Until about a fortnight ago, few Indian millennials had heard of Nayantara Sahgal or Shashi Deshpande or Uday Prakash. They had possibly heard of Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh but only because the former had been persecuted by “the mullahs” and once had a pulchritudinous wife, and the latter’s book launches are media events.
Actually, why single out the turn-of-the-century cohort, even its older sibling the Post Liberalisation Generation, engaged as it has been, since the early 1990s, in the all-consuming task of making money, hasn’t been particularly literary. Chetan Bhagat is the most successful writer to have emerged from that bunch.
Perhaps the serious pursuit of literature belonged to a more genteel time, before 24 hour television and social media when state sponsored pogroms couldn’t become Youtube sensations, lynchings over beef eating went unreported, and everyone pretended not to notice that Indian cities were segregated.
Suddenly, we are talking about all that and about literature too; yelling actually, in television studios, on comment threads, on Twitter and Facebook. In virtual speech bubbles, we now outrage for days at celebrities, at journalists, at those who don’t share our political views. All this could have been enjoyable, educative even, in a twisted way, and sometimes it is. However, the rancour tends to break through into the real world.
Here, the real divide, it would seem, isn’t between the conservative and the liberal, but between those who value a life of the mind; who like MK Gandhi, “want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible”, and those who are resolutely anti-intellectual, who prefer their windows to be stuffed. For the latter, the idea of independent thought is repulsive and dangerous. Suddenly, they seem to be the ones speaking the loudest.
It is true that the killing of Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi and the lynching of Akhlaq are all part of the push towards excluding minorities of all kinds -- those who aren’t part of great stream of Hinduism and those whose ideas don’t conform. In a culture that has encouraged the questioning even of the idea of divinity, this aversion towards intellectuals is new and strangely, both Puritan and 1950s-American-McCarthyite in its character.
Romila Thapar, one of the favourite targets of the armies of the offended puts it well in her introduction to her latest book, The Public Intellectual in India: “The demand for burning and pulping books continues apace, together with the virulent abuse of the authors wherever possible and more so in the social media. The abuse is louder when it comes from those who proudly claim not to have read the books they are condemning … The laws of blasphemy are probably not far behind.”
In this suddenly claustrophobic land, those who protest against a murder or hold fast to liberal views are immediately branded as Maoists. At the very least, they are degenerates who eat whole cows live. Journalists are all presstitutes and ah, news traders.
These are labels fashioned by narrow minds that refuse to condemn violence and bullying unless it’s by the ‘enemy’, minds that appreciate only sentimental poetry and “wholesome” literature. They fear the power of questioning, fear its ability to dismantle hierarchies, to mix categories, to hasten the crumbling of old certainties.
The Shiv Sena’s dousing of Sudheendra Kulkarni at the Kasuri book launch and its refusal to allow Ghulam Ali to perform in Mumbai are manifestations of that party’s evergreen stupidity. Aditya Thackeray might have attended St Xavier’s College but his intellect clearly hasn’t been improved by the experience. Still, the current comic book villainy of the Shiv Sena - much reduced in influence since its glory days during the riots of 1993 - is insignificant compared to the madness overtaking the nation.
Last week, another individual “of a certain community” was lynched for alleged cattle smuggling, and the chief minister of Haryana proclaimed that Muslims must give up eating beef. It’s like the nation is being held back by Vikram’s hideous Vetaal, even as it attempts to hurtle into a developed future. It was the promise of development that won the prime minister his mandate but thus far, India seems to be marching ahead with its head screwed on backwards.
The few supporters with intellectual heft have grown disillusioned. “I see now that I was focused too much on the world the election would supplant, and too little on the one it would bring into being… the people, now in charge, might not possess the intellectual power needed to run the country,” writes Aatish Taseer in the New York Times. “The cabinet, save for the rare exception, is made up of too many crude, bigoted provincials, united far more by a lack of education than anything so grand as ideology.”
Taseer’s comments might reek of Mani Shankar Iyer’s “chaiwallah” snobbery but it is difficult to deny the truth he articulates. Especially when viewed against the right wing reaction to the writers’ protest: they are participants in a paper rebellion; they are self-seeking fakes.
The problem then is that the country is now in the grip of the frankly anti-intellectual. The reaction of BJP worthy Vijay Goel best exemplifies this:”Writers should be concerned with their pen only, otherwise giving awards would be stopped.”
In Goel’s view, writers are like the calligraphers at the Mughal courts, writing reams in praise of the Ruler of the World. Thankfully, for the nation, even if its film makers, its musicians, its dancers have largely kept schtum, its writers refuse to shut up. Given Nayantara Sahgal’s reputation as someone unafraid to stand up to bullies - she wrote against her own cousin Indira Gandhi during the Emergency - it’s unsurprising that she spurred so many to action.
Meanwhile, other bodies are intent on proving that the mythical Aryans set forth from India and that, looking at the gods, it’s clear that plastic surgery was practised in ancient India.
This rejection of all logic could have been a spur to creativity; it could have, in the literary sphere, inspired a fresh generation of writers to evolve a fantastic vaguely Hindu magic realism, one that expertly uses allegory. That could have inoculated us against these deranged times. But alas.