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Word wars: Writers and their battles

Saturday evening, a day after he had set the cat among the pigeons by wading into Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul, I found myself seated next to Girish Karnad in the Tata Experimental Theatre. Ayaz Memon writes.

mumbai Updated: Nov 05, 2012 01:39 IST
Ayaz Memon

Saturday evening, a day after he had set the cat among the pigeons by wading into Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul, I found myself seated next to Girish Karnad in the Tata Experimental Theatre.

Heads turned and whispers in the auditorium were audible when Karnad returned to the Literature Live! festival after his clangour that had had the literati and chatterati in furious debate, and the media in a tailspin.

If Karnad was basking in the glory of suddenly revived attention, he didn’t quite show it. There was more sangfroid than bravura in his demeanour. It seemed that between Friday and Saturday, the volcano had erupted and was now spent.

Or almost. When I asked him whether he had come prepared for this onslaught, Karnad’s shoulders squared up like a boxer entering the ring again. “I had waited 10 years for this,’’ he said triumphantly.

“I heard Naipaul say pretty much the things that are in the book at an event in London. I was outraged, but I was representing the government of India then and was constrained. This time I was prepared.’’

Like top-level sportspersons, top-notch writers too have an elephant’s memory and are known to bear grudges deeper than the Grand Canyon. Unlike sportspersons, however, they are not necessarily bound by a common objective – like playing in the same team for instance – and rapprochement can be difficult.

For instance, on Saturday night, I was at an event at the Taj Mahal hotel by a Swiss watch company to commemorate Sunil Gavaskar’s 34 Test centuries, where a key speaker – along with Yuvraj Singh and Amitabh Bachchan – was Kapil Dev.

The alleged ill-will between Gavaskar and Kapil in the 1980s (always denied by them) actually metamorphosed into a mutual admiration society fairly quickly which should – to put it in a current context – serve as an example to MS Dhoni and Virender Sehwag.

I dare say, though, there are greater chances of Sehwag and Dhoni chest-thumping each other in the near future than Karnad and Naipaul. Fights between writers usually end up being utterly, bitterly long-drawn.

For instance Paul Theroux and Naipaul, once best mates, were publicly at loggerheads for 15 long years before burying the feud last year. Sometimes the fight need not be long, but can be ugly. Norman Mailer has head-butted Gore Vidal and once threatened William Styron – who had said nasty things about his wife – to a street scrap.

Conflict arising out of body of work – as distinct from clash of personalities – is more subtle and nuanced, but no less acrimonious or longstanding. The crux in most such matters is quality of prose against validity of thought and/or argument. In this context, Naipaul’s misogyny and Islamophobia has been highlighted by many, albeit differently from Karnad’s public diatribe in Friday.

The best of these, perhaps, came from the late Mumbai poet and writer Nissim Ezekiel who debunked Area of Darkness in his review in the Journal of South Asian Literature (1976) with understated, but cutting finesse (http://tinyurl.com/c54okmm).

Karnad chose a more brazen approach, leaving the organisers flummoxed and fuming. It redounds to the credit of Anil Dharker, director of the Lit Fest, that he still allowed the playwright a session the next morning to talk about theatre, as he was originally meant to.

What this meant, of course, was that Karnad had his cake and ate it too. Who says creative people can't be clever opportunists?