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For India’s offence-happy brigade, ‘Meesha’ is the latest fodder

What validates the targeting of a person to the extent that they feel forced to withdraw their work in anguish?

A word is a powerful thing. Language shapes discourse, which in turn shapes our reality, our very existence. We know this, of course. Since the early 20th century, academia has accepted the foundational bases of language as more than simply a tool of communication. Ferdinand de Saussure’s ground-breaking work in Course in General Linguistics affirmed that language is central to the idea of socialisation and social interaction. In other words, language is what builds our worlds, rather than simply being a facet of it.

And beyond a sociological perspective, perhaps Saussure was right about the nature of human beings. Words have taken on a pre-eminence greater than action or reality. We live in curious times. We disregard the value of words, and thus the value of truth, but concurrently, are quick to attach judgements and effects to them, proclaiming them as harmful, crying foul at the slightest hint of a word’s discomfiting prick.

Last month, Malayalam author S. Hareesh withdrew Meesha, his forthcoming novel which was being serialised in Mathrubhumi Weekly magazine, following threats from right-wing groups to him and his family. It took merely three extracts from an entire novel to irk an offence-happy group. Clearly, context and perspective are not the most sought-after qualities today.

In an op-ed in The Hindu, Perumal Murugan, who is no stranger to the wrath of fanatics, wrote, “Those who pulled it [the contentious scene in question] out of context to create problems might have known this better.” Indeed. Fanatics and mobs thrive on lies and misplaced context. It helps create situations that don’t exist. For most groups, it is far easier to build a strawman and then proclaim themselves executioner.

The question remains; would even a studied understanding of the context have justified such a response? What validates the targeting of a person to the extent that they feel forced to withdraw a piece of work in anguish?

In the passage under question, two men are talking about women who visit temples. What if it were indeed two men in reality speaking to each other like this? Must they bend to the orthodoxies and moral diktats of those who dislike certain stories simply because the protestors hold greater political, social and cultural capital? Must women, Dalit people, adivasis, queer people and minority communities speak only the language of the majority? What of their own tongue, their stories?

“This is merely a means of sensationalising something. It gives them media space they would not otherwise have,” says writer Anita Nair. “It’s almost an act of exhibitionism, making a hue-and-cry about something that otherwise has very little significance.” In other words, it is rabble-rousing groups that attach importance to something that would otherwise have gone under the radar. “What does the electorate remember?” Nair asks. “They remember that a certain group ‘stood up’ for a ‘temple issue’ or something.”

‘Everything is fodder’

This is not the first time we have seen writers and books attacked. Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja, Murugan’s Madhurobhagan, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses — these are but a few instances of literature censored, either explicitly by the state, or subversively by sections of society. In fact, Nasreen is still persona non grata in some states. Rohinton Mistry’s 1991 novel Such a Long Journey irked a political party almost 19 years after it was published. Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah was banned because it painted him in moderate colours. Earlier this year, Kerala poet Kureepuzha Sreekumar was attacked by a mob for a speech in which he criticised right-wing politics.

As early as the 60s, Arthur Koestler’s The Lotus and the Robot was banned because it was uncomplimentary about the future of Indian democracy, as was V. S Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, for similar reasons. As Nair says, “everything is fodder” for the haters.

With the passage of time, freedom of expression seems not to be growing but dwindling. The checks, balances and exceptions to this important fundamental right were written in with a great deal of insight and discernment. But the nuances have been deliberately and consistently ignored. Thankfully, the Supreme Court, earlier this week, censured a petition which asked for a ban on the book. The petitioner had warned that it would be advisable for the state to take some action against such works, else “it wouldn’t be far off to see a ‘Charlie Hebdo’ kind of backlash in India”. What is this if not a threat? If “incitement to an offence” is one of the exceptions, the only offence these books seem to incite is in the angered lumpen groups who resort to book burning and banning.

“No writing is possible if we start wondering whether a word or a sentence will offend a particular group or party,” says Satchidanandan. “There must be an air of freedom. But today, it is this air that is being rarefied.”

In an open letter, Hareesh said, “My pen will continue to speak.” And as we go to print, Kerala-based DC Books has published the book in its entirety. “If Meesha doesn’t release today, it will become impossible to publish any literary work in Malayalam [in the future],” the publishing house said. As long as pen meets paper, there is still hope.

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