By Omair Ahmad
Pretty much everybody I know in India has an opinion on Charlie Hebdo. Even if some of them are confused whether it is the name of a man or a magazine, they do know that Charlie Hebdo is French, and there were attacks, murders, and there is something to do with cartoons and Freedom of Expression. Actually that might be too much knowledge. Opinions are formed without even such details.
For example, most people know that Salman Rushdie is (in)famous for a book called The Satanic Verses. They would not have read the book, and they might – just maybe – know that the book is restricted in India. Most people will tell you it is banned. This is not true.
The book is not banned, but its import into India is. The distinction is important because, if you want to change the current state of affairs, you at least need to know who to approach, what to argue. The silly, self-glorifying spectacle of authors reading passages from the book – which they are entirely legally allowed to do – makes no change to an import ban, and leaves the debate on freedom of expression exactly where it is – murdered in a ditch by the side of the road while we clink wineglasses and express our horror at the barbarians at the gates. This is satyagraha as silliness.
This year, Saba Naqvi writes, the gabfest at Jaipur around the ideas of “tolerance” and “freedom of speech” went entirely unaffected by the fact that Arundhati Roy, a writer that some of us may have heard of, was being tried for contempt of court for her remarks on how the Maharashtra Police and courts have treated the disabled professor, GN Saibaba.
We heard nothing of Saikat Mazumdar, whose piece was dropped by the Mint Lounge just as it was going to print, because the publishers were scared of possible legal hassles. This was pretty much the same reason that Penguin India gave for agreeing to ditch and pulp Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, a few years ago. At that time, Siddhartha Varadarajan and Jyotirmaya Sharma cancelled their contracts with Penguin India in protest. In admiration of the position they took, and because I could not see how it made sense to be criticising Penguin India while asking them to sell my books, I followed their lead. One other academic – I believe based in the US – did the same.
Do you know how many Indian authors followed, so upset that they were about such self-censorship? If you guessed “zero”, you would be right. None. None at all. All those talking of Freedom of Expression, and yet finding themselves so unable to do anything, make one tiny little sacrifice, you know what they did? They kept themselves safe.
I have heard whingeing defence of such action – or non-action – by people saying it was the law that was bad. The law was bad for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita too, it was bad for DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Gustave Falubert’s Madame Bovary. Even John Steinbeck’s, Grapes of Wrath and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 were banned in many states of the US. The fact is that good writing often exposes uncomfortable facts, and you cannot play it safe and expect good writing to come out of a place.
And here, really, is the crux of the matter. Nobody expects good writing to come out of India. Certainly not the publishers. If they did, they would fight for Freedom of Expression, because it is a part of their bread and butter. Look how long and faithfully Penguin – in the UK – fought for Rushdie. Instead, the foreign conglomerates that sell us the books they do can rely on reading whatever tripe is currently being praised in the UK, the US, or maybe (though not likely) in France or Germany. Why defend difficult books if there is no profit to be made of it?
And the writers? Well, take a look. Of all the “big” writers India lays claim to, the ones that win the big international prizes like VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Amartya Sen, Kiran Desai, Vikram Seth, or Jhumpa Lahiri, how many of them are Indian citizens? Narrow it down even further, how many of them write for Indians first and a foreign audience next?
Frankly, none of them. If they sell not one book in India, it would make not one scrap of difference to their fame or fortune. This applies too, to the ones who want to be the next Rushdie, or the next Desai, or the next whoever. They are looking to make their big sales abroad, not for validation in India. Because here is the thing: if you are recognised abroad, you are automatically recognised in India, but if you are only recognised in India, it does not matter even to Indians who you are.
In such a scenario is it any surprise that we are surrounded by a literary community of cowards? The only people who have some measure of courage are those writing in languages predominantly spoken in India, whose audience is here, and who want to push the boundaries. That is why when Uday Prakash returned his Sahitya Akademi Award, it mattered, and it is why it matters that his peers – representing many major language groups across India – agreed with him.
Every country, every culture, that has managed to gain Freedom of Expression is one that has fought for it, on its own grounds, on its own terms. They have done so despite difficulties, despite hardships. In India, at this present juncture, there is almost nobody there to fight this fight. A writer can be harassed by any idiot (with political clout) willing to file a complaint, and will run pillar to post to deal with it, and you know who will help him or her, who will even know? Nobody. Because we are a society of cowards, and all cowards believe in, is silence.
And, oh, yeah, the Charlie Hebdo thing, yeah, that was bad. We can talk about that. It was in France.
The article first appeared on Daily O. Reproduced here with permission.
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