Can we separate the art from the artist? Sexual abuse allegations against Nagarjun revive the old debate

Can we separate the art from the artist? Sexual abuse allegations against Nagarjun revive the old debate

How do we reconcile the edifying warmth of poetic greatness with the rude jolt of human depravity?

By Anand Vardhan

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In a November 2018 piece for New Statesman, writer Eleanor Margolis wondered whether she would read Roald Dahl’s fiction to her children. Dahl, considered one of the most influential children’s fiction writers of the 20th century, had made antisemitic remarks and was seen to have justified the Holocaust. Despite her aversion to the fallen hero, Margolis concludes that she would still read Dahl to her children, but would hope they discover the dark side of his public utterances.

What if it isn’t only hateful utterances, but allegations of child sexual abuse against a towering literary figure who passed away 22 years ago? How do we see the literary legacy of someone who is long dead but now disgraced with an accusation? This question crept into Indian literary scene this month, particularly in the Hindi world of letters. Gungun Thanvi, a 35-year-old doctoral student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, alleged in a social media post that Nagarjun, one of 20th century’s most important poets and writers in Hindi, had sexually abused her at her home when she was seven. Given Nagarjun died in 1998 at the age of 87, the alleged abuse took place when he was around 81.

For understandable reasons, Gungun’s post is no longer available. But she hasn’t backtracked. She has been responding to messages of support, and spoke with a journalist about how she mustered the courage to speak out after several decades. “When he came to our house, I was perhaps seven then. I can remember the fear of those moments when he was doing that, with a benign mien and dispassionate countenance,” she wrote in her Hindi post. “People say those who sexually abuse children are sick. Was Nagarjun, such a renowned poet in the country, sick? Those who rape are ordinary people but see these ‘eminent’ people who get into your homes and devour your own daughters,’ Gungun wrote in her post in Hindi.

Aside from evoking repulsion about a literary figure, apparently revered by the victim’s family, Gungun’s post entails some disturbing questions, and seminal ones too. To address the most technical of them, and without any intention of questioning the victim, there will always be talk of the defencelessness of the accused, who is no more. How would Nagarjun have responded to the allegation? We will never know.

But assuming Gungun’s allegations are true – and there does not seem to be a valid ground for doubt – her account occasions reflections on a few counts.

First, as a register of the painful tales of sexual abuse, there is a need to start a debate on how to chronicle the alleged crimes of the dead, ordinary as well as supposedly great perpetrators.

At the turn of the century, Pinki Virani narrated many harrowing tales of child sexual abuse in her book, Bitter Chocolate. In the two decades since, owing to the cathartic capacity of social media and the revelatory space provided by movements like the MeToo campaign, the possibilities of widening the narrative scope of such a register have enhanced manifold. What’s lacking in chronicling the suffering, though, is an understanding of how to go about alleged perpetrators who are dead. To what extent does the posthumous non-availability of an alleged perpetrator’s defence affect the gravity of the accusations? Does it affect them at all? What are the dangers of exercising the benefit of the doubt for either side?

It seems that in the absence of a broader understanding of these questions, many skeletons in the cupboard wouldn’t tumble out, and the ones which tumble out would be subjected to varying degrees of disillusionment, horror, irrelevance, or even conspiracy theories.

Second, there is the question of what would be the approach of the public sphere, and by extension of public bodies and authority, to the legacy and work of iconic figures who are long dead but now face disgrace for personal conduct and, hence, non-literary reasons? That, for instance, entails the question of how one would reconcile to the fact that Nagarjun’s poetry is found in school textbooks, university courses and even the Hindi literature syllabus for public services examinations? There can always be an argument that the allegations belong to his private life, and shouldn’t constitute the literary evaluation of the rich body of his work. Similarly, can a posthumous allegation against him warrant depriving him of honours such as the Sahitya Akademi Award (1969) and Bharat Bharti Award (1983), to name just a few?

Recent international experiences in this regard are of little use. In 2018, there were public protests in Chile against a decision to name the country’s busiest international airport after Pablo Neruda, the Nobel laureate poet and one of Chile’s most enduring cultural icons of the 20th century. Neruda, in his memoir, had described raping a maid and, hence, left no scope for doubt about his culapabilty in an act of sexual crime. So, unlike allegation against Nagarjun, the question of posthumous defencelessness wasn’t relevant.

In the same year, the Guardian reported that in Britain “plans to celebrate the life of Roald Dahl with a commemorative coin were rejected because of concerns about the author’s antisemitic views”. The paper added that the Royal Mint had dropped the proposal because of such concerns. As Dahl described himself as antisemistic, there was nothing that his presence would have changed about that allegation. In fact, it wasn’t an allegation, it was his own declaration. That again makes it a case unlike that against Nagarjun.

In different times, there was perhaps a tendency to treat certain types of advances (not actual acts) with nonchalance, even comic frivolity. Here, one recalls how the former editor of Outlook, Vinod Mehta, recalled an encounter with the famous Urdu poet Raghupati Sahai, who wrote under the pen name Firaq Gorakhpuri, in his autobiography Lucknow Boy, published in 2011.

“Firaq would drink half a bottle of rum in the evening and lecture us on Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Byron. He was an authority on the Romantics. While explaining Wordsworth’s concept of nature, his eyes would be firmly positioned below our waist – a sight which, no doubt, enchanted him because mostly we were in shorts. As his intake of rum increased, his eyes began rolling violently and from Wordsworth he moved seamlessly to love between man and man. ‘It is perfectly natural,’ he declared, as he asked one of us to come and sit next to him,” Mehta wrote. “On one occasion, a bottle of beer we had been saving up was left behind in the room. Who was going to fetch it with a sozzled poet on a homosexual rampage? Unfortunately, I pulled the short straw. I tightened my belt and went into the room trembling. Firaq, mercifully, was in his cups and pyjama down, I caught him masturbating. He saw me, winked and continued, while I hastily retrieved the beer bottle.’’

One doubts whether such conduct of a famous literary figure with young boys would be brushed aside so lightly now.

Third, the allegations must have baffled even non-literary people about Nagarjun’s legacy because besides being a celebrated poet, he was the voice of many political and social movements, including the Dalit movement and the campaigns led by the Left political groups. He had joined the Communist Party of India in 1946, before giving voice to different progressive movements over the decades. He was the voice of defiance during the Emergency as he mocked Indira Gandhi’s autocratic approach with the iconic line, “Induji, Induji, kya hua aapko?” Induji, what’s happened to you? The element of political consciousness combined with his ability to spontaneously capture the slice-of-life moments from mundane lives had earned him the sobriquet of jankavi, or people’s poet.

He was regarded as a pioneer of a new stream of Hindi poetry, blending experimentation with rootedness, by eminent Hindi literary critics like Ramvilas Sharma and leading Marxist critic Namvar Singh. He was a consistent voice of the Dalit movement too, as were his poems written in response to the Belchi massacre in Bihar.

Admiration for him wasn’t limited to the leftist stream of Indian politics; the voices on the Right had high regard for him. There is an anecdotal account of how former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was delighted to hear Nagarjun’s encouraging words for the former’s poems. It goes thus: a proofreader working on Vajpayee’s collection of poems was hesitant showing Nagarjuna what he was proofreading, thinking it was mediocre. Nagarjuna said, “Chhipaate kyun ho? Atal bhi ek tarah ka kavi hai, jo mann mein aata likh deta hai.” Why are you hiding? Atal is also a kind of poet, he writes whatever appeals to his mind. Vajpayee was elated to hear this and wanted it repeated to him many times.

In fact, there were occasions when he showed a nationalist streak too. He was opposed to the Jawaharlal Nehru government’s policy on India’s membership of the Commonwealth. Guided by that protest, when Queen Elizabeth II visited India, he poetically responded with sarcastic the lines, “Aao rani, ham dhoenge palaki, yehi huee hai raay Jawharlalal ki.” Come Queen, we will carry your palanquin, that’s what Jawaharlal wants.

One wonders whether the recent allegation will affect the rhetorical appropriation of his literary work by political actors and social activists of different streams.

Fourth, perhaps the most important question is about how his readers would approach his writings now. Will anything change? Is there a valid case for separating the art from the artist?

Nagarjun wrote poems of extraordinary sensitivity, blending aesthetics with popular accessibility and sharp observations of everyday life. In the wake of the recent allegation, one wonders how one should approach the poignant portrayals of female characters in his short novels like Ratinath ki Chachi (Ratinath’s Aunt), which ironically tells the story of the exploitation of a widow, Varun ke Bete (Varun’s Sons) and Balchanma, which describes Balchanma’s sister being sexually assaulted by a landlord.

Similarly, Nagarjun captures nature in exquisitely evocative poetic expressions. His poem Badal ko Ghirte Dekha Hai (I have seen the gathering clouds) is unmatched for its description of clouds around Himalayan mountains.

However, what would be most difficult to reconcile with is the poetic beauty of his description of parental affection. He even found it in a female pig and described her love for her piglets in his poem Paine Daantowali (The one with sharp teeth). But the poem that would be difficult for many to read now is Gulabi Churiyan (Pink Bangles), in which he brings out the love of a private bus driver for his daughter. He asks, “Private bus ka driver hai to to kya hua, saat saal ki bachhi ka pita to hai.” What if he is the driver of a private bus? He is the father of a seven-year-old girl. Quite hauntingly, seven-year-old. That’s what hindsight can do: one doesn’t know how to read this great piece of poetry now.

From skepticism about the allegations to disillusionment with the great and the good, the reactions to such moments of revelations need time to settle in. It’s the time one needs to reconcile the edifying warmth of poetic greatness with the rude jolt of human depravity. It isn’t an easy reconciliation, anyway.