Around sixty writers from nine countries across the subcontinent, who looked like children from broken homes, flocked to the grand literary mela organized by the Foundation of Saarc Writers and Literature (FOSWAL) an apex body of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) in Agra from 13-16 Feb 2009 to debate and discuss the role of writers in the context of widespread political violence and instability in the region. It was obviously a very educative experience. One learnt, for example, that the youth in Afghanistan were crazy about Hindi films and television serials to an extent that one young Afghan poet recited a poem in Hindi, a language that he had picked up from Hindi cinema. Rab Ne Bana Dee Jodi, incidentally, was his favourite film.
The most interesting thing was, however, that the jodis( made by the Rab himself) of countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, India and Pakistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India, who are not exactly on friendly terms, shared the same cultural platform and did their best to show that they were langotia chums and it was their politicians and priests who generated hatred. The culture minister of Pakistan Mr Fakhar Zaman delivered a lively speech denouncing the mullas and maulvis and the military dictators who hijack Pakistan and urged Pakistani writers not to accept civilian honours given by the junta. He quoted Neruda and others and said that the writers who rebel against the establishment are the most important writers and so on. Most of the writers said that culture and literature can establish peace in the region tormented by hatred and religious fundamentalisms of all sorts. This obviously is official line. However, if by culture you mean the lifestyle, values, religions, institutions and so on then it precisely culture which is a divisive force.
The official position was that literature and culture could abate terrorism and generate an atmosphere of peace. Like all official positions it only exhibits self-deception and certain ideological simple-mindedness. A much-needed reality check was offered by a provocative lecture by the noted folklorist Prof Jawaharlal Handoo. He pointed out that most of the discussion on terrorism is off mark because it separates terrorism from the question of violence. He demonstrated how violence pervades our day to day discourses, religious texts, films, televisions and literature. These discourses actually reinforce human violent instincts. He was in favour of discarding and forgetting all the religious texts (like the Mahabharata, for instance). He said that the source of violence was in the tenacious feudal structure of our society and it is the culture originating from the palaces and durbars which promote hatred of all kinds. This social structure generates all discourses of violence and deeply indoctrinates our psyches. Our psyches are feudal, in spite of our modernity. He gave an illustration of the Sati system saying that killing a harmless broken hearted widow would not benefit anyone except the Palaces. If the woman has an affair with a sweeper that would bring disgrace to the Palace and if the woman demanded a share in property it would be a great loss. So it was convenient for the Palaces to promote this horrible tradition. This is how the feudal system (The Palace Paradigm in Handoo’s phrase) generates violence. The source of terrorisms of all forms lie in this Paradigm and the psyches steeped in these values and discourse they generate. This was the very subcontinent that had murdered Gandhi and banished Buddhism, he said.
Some people from the audience protested saying that Prof Handoo was straying away from the topic. Actually, he had hit the nail on the head. A very young man stood up responding to Prof Handoo’s comments on Sita in the Ramayana. He said that by portraying the character of Sita in a particular way and by putting her in a particular situation, the composer of the Ramayana was actually glorifying Sita and raising her up in the eyes of people. Prof Handoo said that he wouldn’t want his daughter, mother or sister to be treated in the same way as Sita was.
Interacting personally with Prof Handoo was also fascinating. He believed that most of the writers on the subcontinent are neglected because they seek feudal patronages in various form and indulge in subtle and often not too subtle in sycophancy. Hence most of the cultural texts promote the vested interests of Palace Paradigm. That’s why writers spend most of their time writing about romantic love, a relatively harmless subject, praising ` woman’s nathni etc’ in Handoo’s words, to please their patrons. Prof Handoo also talked about how historians have done absolutely no research on what actually went on the palaces of kings in India. They limited themselves studying coins and ruins of the palaces. There are hardly any records of what went on in the palaces and the only place where you could find `history’ was in folklore and oral memories. But historians are not very interested in these texts, he complained. He also said that if the things like incest could be repressed by kinship systems, we can devise a social system which more or less successfully represses aggressive instincts.
Though I agreed with almost everything Prof Handoo said and I am grateful to him for his incisive insights, I find it difficult to agree on what he has to say on the violent literature of the past like the Mahabharata or the religious texts. What needs to be done is not to `forget them’, because one cannot do so, but to continue to read them in the way Prof Handoo reads them, without glorifying violence and injustice, by exposing the cruelty of the people who are considered great. Another problem was that his argument that the artists and writers should stop promoting and depicting violence in their texts could be read as if it was the holy duty of the writers to write escapists kind of `soft cosy’ texts. I don’t think he really meant that. He did not have very clear opinion on the problem of the role of writers in such a predicament as ours on the subcontinent.
My views on the subject of the role of writers or artists in the times of global violence and corruption are rather old fashioned, or rather Aristotelian in nature. Aristotle pointed out that the truth of creative writing, or imaginative writing, is superior to historical or philosophical writings because it is concrete, and microscopic in nature compared to generalized and abstract discourses of history. I only have to add to Aristotle’s views. The truth of poetry and all art is superior, not only to history, `theory’, philosophy but also to the truths of media and all forms of propaganda. Poetry, literature and arts have to remain loyal to this superior form of imaginative truth; the truth one finds in Kafka, Shakespeare, Kabir, Yeats, Ghalib or Manto. In contemporary context, it is superior to documentary realism or newspaper or television reports because it sees which these discourses cannot. Function of Art in the post-global era is to show what propaganda or sensationalist media cannot see or does not want to see. It should not entertain anything but doubts. The function of art is not to sing paeans to peace but to expose what lies beneath the peaceful exterior. Artists have to remain true to their imagination, because it is precisely the thing which can not merely see what does not exists but can also produce what does not exists. In our dreams, as the Irish prophet said, begin our responsibilities. I would again alter it a bit to suit my purpose: in our nightmares begin our responsibilities.
Kanji Patel, a noted Gujarati poet, accompanied me and the gentleman who compeered the poetry reading session said that we are used to hearing unpleasant things from Gujarat, now lets have something pleasant. When my turn to read the poem came, I pointed out that the term metaphor in its etymological sense means `going across’. If an event becomes a metaphor, it is precisely because it can be grafted into another context. In this sense, what happened in Gujarat is a metaphor because it can happen anywhere in the world and that it has happened in so many other places. It would be unfair to single out Gujarat and demonize it. The poem which I read at the festival was the poem I had written on 28 Feb 2002 when the news of what happened at Godhra had just started arriving. The poem uses a metaphor of the Banyan tree of Hatred that is flourishing all over the world. The poem says that we, all of us, and not just our politicians and priests, have nourished it and its roots are to be found deep within us. I was merely echoing what Prof Handoo had said only that it was written seven years ago. I quote the poem in its full:
The Tree of Total Eclipse
(The Godhra carnage and the subsequent riots in Gujarat, Feb 2002)
Who knows how long
We have to live
Under the cyanide shade
Of the sky-high banyan tree of total eclipse
We have grown in our yard.
No one has guts
To unravel the mystery
Of its source, spread and increase
As we nurtured it ourselves
With the manure
Of the crushed infant skulls.
We have never looked at it
With the eyes
Of the tattered weeping vulvas.
The dreadful stench
Of the incinerated skin
And we typical orthodox onlookers
Flee plugging our nose.
We will never get to its roots
Because while digging for them
We will find
Deep within our own chest
Its arsenic ariel-roots