As for my second complaint, it is that you didn’t allow me, or Farrukh Dhondy, or anyone else who didn’t agree with you to have a say. What you obviously wanted wasn’t a dialogue, but a diatribe. Being on the stage and with a microphone in your hand, you got your way. (By the way, as the Festival director, I was within my rights to stop your speech when you went into unannounced territory, but I didn’t. Some of us, at least, respect free speech).
Whether I agree with your views on Naipaul or not is immaterial. We are a free country, the world of letters is a world full of differing views; assent and dissent, argument and counter-argument, discussion and debate are the elements which stimulate thought and ideas. What I don’t agree at all is with the emotional arguments in your talk through which you linked the Landmark Literature Live! Lifetime Achievement Award we gave to Naipaul to the anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai in 1992-1993.
Let us see how you arrive at that far-fetched connection: Naipaul has written about the Mughal dynasty’s occasional destruction of monuments and temples; the demolition of the Babri Masjid was in retaliation of these acts; the killing of innocent Muslims in 1992-1993 was a fallout of the Babri Masjid demolition; therefore Naipaul is to blame for the killing of Muslims; by giving an award to Naipaul, we are therefore condoning the killings!
Now that you are away from the NCPA’s theatre spotlight, cool, rational thought will tell you that history cannot be wished away. If some Mughal rulers indulged in wanton destruction they did so using their own twisted rationale. Writing about it does not make the writer complicit in the wrongdoing. The post-Babri Masjid violence happened not because Naipaul wrote or spoke about historical incidents in the past, but because the BJP and Shiv Sena very deliberately made it happen in the present, and the Congress government in Maharashtra was paralysed into inaction. These are not opinions, but irrefutable facts. (It’s important to add here that only the bigoted and the extremists would hold today’s Muslims responsible for what happened centuries ago).
Your other assumption of Naipaul being anti-Muslim is debatable, to say the least. He is married to a Muslim, and has been for the last 17 years. His wife’s two children by a previous marriage are being brought up as Muslims, all of which would be unlikely if he were so against the religion as you claim him to be. In spite of that, it is quite possible that Naipaul’s view of history may not be as rounded as it should be in that he ignores Hindu-Muslim collaborations of that era which resulted in great art, music and architecture. But many historians — or those who write about history — use a particular focus to their approach to history. Marxist historians are a case in point. Whether they should, or shouldn’t, is a good subject for debate.
As for the Lifetime Achievement Award… Well, as the name suggests, it is for a lifetime’s work. You can admire a writer’s work, and wish to reward it, without necessarily agreeing with everything he has to say. We would be a terribly boring and conformist society if we only applauded those we agreed with. You, of all people, should be aware of that.
We will see you next year, and talk about theatre.
The author is a Mumbai-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.