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Literary Wars

With uncharacteristic belligerence, the playwright-actor Girish Karnad exposes the clay feet of two global icons in literature — Nobel laureates Rabindranath Tagore and V.S.Naipaul. Is his outburst justified.

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Those who were present at the session of Mumbai's Literary Festival in November were witness to a rare phenomenon: a maestro-like performance from Girish Karnad. After years of being underwhelmed by his on-screen histrionics, they were stunned by the ferocity that accompanied Karnad's seemingly clinical - but no less effective - demolition of V.S.Naipaul's reputation as an India observer.  In less than an hour of the "master class," he had irreparably punctured the genteel politeness of the organizers - personified by litfest honcho Anil Dharker - and turned the week-long jamboree on its head by questioning their decision to award Naipaul a Lifetime Achievement award.


No, the awardee -the 2001 Nobel Prize winner for Literature - was not in the audience. The grand old man was vacationing with his wife in Goa after receiving the award and after giving a rather mushy public interview to his kid-gloved acolyte Farrukh Dhondy a couple of days prior to the Karnad outburst. Dhondy, who was in the audience for Karnad's session, tried to speak up in Naipaul's defence. But Karnad, whose stint in the mid-1970s as director of the Film and Television Institute (FTII) in Pune was marked by criticism of autocratic conduct, shut him up brusquely, saying he'd already had his say. An ironic sidelight to the session: Naseeruddin Shah, an FTII alumnus who spearheaded the students' protest against Karnad's administration, watched the entire denouement silently from a front-row seat.

A few days later, Girish Karnad was back in the news with a tirade against the 1913 Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore while speaking to students in a Bengaluru University, calling his plays "unbearable" and justifying Tagore's exclusion from the pantheon of iconic Indian playwrights after the legendary Kalidasa - in which Karnad has routinely included Hindi writers Dharamveer Bharati and Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar in Bengali, Vijay Tendulkar in Marathi, and himself in Kannada - on the basis of two contentious claims.  One, that the aforementioned playwrights never expressly acknowledged their debt to Tagore's dramatic legacy. And two, that Tagore's plays have been largely ignored by performing groups after his death, and that even during his lifetime they were staged for the most part by his relatives in the privacy of his drawing room.


A clarification is in order. Karnad, it turns out, never really went after Tagore's plays with a singular vituperative focus, as the news media would have us believe. Rather, his address spanned the entire history of Indian theater, and Tagore's contribution was mentioned - albeit in less than laudatory terms - as a mere footnote, while recognizing the unquestioned brilliance of his poetry.  


However, Karnad's evidence for his summary dismissal of Tagore's dramatic endeavors remains questionable. That a writer never expressly identified his influences is not proof that he wasn't influenced by a certain literary tradition, or that he did not unconsciously rebel against it. Does a writer achieve greatness only when and if his literary successors anoint him? And as for the Tagore clan confining its performance of his plays to the precincts of their home, it probably had a lot to do with the proscription against "respectable" women of that era appearing on the public stage as actors.


Karnad appeared later on national television for a more substantive discussion of the subject wherein he critiqued the "cardboard cut-out" characters -especially those depicting the rural poor - in Tagore's plays, attributing the flaw to the zamindar-writer's limited contact with that class of people.  


However subjective it may be, Girish Karnad's opinion of Tagore as a playwright demands our attention.  His views might not pass muster for the Bengali chauvinists who believe that every word or musical phrase that wafts from across the Hoogly River should be accepted as a work of genius. As an insightful commentator of the literary scene and with more than a dozen landmark plays to his name, Karnad is better qualified than most of us to comment on and judge the Tagore oeuvre.  Moreover, other writers in the past have shared the same opinion. Khushwant Singh was once heckled when he derided Tagore's talent as a playwright at a public lecture in (where else?) erstwhile Calcutta. It's time someone pointed a decisive and unwavering finger at the elephant in the room, if only to set the record straight.

Karnad's finger-pointing at V.S.Naipaul could prove even more consequential. After all, Tagore's literary works - much like Mahatma Gandhi's political philosophy - are fossilized in a kind of idolatry that often short-circuits an informed and open debate outside of scholarly journals. And while his best writings - Gitanjali (poetry), Gora (novel) and The Home-Coming (short story) - are truly timeless, his plays are less known to contemporary readers. And you don't have to be an erudite literary critic to know why. However great a writer may be, his lesser works tend to fade away with his passing.


Naipaul, on the other hand, is alive and kicking and - needless to mention - productive and provocative.  He continues to grab headlines with his books and, in fallow times, with his putdowns of contemporary and older writers. It is interesting to see if Naipaul himself follows the sage advice he dished out to his once-fawning junior, the American writer Paul Theroux, after a bitter fallout between them. "Take it on the chin, and move on," he is reported to have told Theroux when he bumped into him on the street after a particularly rude fax message from the senior statesman.


It would be sad - and unusual - if Naipaul actually decides to take Karnad's slug on the chin and move on. Unusual, because Naipaul thrives as much on the feisty give-and-take that's become the extra-curricular norm at literary events as he does on the elegance and the gravitas of his written word. And sad, because the spat at the Mumbai litfest over his writings and its susceptibilities has larger ramifications which deserve serious contemplation, and which would remain  agonizingly unexplored if everyone just packed up their notes, shook hands and went home.  The issue transcends the acrimony of the moment, and stands uneasily at the intersection of the conflicting ideologies, opposing worldviews and competing egos bristling around in Indian and global literature.


So what about Naipaul and his work got Karnad's goat?  Acknowledging his gifts as a writer of fluent prose, Karnad took unequivocal exception to Naipaul's politics. These, he contends, are offensive enough to debar the writer from being celebrated as a literary icon - particularly in India. His points of dispute and displeasure in the specific context of the Nobel and Litfest awards to Naipaul are:


One, that although Naipaul is a "foreigner," he is "sycophantically" regarded by India - and, by implication, 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 he won it in no small measure for his anti-Islamic worldview as reflected 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 also is blind 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.


First, some no-brainers.  In Naipaul, we see Sunita Williams redux - or is it vice versa? When are we going to stop bending backwards to appropriate world celebrities as "Indian" merely because of their Indian-sounding names or their marginal Indian ancestry? Naipaul fawners, among Indian writers in English, are legion. Not to be left behind, the Indian Government - through the agency of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations - played its part in hosting a full-scale litfest at Neemrana in Rajasthan in February 2002 to honor the newly-minted Nobel Laureate.


Karnad may well have hit the mark in ascribing deeper ideological motives to Naipaul's Nobel award. Was it another strike in the "clash of civilizations" that has obsessed the West and demonized the "others" - with Muslims heading this list? And given the facts of recent political and economic history, is it entirely fanciful to suspect that the Mumbai Litfest's Lifetime Achievement Award to Naipaul was but a craven nod to the liberalization-privatization-globalization syndrome that is engulfing us in every sphere of life?

With one of India's largest corporate houses as its primary sponsor, the Tata Literature Live! showed an unmistakable bias toward English-language writing and was indeed dead to any kind of regional Indian literature. A telling example was one of the panel discussions titled "Multi-Story Crisis: Has Fiction Failed Mumbai?"  It totally ignored the regional-language literature the city has spawned. Not a word was uttered on the contributions of Marathi writers, such as Arun Sadhu, whose Mumbai-centric novels Mumbai Dinank and Simhasan are counted among the modern-day classics on the subject. Moreover, Sadhu has worked for several years as a English-language journalist while moonlighting as a Marathi novelist, and so could have comfortably held his own as a litfest panelist. On the other hand, the litfest featured a host of foreigners showcasing their writing, oratorial and other performing talents.


It was therefore a cosmic retribution of sorts for regional Indian literature to see one of its own - Girish Karnad, the Kannada playwright - giving it to those English ones, in a manner of speaking, even if the man himself, with an Oxford degree and bestowed with the country's highest literary honors - not to speak of plum postings in governmental institutions throughout his career - would hardly fit the profile of an anti-Establishment "mofussil" writer.


But listening to Karnad at the listfest metaphorically twisting the knife in Naipaul's underbelly, brought to the fore a more fundamental question: What makes a writer - or, for that matter, any artiste - great? Is there a veritable - and verifiable - checklist of attributes that bestow artistic greatness? And how does Naipaul fare in that scrutiny, and in the light of the Karnad-inspired prosecution?


To be sure, Naipaul's fluid prose is a testament to an exceptional writing style. The question though is whether the craft of stringing together words to convey an idea most persuasively is the sole measure of greatness. If that were indeed a sufficient qualification, several copywriters in advertising agencies would be lining up for the Nobel.  Clearly then, the enduring and universal quality of the idea conveyed, and its ability to uniquely and honestly mirror the human condition stand out as significant markers.  And here, Naipaul's critics might have him cornered.


One is tempted to speculate that had V.S.Naipaul restricted himself to writing novels - where factual happenings can be manipulatively recounted to achieve a higher literary truth -h is place in the gallery of literary greats would have been more or less assured. Despite what Karnad thinks about the "abysmal" quality of a couple of them, the majority of Naipaul's novels are first-rate by any standard.


His masterpiece A House for Mr. Biswas is an all-time personal favorite for its wealth of insightful detail and its profound compassion for the plight of its protagonist - modeled closely on Naipaul's own father, a small-time Indian journalist in Trinidad whose straitened circumstances forced him to live as a ghar-jamaai in the house of his wealthy in-laws, and whose life's twin ambitions centered on acquiring a semblance of literary fame and a house he could call his own.


Moving away from his own family and from fiction, Naipaul retains the masterful eye for capturing the telling oddity, but fails to approach his subjects with the basic humility required of a chronicler, and thus to suffuse his non-fiction writing with the same depth of compassion - or even empathy. In a brilliant essay on An Area of Darkness, Naipaul's first non-fiction work on India describing a trip in the early 1960s, poet and critic Nissim Ezekiel writes: "My quarrel with Mr. NaipaulÉ.is not because of [the] condemnatory judgments of his, so fiercely, so blazingly expressed. My quarrel is that Mr. Naipaul is so often uninvolved and unconcerned.É.To forget this [primary prerequisite] is to be wholly subjective, wholly self-righteousÉ. If only Mr. Naipaul could have realized how utterly unreasonable this attitude is! It nearly undermines the validity of his arguments."


The operative word is "attitude." Would knowledge of Indian music and an appreciation of its architecture have helped Naipaul pass the Karnad test? I doubt it.  Mere knowledge of the art-form without an attitude of openness and genuine curiosity would come to naught in seeking to understand a culture. Karnad's qualifiers might also be unfair to the sensorily disabled.  Is he implying that a tone-deaf person has no business becoming a travel writer? Or that Ved Mehta's books are less than perceptive because their author is visually challenged?


Karnad's quarrel with Naipaul for refusing to admire the architectural beauty of the Taj Mahal seems, at best, trivial. It's a truism that the same object means different things to different people. Lovers of Urdu poetry marvel at the diametrically opposite responses the Agra monument evoked from two of its most esteemed practitioners. Whereas Shakeel Badayuni wrote Ek shahenshah ne banva ke haseen taj mahal / Saari duniya ko mohabbat ki nishaani di hai (An emperor by building the beautiful Taj Mahal / Has given the whole world a symbol of love), his more irascible contemporary Sahir Ludhianvi retorted Ek shahenshah ne banva ke haseen taj mahal / Hum garibon ki mohabbat ka udaya hai mazaak (An emperor by building the beautiful Taj Mahal / Has mocked the love of us poor folk). Sahir was persuaded by his fellow-comrades in the progressive movement to desist from publishing the rest of his tirade against the Taj Mahal in deference to the laborers who built it!


To fault Naipaul's baggage for weighing down his writings with controvertible notions of history borrowed from blinkered sources is an altogether different matter. An arguably more valid - and certainly more damning - accusation by Karnad concerns the historical accuracy of the "facts" on which Naipaul constructs his arguments and which, in turn, enable him to make his characteristically sweeping statements about a country as diverse, and a society as complex as India. Naipaul depended on the likes of William Jones and his ilk to provide him with a primer to Indian history. But the primer, alleges Karnad, irreversibly colored the writer's analysis of several key events - notably, the fall of Vijayanagar - with the result that Naipaul swallowed wholesale the Muslim-as-marauder theory posited in 1900 by the Indologist Robert Sewell and now propagated by the right-leaning Hindu fundamentalists, and which served to justify the anti-Muslim stance of Naipaul's books on India.


If Karnad is to be believed, Naipaul's tendency to selectively adopt "facts" to fit his worldview extends even to the interviews he conducted with Indians during his travels across the country.  One such interviewee - Ashoke Chatterjee, Director of the Ahmedabad-based National Institute of Design (NID) - emailed Karnad to complain that the essay Naipaul wrote after visiting him was a scenario that could have been but was not what he actually saw: "Fragments of reality were selected and put together into a collage of pure fantasy."


Will these revelations open up the debate about literary icons and honors? Will they call into question the criteria adopted for selecting the winners? For instance, the Nobel Prize committee, with its preponderance of Swedish members, has been accused of Eurocentrism. Perhaps the outbursts of a luminary like Karnad could jump-start the "reform" process in India. But does the argumentative Indian read books?


The answer might lie in a detail from Khushwant Singh's criticism of Tagore's plays. After being heckled for several minutes by the Calcutta crowd, Singh was about to resume his talk when a young man stood up and declared: "How dare you criticize Gurudev? We worship him."


The irrepressible Sardar replied, tongue firmly in cheek: "I would suggest that you stop worshipping him, and start reading him."

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P Rao December 30, 2012 at 3:49 AM
If you really wanted to analyze Karnad's remarks, you would take a stand on the Muslims- as-marauders theory rather than sticking to a he-said, he- said format. Is that theory right in essence? Did the Muslim invaders not indulge in wholesale destruction? Were Muslims responsible for the destruction of Vijayanagara? Did the Muslims in the Vijayanagara armies switch sides during the war against the Bahamani kingdoms? Is it all wholesale fiction created by the British without any basis in fact? You've written a whole article while studiously avoiding any examination of facts. Why? Are the conclusions not convenient?
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Life | Magazine | December 2012

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It would be sad if V.S. Naipaul takes Girish Karnad’s slug on the chin and moves on. Rabindranath Tagore may well be a great poet and artist but Girish Karnad insists, his plays were mediocre. Girish Karnad questions Rabindranath Tagore’s (seen here in London in 1912) dramatic legacy. V.S. Naipaul was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2012 Mumbai Literary Festival.

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