Just Beat Up The Writers

If you have an opinion to share and the ability to put pen to paper, lock your doors.

This is a complicated country to write about. When one says that, logically one immediately thinks of censorship. A young woman arrested for a Facebook comment questioning Mumbai’s most important funeral this year (which led to her uncle’s orthopedic clinic being vandalised), a cartoonist who had issues with the state (which led to a media furore and then him being on, sensibly, Bigg Boss), or bad things floating about the internet questioning a certain powerful Italian-Indian lady (which led to a new IT Act that, depending on whom you believe, will give the government either the right to surf the web with you, or for you), or a professor in Calcutta caricaturing a Bengali Chief Minister (which led, literally, to a police station).

This article, however, isn’t about censorship. Enough has been said about that, the gist of which is essentially, it is not nice. There’s freedom of speech violated and let people say what they want in a democracy and so on.

This article is about something that comes after being censored. Self-censorship. The other way to read that is, don’t beat me up. Don’t come to my house. I won’t write about you. I’ve read about the people you’ve beaten up. I’ll write about simple stuff like where to eat good ravioli or where to travel to see ruins or make fun of helpless targets like Abhishek Bachchan.

Of all professions, the writer’s life is the most confounding because it is the most cowardly way to make a living (sitting and thinking), but demands the bravest thing one can do (changing human minds).

As a journalist friend explained, “Writers in India today sit down and think, Oh God, if I write the word Ambani or Sonia or Sena, am I in trouble? Why bother with the hassle, I just got renovations done, what if they break stuff, easier to just review Masterchef or discuss Saif Ali Khan’s wedding.”

“We don’t live in a culture where the individual and the opinion are separate. This is not Disraeli’s London where two debaters could shout at each other and disagree on issues by day and drink scotch and be best friends by night”, explained a lawyer.

That essentially makes all arguments, which should be about contentious issues, personal. The response to playwright, Girish Karnad’s accusation that Tagore was a second-rate playwright wasn’t a logical explanation of why he was a first-rate playwright but, “Who is Girish Karnad to say this?”. And thereafter, a critical scrutiny of his private life, which quickly devolved into petty gossip.

The line between intelligent opinion and gossiping housemaids is wafer thin.

Socialite and filmmaker, Sanjay Leela Bansali’s supporting actor Mr Suhel Seth’s first counter to a very popular article in Caravan magazine by journalist Mihir Sharma, (where Mr Sharma accused Mr Seth of being the symbol of elite India’s partying decadent age), was not to say that his personal life and his profession were separate and, therefore, the article baseless. But to say Mr Sharma “was a loser”.

A filmmaker explained it succinctly. “We’re not a culture that separates the individual from the work, and we’re a very visual culture. Therefore, when an actor says a line of dialogue in a movie, and someone finds it offensive, they go and try to beat up the actor. As if it was his/her political opinion. The fact that there is a character and within a construct of fiction that character has that opinion, is too much of an idea to deal with sometimes for some people”. Explained a journalist, adding, “Do you know how hard it was in the old days for a famous Bollywood villain to rent a flat? Many people would meet a villain and say, ‘but he’s such a nice guy’. I tried to tell them, you realise that Amrish Puri was not Mogambo off-camera. He didn’t wear a cape and laugh maniacally at home on Sunday”.

I imagined that theory was also exploited in getting actors who played Gods on TV to run for elections.

It’s quite clear now that if one writes something in India now, a book, a column, a blog, a comment, for any audience, they have to answer as an individual about their personal life choices, background, family. Pretty much their entire life would be up for public debate irrespective of the fact that the opinion could be a 500-word status update about the breeding habits of Himalayan rabbits.

“I write sometimes on my blog about the stock market, giving stock recommendations”, said a friend. “I’d said something once about avoiding Balaji Telefilms stock because I thought it was overweight vis-à-vis the PE ratio and someone left a comment saying, I was anti-Hindu and anti-India. Then came back later to add, homosexual.”

The 21st century complication of course, in a culture where the person is more important than the idea, is the Internet. We live in a world now where ideas don’t just come from writers published in noted daily, weekly and monthly publications. They come from everyone. “My 11 year old could be the next Twilight writer. She is really good at playing word games online with kids from Holland. She makes up her own words from English words”, explained a friend. Adding, “People follow her words”.

“With Twitter and Facebook and blogging, everyone is a writer with an audience”, explained a young writer. “And at the same time, everyone with the mindset that takes offense, will take offense.”

Never in human history were there so many ideas out there and so many against it.  Which, if just left to free exchange of ideas, is lovely. It just allows for fueled debate online and in the press, in volumes never before seen.

If your view of how Himalayan rabbits fornicate reaches hundreds of people around the world, you go to bed happy. What happens in India is that opinion causes anger, which causes personal attacks on the Internet and then personal attacks at your doorstep. You wake up and the Rabbit Rashtriya Samaj Dal are there, wearing pointy rabbit hats, demanding you take off the article, or have your coffee cup broken.

That’s when writers self-censor and decide to write about Abhishek Bachchan.

As a tech blogger summed up -“With modern technology, it is impossible to be anonymous. If you got an opinion and you really want to say it, great. You can and everyone will hear you, whereas even 15 years ago, you’d just be sitting at home shouting or begging an editor. But if you’re going to say it, be prepared that some in the audience may find you and show up and they aren’t showing up for reasoned point-by-point debate. They’re showing up to beat you up. The Internet that gave you the freedom also told them where you live”.

What about Arvind Kejriwal? I asked a respected writer. He’s saying whatever he wants and everyone’s printing it. The accused are defending themselves. No one is suing for libel. “His is not opinion. His is just finger-pointing like a cantankerous 5 year old”, was the response I got. “I have a 5 year old. After a while, I stop listening”.

My favorite historian and general genius, Ramchandra Guha, wrote an article about the kind of hate he receives when he talks of a secular inclusive India. As usual, they are all about him. And they are usually from abroad, which seems to somehow be a safe haven for fanatic nonsense. One said his name sounded like a good Hindu name, so why was he a stooge for foreign spies?  Another said something about Swiss banks and US banks and got convoluted in their own logic of how many bank accounts the writer may have had. All Mr Guha was trying to say was that people should get along.

It reminded me a bit of Voltaire when he said jokingly, “Anyone who said the pen is mightier than the sword hasn’t probably seen what a sword does”.

Anuvab Pal’s next novel, Chaos Theory (Picador India), hits the bookstores in December. 


Image Source [ http://www.flickr.com/photos/kongharald/3831236375/]

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  • gaurav86

    its time to switch off the tv, twitter and facebook. Social networking sites are like mental asylum where everyone thinks he/she is right and other a fool. Mind need peace. I first abandoned TV, then FB, then Twitter and now its time to say good bye to Newslaundary. Brain can find far more beautiful things to get into than to sit in front of monitor. Time to go back to 60s,70s with only one newspaper and no pink papers. Peace

    • Leo

      plz do and dont bother posting a comment here with diff name/id. THANK YOU

      • gaurav86

        i don’t think so i have surrendered my right of expression to you, as you seems to think. I am fortunately not in the need to ask you for the endorsement of my views. Regarding “different name/id” etc, affirmation in selection of words and tones by you can’t let the speculative actions go out of vision. so please keep on wasting your time on such speculation.

  • Papa CJ

    Great stuff Anuvab! I am however extremely offended on behalf of the Bengali community because your brief bio associates your ambition of doing nothing with being Bengali. Please expect some Bengalis to come to your doorstep and attempt to break your coffee cup. Although the odds are, being Bengali, they will do nothing 😉

  • Shree Pradhan

    Fabulous piece Anuvab!! It is rare to read honest and well written articles but when one finds one, like this one, one finds the joy of finding a GEM!!Thanks for making my morning beautiful and keeping my faith alive in media!

  • Roark

    Great piece Anuvab…Fantastic analysis…Also I will add to this, the culture of making demi-gods out of people who are not opinionated has also originated from here…We will never put Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar on same footing for a simple reason that the former was more vocal and many say “not humble”….The lesser you put your opinions in public platform, more genuine the person you are….because than there is the least possible chance that you shall be dragged into a “unnecessary” controversy from unwanted quarters…

    A Congress supporter will never try to defend himself by explaining that why he supports them…because he himself knows nothing about it..instead he will criticise BJP….and vice versa….If something is written against someone, he wont defend by countering the viewpoint, instead, he will offend by taking the issue to some tangential plane which shall bear no resemblance to the topic, instead it shall put a question mark on the character or credibility of the person itself…

  • sowmiyaprasad

    sensible piece .. keep the great work going….

  • AddyMitzy

    ” I write sometimes on my blog about the stock market, giving stock recommendations”, said a friend. “I’d said something once about avoiding Balaji Telefilms stock because I thought it was overweight vis-à-vis the PE ratio and someone left a comment saying, I was anti-Hindu and anti-India. Then came back later to add, homosexual.”

    Hilarious. Gotta admire the man’s commitment to the cause by coming back to add an insult. This guy is a REAL warrior.

    “You wake up and the Rabbit Rashtriya Samaj Dal are there, wearing pointy rabbit hats, demanding you take off the article, or have your coffee cup broken.” NAILED IT!

  • Pingback: Newslaundry – On Censorship – November 21, 2012 « Anuvab Pal()

  • Ooooohaaaa. THE Anuvab, in your element as always. Give it to em man.

  • very well put. i extremely enjoyed it. Rabbit Rashtriya Samaj Dal. hahhaha. The only problem of this country is- education. and this serves the purpose of the machine very well, if you know what I mean.

  • Vinod


  • This piece is awesome. And it makes me wonder, what goes on in the heads of you know, the people who take offense and show up at your doorstep. It might have something to do with a faulty legal system perhaps? Where if there are factors constantly working against you to sue someone for defamation (assuming all 100% of beat ups are valid which we all know, of course not), it’s easier to show up at their doorstep with a cricket bat.

  • so true!
    Reading this article made me nostalgic.. about 2 years ago, when I first started blogging and wrote a lot about my college life and friends. my friends were pretty pissed about being mentioned online and immediately asked me to delete every single line and actually threatened to beat me up, if I didn’t..
    And, I did go into the self-censorship mode post the incident..