Wednesday, November 3, 2010

We need writers, not politicians, to make the world a better place, I think!

I have heard many people say that Arundhati Roy should focus on what she knows best: Literature. Politics isn’t her field, and she should restrict her opinions to books and writing. Okay, here is my question: As a citizen of democratic India, doesn’t she have the right to her opinion just like any of us, including the people who made this ludicrous suggestion? She didn’t instigate a criminal act. Are folks so generous with their dislike because she is a writer who knows her words and can articulate her thoughts better than most of the nation’s uneducated, biased, and corrupt politicians who have only their personal agendas at stake? Or is it because the majority fears a thinker will nudge the populace out of their comfort zones?

My mother has always said, “It’s your thoughts that make you modern, not your clothes.” Today when I look at the Indian middle class, I understand exactly what she means. News headlines all over the globe predict that the Indian middle class is expected to lead the world economy by 2025. Impressive, right? I too was proud about all this growth until I realized that some changes are only superficial. And growth is a loaded word. It seems modernism is equated with the brands stocked in wardrobes, or the cars driven, or the vacations taken. What about thinking?

I have met socialites in Pune who confessed they wanted non-Maharashtrians to move out of their state. Of course, they admitted their feelings in a drunken state of stupor; they were courteous to the *outsiders* while sober. It makes me wonder if all this exposure has taught this ever-expanding segment to camouflage their dislikes better. They pretend to be liberal, but are closeted conservatives who want to censor and ban anything that they don’t have an appetite for.

Aditya Thackeray made sure Rohinton Mistry’s book, Such a Long Journey, was banned from the syllabus of University of Mumbai because he thought the book reflected poorly on his state and family. A twenty-two year-old boy, not professors, decides what the entire second year students at the university should read because he’s related to a powerhouse? Are we so self-centered that we have no room for respecting an opinion when we don’t agree with it? Is nationalism confused with patriotism and leads to a display of vandalism?

We have made a mockery of ourselves in front of the world by calling ourselves the world’s largest democracy. Again, no one is saying that you have to agree with Arundhati. I don’t for sure. But vandalizing her home because you don’t appreciate her thought process reflects small-mindedness. Or excluding Mistry’s book is a gross display of ignorance and abuse of power. Because people didn’t get what the two writers had to say, they tried to silence them! God, is this world a high school and all the players delinquents who want their egos petted?

My father worries about my provocative and cynical writing (Click here to see the latest). Don’t for a moment think that he’s isn’t proud of me. But as a father of an Indian woman, he fears for my safety. I didn’t quite understand his “warnings” until the whole Arundhati Roy episode happened. I can no longer blame him. In a country where the majority doesn’t like to be intellectually challenged or defend the right to freedom of speech, democracy will always go to the highest bidder. The super hit goon movie, “Dabangg” and record sales of badly written books are a testimony to the infallible taste of the Indian middle class.

On Tuesday evening, I attended Terror-Stricken: Benefit Against Islamophobia. It was an intimate evening with words and wine, to say the least. Amitava Kumar, finalist for the biggest literary prize in India, and Hari Kunzru, one of Granta's top 20 writers under 40 had a compelling discussion with Faiza Patel, Counsel in the Liberty and National Security Project at the Brennan Center for Justice. I can’t even begin to explain how much I learnt in one evening. Did I agree with everything that was said? Maybe not. But that’s not a reflection on the panelists or the audience. They were all brilliant! But it was enlightening to hear different stances on the same issue. Disagreeing while respecting someone else’s viewpoint. Reaffirming Voltaire’s words: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.”

At dinner that evening, a writer and a new friend said to me: “As writers it is our responsibility to stand up for our beliefs, express our opinion, and fearlessly raise questions. Cynicism might be a shield to protect ourselves.” I agree with her. We offer what the world lacks most: Perspective. It might not always be easy. And often, owning a spine might involve risk (Sorry, Papa). But you know what, we owe it to the human race which is simmering inside a broth of prejudice. Honestly, I can’t imagine some one else doing a better job, especially when politicians around the world are very happy to milk ignorance and create rifts for their bloody benefits!


More until next time,

Xoxo

Copyright © 11.04.2010


“I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Joan Didion

13 comments:

Ernest Dempsey said...

Everbody has the right to talk about anything. The compartmentalization of subjects in itself is the biggest political gimmick of our age. So yes, we need writers to talk about one another's so-called specialities; if they are bad at some or every subject, let them learn. But don't snub them.

Sahar said...

This is so well-written...I admire the writer who can write his/her mind with utmost honesty & truth. I can see a whole new maturity in your voice & words. To weave through the intricate perspective and write your thoughts so beautifully...so very proud of you! Keep 'em coming!

Rb said...

You've expressed my thoughts and so beautifully.

VS said...

Very nice write up. I agree that everyone has right to speak & air their opinion-you agree with them is your prerogative….that is the beauty of U.S….even Sarah Palin/Chri O’Donnell can dream of becoming a president. I don’t keep up with Indian politics that much so had no idea about Arundhati Roy’s incident….how sad. We are a bunch of hypocrites when it comes to freedom of speech & woman’s respect in India…my two cents.

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Sam said...

This is your best post yet. Awesome!

Jayashree said...

Sweta, While I agree to all that you say as my generation has been been a more liberal 'middle class' where our parents and their friends debated endlessly on many controversial subjects and we listened not knowing that their words are forming our thoughts.But I see all around me that the new Indian 'middle class' is totally chaotic. Yes, they have money but they abuse it more than use it. And that has let them to be blinkered in their opinions and world view..because they chase wealth blindly... and it is the same story even in Europe where you now have the far-right groups winning seats in every country. Ms Roy's opinions which can be voiced as she likes and when, but it cannot be ignored that her words can be twisted by the Far-right groups in India and exploited politically. That is the only reason the thinkers and writers have a heavier burden when they express their ideas ..... so that we do not have multiple Shiv Sena like organisations everywhere who can hold India to ransom.... our uneducated masses dont have the benefit of 'free thought'.....

AS said...

Sweta,
Very well written & thoughtful. But I disagree more than I agree. Borrowing from your post "It seems modernism is equated with the brands……"
Naah...I felt that was too preposterous a statement to make. A country like India- with its diversity, poverty, linguistic chauvinism, caste biases, religious extremism, hostile neighbours and seriously flawed political system- has survived & moved ahead. That it has not drifted into anarchy is a tribute to its people & intellect of its people. Intellect can & cannot always be articulated in words. Indian middle class is an important cog in the wheel of all round development that has just about begun its roll - it is still small & extremely slow but significant all the same.


I am not sure how appropriate was the cinema example that you mentioned in your post in order to a make a point. Do I damn millions of people who loved cinema like Kill Bill? For all its violence & gore, it is considered to be a classic in dark cinematic genre. “Dabangg” - It is no classic by any stretch of imagination but then it wasn't a goon movie too - It was a Robin Hood tale told in slapstick genre and partly a spoof on Bollywood's own 70's cinema. If audience loved it - I wouldn't call it a "testimony of infallible taste of Indian middle class". Same audience loved movies like "Jodha Akbar", "Peepli Live", "Dev D", "Hazaaron Khwaaishen Aisi", "Rang De Basanti".... Please walk into a book store in India and trust me you would be surprised by sheer number of young people from middle class lapping up literary works from all corners of the word.


The risk in being a cynic is that you might allow your thought process to drift into a tunnel - something I feel has happened with Arundhati Roy. To me a cynic & thinker are two opposite poles and I feel Arundhati long ceased to be a thinker - she is at best someone who romanticizes the rebellion. Having said that, in no way do I condone a mob vandalizing her house. But was it what you & I understood? Or was it a reality show orchestrated by TRP hungry media channels. In my list of villains, I had long ago added TV media journalists to scores of dynastic politicians masquerading as leaders where in effect they are nothing more than fief lords.

When "Such a Long Journey" by Mistry is banned from the syllabus of University of Mumbai because of Thackeray's political muscle, it is Thackerays who do us a favor by exposing themselves. Trust me, more people are reading this book today than they would have ever read had Thackerays not done this favor to us. Vandalizing Arundhati's house with TV media in tow & banning Mistry's books are mere publicity stunts for the discredited politicians who are running out of ideas to remain in flash light. I wouldn't lose my night's sleep over this as it wasn't a real show of dissent to muzzle a writer's voice. Someone like Tarun Tejpal paid a much bigger price when his voice was mercilessly muzzled by the establishment and no one from literary or media world came out in his support. Similarly Julian Assange of Wikileaks is being hounded by the powers that be.


I am not the one to demonize politicians because they inherit a system they didn't help create. Brave individuals like Gorbachev fade away unceremoniously. Human race has to simmer (not sure about "inside a broth of prejudice" though) in order to triumph eventually as we have done for time immemorial :)

I am tempted to say- writers are capable of influencing thought process that in turn can help bring about a revolution in order to stem the systemic rot setting in our system. Cynics cannot.
Wishing you all the best.
AS

AS said...
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AS said...
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AS said...
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AS said...

Hi again.. continuing as it wouldn't allow me to post my entire comment - must say something about your post nudged me :) Perspective?

The risk in being a cynic is that you might allow your thought process to drift into a tunnel - something I feel has happened with Arundhati Roy. To me a cynic & thinker are two opposite poles and I feel Arundhati long ceased to be a thinker - she is at best someone who romanticizes the rebellion. Having said that, in no way do I condone a mob vandalizing her house. But was it what you & I understood? Or was it a reality show orchestrated by TRP hungry media channels. In my list of villains, I had long ago added TV media journalists to scores of dynastic politicians masquerading as leaders where in effect they are nothing more than mere fief lords.

When "Such a Long Journey" by Mistry is banned from the syllabus of University of Mumbai because of Thackeray's political muscle, it is Thackerays who do us a favor by exposing themselves. Trust me, more people are reading this book today than they would have ever read had Thackerays not done this favor to us. Vandalizing Arundhati's house with TV media in tow & banning Mistry's books are mere publicity stunts for the discredited politicians who are running out of ideas to remain in flash light. I wouldn't lose my night's sleep over this as it was just a TV show rather than a real show of dissent to muzzle a writer's voice. Someone like Tarun Tejpal paid a much bigger price when his voice was mercilessly muzzled by the establishment and no one from literary or media world came out in his support. Similarly Julian Assange of Wikileaks is being hounded by the powers that be.

Human race has to simmer (not sure about "inside a broth of prejudice" though) in order to triumph eventually as we have done for time immemorial :)
Wishing you all the best.
AS