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.
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