The Festival of Words
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” says the first verse in the Gospel of John. Communities all over the world have invested the word with divinity. Since that beginning John wrote about, billions and billions of words have been spoken, written or read in the thousands of oral and written languages that people spoke, wrote or read in the millennia that followed the advent of human communication. We have no idea how many of these words have perished in the ruthless march of Time and how many have survived.
This word, as ancient as man himself, will be the presiding deity at the Muse India Literary Festival starting 23 January at Hyderabad, where it may be used variously to inform, to incite, to profane, to enlighten, to spread hate, and to hurt entire societies -–all in the name of freedom of expression.
There is no country in the world that grants unrestrained freedom of expression. Where the state doesn’t curb it, we have interest groups, activists and religious outfits out to curb it like it has happened in the case of Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen where even the state surrendered its authority to these groups and banned Satanic Verses and blocked the entry of Taslima Nasreen, who loves India as her second home. She is now an international fugitive from death threats and fatwas.
But this is not to say that some of the victims of caste and religious orthodoxy are innocent seekers of freedom of expression. Some of them exercise their right to inflame passions leading to public violence through a variety of media like art, painting, sculpture, writing and speech. These inciters consider themselves as intellectuals who demand absolute freedom of expression regardless of the social consequences of what they write, paint, sculpt or perform.
In an article in The Hindu, Devadutt Pattanaik (young author who retold Ramayana and Mahabharata in the light of the scores of different versions of the two epics in vogue in India and abroad like in Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia) talks of the tyranny of the Intellectual Brahmin who lays down the law for public discourse. This Intellectual claims a right to call Krishna a lecher or call some goddess a whore but denies common people the right to protest or react. .
Pattanaik wrote, “I, the intellectual, have the right to provoke; but you, the barbarian who only knows to wield violence, have no right to get provoked and respond the only way you know how to. If you do get provoked, you have to respond in my language, not yours, brain not brawn, because the brain is superior. I, the intellectual Brahmin, make the rules. Did you not know that?”
At the Hyderabad Festival intellectual clones are certain to turn up and start unliterary fracas such as the Jaipur Festival had witnessed last year: An unprovoked attack by Girish Karnad on Nobel Prize winner V.S.Naipaul. Ashis Nandy’s strange statement that “It will be an undignified and vulgar statement but the fact is that most of the corrupt come from the OBC, the Scheduled castes and now increasingly STs.” And political editor of the magazine Open Hartosh Singh Bal’s censure of William Dalrymple, the dynamic founder-organizer of the festival, the man who made the Jaipur Literary Festival the biggest event of the kind in Asia and who has made India his home.
The freedom absolutists constitute the fringe groups that have no consideration for the consequences of unthinking exercise of freedom of expression. The deliberations of the Hyderabad Festival will be incomplete without a discussion on Perumal Murugan and his work that led to demonstrations and protests by groups claiming their sensitivities were hurt by his work. There is also the film Messenger of God that has started fires of unrest in Haryana and Punjab.
Are these intellectuals so obsessed with themselves that they cannot visualize the consequences of their works? Is it necessary to tell the masses that the goddess they are worshipping is a whore? Does anyone force you to paint a goddess in the nude? Have the people no rights against such Intellectuals?
See what happened in Paris following provocative cartoons in Charlie Hebedo. Law-enforcing policemen died, innocent people were taken hostage and the French State and people had to pay a heavy price only to defend the right of Charlie Hebdo to be irresponsible. The newspaper sabotaged the government’s efforts to resolve differences with the immigrant community through talks.
The festivals attract a sprinkling of intellectuals who sprinkle pity and contempt on select species of believers they brand as rightwing. Loyal as they are to a very weird brand of secularism that celebrates tragedies communal riots cause; they condone violence of one kind and condemn the violence of the other kind. It is all a matter of faith.
Literary festivals are driven by high ideals, presenting writers to audiences, helping publishers scout for talent, generally promoting love of books among people. A book fair also becomes a part of the festival. The good that happened at the festivals is barely noticed by the media, focusing often on controversies, the glitterati, and muckrakers and people in search of publicity.
After the Festival draws to a close, its most creative and constructive task will remain untouched unless a core group of Festival editors is entrusted with the task of compiling a report which would be the summation of trends in literature of all languages that figured in the Festival deliberations, the future of good writing and also turning the light on hate literature that creates caste and religious strife that nobody wants.