Monday, October 05, 2015

On Dr M M Kalburgi, Freedom of Speech, Self Censorship, etc (Again): In Filter Coffee Column

How often must we write about these attacks on writers and intellectuals?
Not when and just after they happen.
But then, they happen everyday too.

Kindle magazine has lots of great articles on the future of intellectualism this month. I think it is the responsibility of each of us, those of us seeking to continue to be free, to think and act and speak freely, to read these kind of articles. It is fast becoming a dangerously unsafe country. Please read, please react. Just don't be silent.

Read what I wrote on Dr M M Kalburgi, Dr M M Basheer, freedom of speech and the power of the pen, here on the magazine website. Or see below.

I was gifted a Pelikan fountain pen some time ago, a beloved gift from someone beloved. It is yellow, like sunshine. I need to fix ink cartridges into it, a relief, for I get the joy of writing with a fountain pen with the convenience of a refill ball point. Puritans be damned. By no measure is my favourite yellow pen a dangerous weapon. Or perhaps it is. I can imagine how it must morph into a six foot long urmi - the most deadly flexible sword in Kalaripayattu, the one they say can decapitate your own head if wielded un-rightly - in the minds of those that fear your words, your opinions. Harmless pens.

Harmful pens.

The Kannada literary tradition that I grew up around, though not as a participant, has had a long list of the 'radicals', the 'liberals', the 'rebels', 'kafirs', all dangerous words, words that you don't want used to describe you anymore. P Lankesh, Shivarama Karanth, Kuvempu, Poornachandra Tejaswi, U R Ananthamurthy, Devanooru Mahadeva,...wait, name me any writer and I will tell you what a 'rebel' he or she is/was. Karanth tried to bring in a ballet tradition into Yakshagana, the folk theatre form of Karnataka. His books were not in the realm of controversy, but were in traditions unusual in Kannada writing. Poornachandra Tejaswi, son of the illustrious father, was just as radical, weaving expertly his concerns for the environment with humour. Ananthamurthy....dear old Prof URA, from the time he admitted to have urinated on idols, to prove it wouldn't incur any curse, to saying he would leave the country if Modi came to power, he was always the dear old rebel we would count on for a juicy quote.

Leaving aside Kannada, every writer in every language is somewhere a rebel from the moment there sparks in him/her the desire to wield a dangerous pen and write those words that may/may not get them killed. Salma, the Tamil writer, has fought all her life for the freedom to write. Her poems are fiery, explicit in places, celebrating the woman, her body and the freedom to do with this body as she pleases. Salma is not her real name.

M M Basheer is a respected Malayalee writer and critic. He was writing a few articles on the Ramayana for a daily newspaper. Some Sene repeatedly called him and asked him how dare he write on Rama, being a Muslim. He stopped. There is an entire tradition of Mapilla Ramayana, where Rama is a sultan, Valmiki becomes the long bearded auli. Dr Basheer is not a writer who is wet behind the ears. Dr Basheer is his real name. He is no longer picking up calls from unknown numbers, I hear.

Perumal Murugan has stopped writing, at least publically. I don't know if he has been persuaded otherwise. One Part Woman, an old book that suddenly became dangerous, is not a particularly fantastic book. It is good, nothing earth shattering, tame even, for it does not deliberately provoke. Yet it is a book burned and unofficially banned.

Not many incidents in other parts of the country have reached us below the Vindhyas here.

It seems exhausting documenting these and many, many other transgressions into a writer's freedom of expression. But constantly write we must. That is the only way. The individual writer and his/her claims to purported notoriety is not the question here. Every writer is a rebel, for the very nature of the act of writing is such. Those of us who work with the metaphorical pen shape our thoughts with the medium of these words, bringing into existence opinions, words, more words, many more words. On the face of it, it seems silly to wonder if words, mere words, could really do anyone any harm. But then you suppose that it is not the word by itself, but the things it makes you say, the other words that it sparks in you that makes anything written or spoken so utterly dangerous.

Dr M M Kalburgi died for the things from history he had the gall to research on and write about. It did not adhere to the views of a certain few of how a narrative should be. It is also a certain few. A few days ago K S Bhagawan, another writer and critic who received death threats in the wake of Dr Kalburgi's murder, was conferred with a lifetime achievement award by the Karnataka Sahitya Academy. Predictably, it was followed by the Academy receiving several threatening calls, a priest who decided Bhagawan's writings would sow discord in a community had made them. He was arrested. The KSA chairperson was forced to distant herself from Bhagawan’s statements, clarifying that the award was for his meritorious contributions to the field of literature.

What is appalling is the way one needs to defend a belief in something. What is more appalling is the immunity to these incidents that is building up. In the era of breaking news, when every minute detail is repeated endlessly, making you blind and deaf and often, mute, the increase in these incidents is increasingly less shocking. The normalisation of these incidents when they will turn one day into just another piece of news is when the society, everything we hold dear, everything that makes us free, begins to disintegrate.

I write a column in Kannada, on current affairs and such like. My last one was about the same topic as this. Along the way, I wrote about Mapilla Ramayana, a version of the Ramayana I had never heard of. I wrote about how culture is not any religion's right, that the collective culture belongs to everyone, to all the citizens. Everyone has a share, everyone has a right. Somewhere in the words of a language I am not as adept as, not as familiar with, as English, I remember stumbling. May my words mean more than they do? The thought sprung from the fact that writing in Kannada perhaps makes me more vulnerable, for the "certain few" read perhaps that paper than the words I write here. My parents read it, the rest of the family read it, townspeople read it. The shameless lot that burst crackers in jubilation when Prof URA died, they read it. And so I got a dear friend to check it for potential firebrandness. Perhaps I was overestimating the power of my words. But the sense of hypocrisy did not, does not escape me. I was surreptitiously censoring my words and while I hated doing so, I had a fair inkling into why writers say they will stop writing. It isn't just about you and your words. Like in the movies where the heroine gets kidnapped by the villain to get to the hero, these certain few, they go after your families too. They always find a way to hit where it hurts. Somewhere you begin to weigh in the worthiness of words versus what it can do. It is easy to say what you will choose when you place yourself on the outside looking in.

You understand, you acknowledge. Yet you hope. Hope that there will still be writers who will discard all this fear and be the public intellectuals they have a mandate in themselves to be. When they don't, you rave and rant and pretend to understand. Watching their words scroll across a book or screen, when you hope they will write more and more, and raise the hackles of those stupid, irrational few, you attempt not to acknowledge the selfishness behind that hope. And therein lies the hypocrisy of this, and every society.

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