“We hadn’t dreamt that a day would come when the newly-born republic of hope would turn into a republic of fear for thinkers and writers.”
Shanta Gokhale's speech at the Ooty Literature Festival
September 17, 2018
Fellow-writers and friends, good morning. On such a morning as this, breathing the pure, bracing air of the hills, I wish I could speak of bright and bubbly things. But I cannot. I can only speak of what's been on my mind, on all our minds, in recent times.
For the last few years there has been a growing fear amongst us that if we write what we see and think, we might cause deep offence to some community or the other and lay ourselves open to legal action. Public Interest Litigation was originally created to help the powerless individual seek justice against the mighty State. It was a huge blessing then. But more and more, it has become a curse for writers and artists. It seems as though anybody can run to the courts and file a PIL to seek redress in the name of caste, community and religion. Redress means gagging the writer and banning her work. Occasionally hurt communities don't even bother with the law. They use the old weapon of ostracism to make life unlivable for the artist.
When I began to write some 60 years ago, we hadn't dreamt that a day would come when the newly-born republic of hope would turn into a republic of fear for thinkers and writers. The world was full of iniquity and injustice even then. But identities hadn't been schooled into becoming these fragile, eggshell sensibilities. There was anger, gloom and frustration at shortages, unemployment, and corruption. But we were allowed to express our views on them without fear. We evolved the nava katha, nava kavya, nava natya to address these ills. We were doing our social duty by sweeping the old rosy romanticism out of the house to reveal its pitted walls and cobwebs. We, the educated, liberal middle-class, were doing our social duty. We were helping to build the nation. But we weren't connecting the dots. We did not see that the evils troubling us were an integral part of an entire system created expressly to benefit the few and deprive the many. Living through the seventies we came to know better. A character in my 1988 play Avinash says, the depression his older brother suffers from may not be the result entirely of some inborn psychological tic. Its roots might also lie in economics, in the social structure and the political system. To this, the character's father retorts, "What has politics got to do with it? What you are is the result of your destiny."
What aroused us from our complacency was the Emergency. For the first time since Independence, the worm in the apple of democracy had shown its ugly face. For the first time, we connected the dots. Shreeram Lagoo famously said we had been a generation of slumberers. But now we were wide awake. The Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR) was formed in Mumbai. Other civil liberties organisations were formed elsewhere. Earlier, in America, Woodward and Bernstein had investigated the Watergate scandal. The Emergency brought investigative journalism to our shores. Creative writers were called upon to stand up and be counted. G P Deshpande had already written his modern classic Uddhwasta Dharmashala, which I had translated as A Man in Dark Times. In the play, a professor faces a University inquiry on suspicion that he is a card-holding Marxist. The play was inspired by the report of the House Committee on Un-American Activities whose work had wound up just a year before the Emergency was declared. America and India were suddenly not too far apart. Of course, no inquiries were held during the Emergency. Political rivals were simply picked up, imprisoned and tortured. The police did their duty with dedication. And nobody was the wiser, since media was severely censored. Today the media does not need an external censor. Enough fear has been injected into its veins for it to censor itself.
The seventies were an altogether eye-opening decade for my generation. Two years before the Emergency we had been knocked on the head by Namdev Dhasal's collection of poems, Golpitha. That and the series of Dalit autobiographies that followed, had tossed us right out of our soft beds into the open gutters running next door. Our nava katha and nava natya had been all about middle-class angst. Oh yes, we were angry, despondent about our dull routines, about the generation gap, even about corruption. We expressed these anxieties in well-chosen words. But did the English language have words to describe the life of rural Dalits, forced to live a brutalised life on the outskirts of human society? It was a challenge for us translators to find those words. In the mid-eighties, when I was editing a literary section for the women's magazine Femina, I translated for it a chapter from the first autobiography written by a Dalit woman in Marathi. This was Shantabai Kamble's Majya Jalmachi Chittarkatha. I pored over half-a-dozen dictionaries chasing the word 'chittarkatha'. It was nowhere to be found. Finally I translated the context rather than the word, rendering the title as The Story of my Tattered Life.
The third eye-opener in the seventies was feminism. Simone de Beauvoir had written The Second Sex in 1949. I had read it in my teens. But I had thought then that it was all about the west. Now I realised it was about us. All of us. My first novel, Rita Welinkar was born of this awareness. We were all victims of patriarchy, whoever we were, wife, other woman or sex worker, brahmin or dalit, Hindu, Christian or Muslim, right wing or left wing, at home or in the workplace.
In 1988 Salman Rushdie wrote Satanic Verses and invited upon himself a fatwa calling for his death. The Indian government banned the book, but Indian writers and artists stood up against the ban in support of freedom of speech. We do that even today. But in the current social environment, to put this freedom into practice has become lethally dangerous. A sword hangs over the head of any writer who dares presume she has the right to speak out. As punishment the law will charge her with malicious intent to promote enmity between people of different religions, regions, languages, races etc.
I often think wistfully of Andersen's emperor who was tricked into wearing invisible clothes. Obedient courtiers and subjects marvelled at their colour and cut. It was a clear-eyed boy standing in the midst of this herd of adults who announced that the emperor was wearing no clothes. People saw the truth of the observation. So did the emperor. But he shut his eyes to it and walked on. He knew that, however foolish and vain he might appear to his subjects, they could do him no harm. Today's emperors know they are not safe. So today's truth-tellers are arrested and imprisoned.
Fortunately we are not, and I fervently hope never will be, in quite the same boat as writers in totalitarian states. But we are certainly in the same boat as Orhan Pamuk who was charged in 2006 with insulting Turkey's honour by referring to the killing of thousands of Armenians in Turkey during World War One as genocide. Although the Istanbul court dropped charges against him under international pressure, the street court didn't spare him. He was abused, beaten and pelted with eggs as he entered and left the court. And we are most certainly in the same boat as the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz who was stabbed, almost fatally, by an Islamist for writing novels which Islamist extremists considered blasphemous. The assault caused such extensive nerve damage that Mahfouz couldn't write for more than a few minutes per day. We know through our own experience that when political and religious powers feed people with self-serving, unitary definitions of culture, morality and nationalism, the man in the street feels empowered to lynch. In return, the State protects and occasionally even rewards him.
Fear has entered our lives like a pervasive miasma. In the cultural column I used to write till recently for Mumbai Mirror, I was often critical of political culture. In 2013 I wrote a satirical column about the then deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Ajit Pawar, without raising an eyebrow. In 2015 I wrote in similar vein about the prime minister's theatrics in Shivaji Park, and had friends calling me to say, "Please be careful".
In 2016, Govind Nihalani asked me to write the script and dialogue for a Marathi film based on Manjula Padmnabhan's 1986 play Lights Out. The play didn't appeal to me as the basis for a film-script. It was outdated. It didn't reflect the socio-political complexities of our times. It had a uni-dimensional plot that focused exclusively on the upper middle-class habit of silence in the face of terrible things happening on its doorstep. It required fleshing out and layering.
I asked Govind for carte blanche to fill out the flat characters, introduce new ones and give the film a real-life context. In Manjula's play, girls were being raped, seemingly gratuitously, in the open, in an upper middle-class neighbourhood. In my script they became trafficked girls. I replaced the silent maid of the original by a bright young tribal girl who realised what was happening next-door and feared for herself. I brought the fearful, silent protagonist of the film to an emotional point where she felt she had to call in the police. When they came, the 'inquiry' that they conducted made it clear that they were hand-in-glove with the traffickers. However, I noticed that in the film as it was made, Nihalani had ironed out all hints of police complicity. I did not ask him why. I decided I knew. It struck me as ironic that Ardh Satya, Nihalani's 1983 hit film, had underlined the nexus between the police, the politician and the criminal. I happened to have played a two-minute part in it as a leftist activist who speaks out publicly against police atrocities. That kind of activist is now in trouble. Activists who are fighting for the rights of tribals and Dalits are in worse trouble. Recently, five of them were labelled 'Urban Naxals', whatever that might be, and arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Last year Dalit writer Urmila Pawar called me for advice. She had been invited to a seminar and was afraid she would have to face harassment if she said what she wanted to say. When she told me what it was, I advised subterfuge. I reminded her of Vijay Tendulkar's play Ghashiram Kotwal. It was written in the seventies, when he saw that the Congress in Maharashtra was creating a potential Frankenstein by nurturing the Shiv Sena as a counter to the Communist Party which had a hold over Bombay's mill workers. But how was he to fashion a play out of the situation? By the sheerest coincidence, he came upon a minor story about the time when the Peshwa minister, Nana Phadnavis had appointed a Kanauji Brahmin Ghashiram, as the police chief of Pune city, to serve his own lascivious purposes. But Ghashiram, drunk on power, had incarcerated and tortured the Peshwa's most loyal subjects and supporters. I told Pawar that allegories are a clever and legitimate means for writers to point out truths without paying the price. We have a saying in Marathi. Leki bole, sune lage. A mother-in-law scolds her daughter for her daughter-in-law's misdeeds. The daughter-in-law gets the point but can't protest because the mother-in-law has not scolded her.
Mahasweta Devi, who has been an important point of reference in my life as a writer, was invited to speak about Indian culture at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2012. She described Indian culture as "a tapestry of many weaves, many threads. Somewhere the cloth frays. Somewhere the threads tear. But still it holds." It would continue to hold as it has done for centuries, if only those who speak in the name of religion and culture would allow it to. A meticulously researched essay like A K Ramanujan's Three Hundred Ramayanas, would not then be dropped from a university's history syllabus. Rather, students would be encouraged to feel proud that our culture had produced an epic of such rich possibilities that people across south-east Asia had retold the story in 300 different ways and made it their own.
My personal experience of a young mind restricted by unitary ideas of culture, morality and nationalism came after my second novel Tya Varshi, which I have translated into English as Crowfall, was published. A young man who had just done his diploma in screenplay writing from Pune's Film and Television Institute came to ask me for permission to make a film based on it. He had read the novel twice over because the world it presented was so totally new to him. I was surprised. I hadn't written about some never-never land. It was the story of a year in the lives of a group of friends struggling with their creative processes against the background of politically engineered violence. The year the novel was set in was 2004 and the flashbacks were of the Mumbai riots of 1992-93. What the young screenplay writer couldn't get over was the warmth and mutual respect that the friends shared despite the community and caste differences that existed between them. After we had discussed the novel for two hours, the young man said, "I am confused. I haven't been brought up to live so freely. But I would love to live like that." It dawned on me then that, in being true to my ideas, I had been disruptive of his. In a very, very small way it told me why writers were considered so dangerous by those who desired to control young minds by not letting them think independently, doubt, question or dream.
In her speech at Frankfurt, Mahasweta Devi had asserted that there could be no human growth without dreams. Speaking for herself, she had said, "I dream of an India where there is no fear. Where knowledge is free. Where words come out of the depth of truth. Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection. Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way in the dreary sand of dead habit."
Let us say amen to that.
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