Rushdie and Nemade in literary slugfest

Dasu Krishnamoorty

Literary controversies are as old as the Bible.  Shakespeare’s authorship has been a topic of acrimony for nearly two centuries now. There are websites and even whole societies devoted to the proposition that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Debates raging around Nobel Prizes for Literature are not a new phenomenon. Several nominees rejected Sahitya Akademi awards. Kaavya Viswanathan’s How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was withdrawn after it was discovered that portions had been plagiarized from several sources, including the works of Salman Rushdie and Meg Cabot.

We have been witnessing of late literary controversies of a different kind. Two Jnanpeeth Award winners locked horns, though at different times, with two famous writers familiar to the English-speaking world.

Dasu Krishnamoorty

Dasu Krishnamoorty

Reputed Marathi littérateur Bhalchandra Nemade is the next Jnanpeeth award winner, after Girish Karnad, to flay not only the works of Nobel Prize winner V. S. Naipaul but also those of another writer regularly shortlisted for the Nobel, Salman Rushdie. Without beating about the bush let me say Nemade had little reason to talk about the works of the expatriate writers. Describing English as a killer language, Nemade accused Naipaul and Rushdie of “pandering to the West” and dismissed their works as having little value. Responding to the criticism, Rushdie tweeted on Saturday, “Grumpy old b…..d. Just take your prize and say thank you nicely. I doubt you’ve even read the work you attack.”

Though it is a fact that large sections of English-speaking population in the country are dismissive of their mother tongue, it is also true that Jawaharlal Nehru and his dedicated colleagues had built India’s self-reliance in atomic energy, space technology and set up several science and agricultural research laboratories because they had accessed the scientific literature and knowledge published in English. English is a language of international communication. India’s diplomacy is conducted in that language.

Girish Karnad’s non-literary criticism of Naipaul, accusing him of Islamophobia, is too recent to forget and sounds too farfetched. Does Karnad think Islamophobia is a product of Naipaul’s imagination even after the partition holocaust, the savage attack on the WTC towers, the killings in Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, the problems immigrants from West Africa are creating in Britain and several European countries, not to speak of the hostage tragedy in Moscow theatre, the Madrid train bombings? Why would an Islamophobe marry a Muslim woman?

Maybe Karnad didn’t like Naipaul’s   uncomplimentary depiction of India in The Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Society and India: A million mutinies. But Naipaul is proud of his Indian ancestry, especially of his Brahmin pedigree. Maybe, Nemade’s attack has something to do with Naipaul’s Brahmin descent. Remember, Nemade’s monumental novel blaming Brahmins for discrediting Hindu religion is due for release.

A few days after his tirade against Naipaul, Girish Karnad was back in the news with remarks pillorying another Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, calling his plays “unbearable.” 
He attributed Tagore’s “cardboard cut-out” characters, especially those depicting the rural poor, to Tagore’s limited contact with that class of people.

Karnad, who was put off by The Bombay Literary Festival giving its Lifetime Achievement award to Naipaul, marshaled his anti-Naipaul arguments which, as listed by America’s leading Indian magazine Little India, are: ”One, that although Naipaul is a “foreigner” he is “sycophantically” regarded by India, by which he meant its English-language writers,  as an Indian; Two, that the timing of his Nobel Prize, close on the heels of the 9/11 attacks. suggests that the prize went to him, in no small measure, for his anti-Islamic worldview inherent in his writings and public pronouncements; Three, Naipaul’s novels about India are “abysmal” and that his non-fictional exploration of its journey into modernity is vitiated by “a rabid antipathy to the Indian Muslim,” which prompts him to “glamorize in cold blood” the brutalities against Muslims during the post-Babri riots as “a creative act” prompted by “a passion;” Four, this exploration misses the very essence of Indian culture because Naipaul makes no reference in any of his books to Indian music, which has grown out of an interweaving of Sufi and Bhakti traditions; Five, besides being “tone-deaf” to its music, Naipaul is blind also to the beauty of its architecture: the Taj Mahal repulses him; it is, for him, a symbol of the rape-and-loot atrocities of the Muslim invaders-turned rulers of medieval India; Six, Naipaul has simply borrowed the convenient Muslim-as-marauder template formulated by the British Indologists of the 18th and 19th centuries to base his understanding of India and its history. And seven, that a closer examination of Naipaul’s so-called non-fictional narratives – including his purported interactions with Indians during his travels in India – may, in fact, be disconcertingly fictional.”

While Karnad employs religious criteria to assess literary merit, Nemade employs caste criteria. Known to be an advocate of “nativism,” which supports an author writing in native language, and a renowned Marathi author of five popular novels, Nemade studied the Hindu religion which showed him how literature had been tampered with, and later, history 
too, to suit the interest of the Brahmins.

It is a sad day if literature is submitted to a kind of ClearID test to see if a piece of writing does or doesn’t contain communalist or casteist cells running in its veins. Both Karnad and Nemade seem to betray a distrust of expatriate writing. Perhaps Karnad wanted to enliven the proceedings of the Festival by calling Naipaul’s works boring.  It is a writer’s right to choose what he wants to write. Suppose Naipaul wrote about Sufi music he would have showed his ignorance of the medium unless he had a long engagement with that genre to write with authority. Karnad saying Naipaul’s fans are sycophants is a poor substitute for argument. This is not to deny Karnad’s right to say what he wants to about what he reads but to assert our right to expect logic in criticism.

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