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Death of the political author

india Updated: Apr 11, 2012 21:24 IST
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The past sometimes shames us. At least, visitors this weekend to Dartington Hall in the south Devon town of Totnes must have come away feeling taunted by history. Because while the festival they attended was celebrating the life of Rabindranath Tagore, it also cast a shard of light on a gaping hole in today's culture. What his legacy draws attention to is a creature so rare in today's culture as to be semi-endangered: the political author.

Even the most casual acquaintance with Tagore's work can't escape his politics. His novels attacked the oppression of women; his essays warned about environmental degradation; and he delivered lectures in America on the evils of nationalism. Nor was the poet all talk: a believer in educational reform, he established a school, then a university in the Bengali countryside.

But Tagore was not alone. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay won huge success for his stories criticising India's caste and class system; while Mulk Raj Anand published novels titled Untouchable and Coolie. As for Tagore's western contemporaries, they were just as engaged with their politics and society. Spanish civil-war combatant Orwell is the most striking example, but there was also Spender, Auden and Pound.

Look for their equivalents in England or America now, and you'll be disappointed. Some politically committed authors immediately come to mind, such as Dave Eggers, but the paucity of their number reinforces how few there are. India is subject to a similar lack: Arundhati Roy is the stand-out example of the author-turned-activist, but the fact that she has not written a novel after 1997's The God of Small Things suggests that she has traded fiction for campaigning.

What I'm complaining about here is not just the lack of options on the three-for-two table. This is a time when, from the environment to the economy to the hollowing-out of so many public institutions, there are many crises that need addressing. At the point when we need people of all disciplines and none to offer their say, the artists are missing. Of course there are exceptions. In Scotland, James Robertson and Pat Kane address themselves to national concerns. And in English theatre, such as the Tricycle or the National, audiences can still see openly political work. But English and American novels are particularly gutless.

Some of this is down to how economics and politics have been cordoned off from the rest of society: as stuff best left to the experts and the careerists. But literature too has been professionalised, so that authors now go from their creative-writing MAs to their novels to their relentless promotional work. Contemporary literary writers don't seem to have time for politics.

In one of his most celebrated poems in Gitanjali, Tagore called for a country: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high/...Where the world has not been broken up into fragments/ By narrow domestic walls... Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way/ Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit.” That warning against the comfort of small thinking remains relevant today.