There’s a little report in today’s DNA about yesterday’s excitement. Given there are space constraints and DNA is a newspaper rather than a place where I pontificate, what’s in the paper is a report of what happened at Girish Karnad’s session at Tata Literature Live! yesterday. Since this, on the other hand, is a place where I’m allowed to be self-indulgent, here’s a ramblier version.
Oh, and I haven’t had the chance to put up yesterday’s diary and neither have I got down to putting up the notes taken in past sessions. Now added to that backlog are the notes from Karnad’s session.
There’s nothing like a literary feud to make a literature festival buzz. It was supposed to be an hour-long “masterclass” by playwright Girish Karnad and ended up being 45 minutes of fireworks at the end of which Tata Literature Live!’s festival director Anil Dharker was fuming and author Farrukh Dhondy’s red face made it clear that he was not amused. Instead of speaking about his plays, Karnad presented a lecture that attacked Nobel laureate VS Naipaul for being anti-Muslim, tone deaf and unreliable writer of non-fiction as far as India is concerned.
Karnad asserted that Naipaul “has no idea of how Muslims contributed to Indian history.” He questioned the authenticity of Naipaul’s non-fiction writing in India and said Naipaul’s ideas are simplistic. “He really doesn’t pay much attention to the details of the texts he studies.”
Much of what Karnad said has been said before by Naipaul’s critics, like William Dalrymple who wrote a long piece outlining the flaws in Naipaul’s arguments about Indian history in 2004. From Naipaul’s problematic retelling of the fall of Vijaynagar (in 1565) in A Wounded Civilization to the author’s disenchanted reaction to the Taj Mahal, it’s all there in Dalrymple’s piece. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t bear repeating. Karnad described Naipaul’s insistence upon “villainising Islam’s followers” as a limited perspective that was extremely problematic. “You couldn’t make these statements about Jews in America, you couldn’t make these statements about blacks in America,” he said. “But you can make them about Muslims in India.”
Naipaul was awarded the Landmark Literature Live! Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this week. Karnad questioned the festival’s decision to do so and asked how the festival justified valorising him despite Naipaul’s many anti-Muslim sentiments and the author leaning towards the right-wing in the matter of the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. “Naipaul has continued to defend his remark, saying ‘I have always said that Babri Masjid is justified’,” said Karnad. “My question is to organisers who keep giving him lifetime awards as though what he has to say about a large section of the Indian population, about a whole rich period of Indian history which was our glory, doesn’t matter.”
The answer that was supplied by Dharker was predictable: Naipaul has a body of work that includes examples of excellent writing and some of it includes opinions that are “contrary”, but that doesn’t reduce their quality. The fact that Naipaul can indeed write exquisite sentences — sharp, precise and filled with images — is well-known and endlessly repeated. No one is debating that. The question that, to my mind, is worth asking is whether his “contrary” opinions are provocative or offensive. Contrary to popular usage, the two are not interchangeable. They have very different meanings. To be provocative is to provoke, which means to stimulate a strong reaction. It’s the basis of most great art (novels, films, paintings; the jing-bang lot of them) — they seek to engage the audience in a debate and leave them wondering. To offend, on the other hand, is a far blunter, cruder act. You’re simply annoying or hurting someone.
If Tata Literature Live!’s powers that be believe Naipaul’s “contrary” views are provocative, then bravo, because Naipaul has (as usual) sparked a debate. Whether by design or accident, this festival deserves a big cheer for giving space to conflicting opinions. Karnad, however, is of the camp that believes that Naipaul is simply offensive. He is not alone in this even though it seemed that way at the end of his talk when audience members flung at him comments and questions like, “Are you jealous of Naipaul that he won the Nobel?” and “We came to hear you talk about theatre and not the Babri Masjid”. One lady reprimanded Karnad for picking on one statement made by Naipaul (after the demolition of Babri Masjid) and going on and on. Poor dear couldn’t have known he’d spoken eloquently about a variety of subjects before bringing up that statement; she’d been dozing through the talk. I remember this vividly because I couldn’t believe someone could actually sleep through Karnad’s speech.
I’ve seen Karnad acting only in films, but yesterday was an electric performance. When he went on stage, no one would have imagined what he was about to spring upon us. He seemed casual, a distinguished old man of 75 who was cheerfully perplexed that he’s supposed to talk about his life and his work. “How boring!” he exclaimed and we giggled. Of course, he knew exactly what he was doing. He was softening us up, talking about how Indians have terrible dress sense and hideous aesthetics in clothes; about how music is the art form of contemporary times and how we can always tell when someone’s off tune. When Karnad said he had concluded from the fact that there is no mention of music in any of Naipaul’s books on India, that the Nobel laureate is tone deaf, everyone laughed. No one realised that was just the beginning of an erudite and devastating attack on Naipaul’s politics.
Some of us have read what is supposed to be the text of Karnad’s speech, but if you were there, then you know that he strayed from the script, and gloriously at that. Karnad disregarded the structure of the script and cheerfully wandered towards tangents, gave a wonderful retelling of the fall of Vijaynagar, spoke about Arabic influences in Carnatic music. He read out emails from people who questioned how authentic Naipaul’s non-fiction writing is, he quoted a statement Naipaul had made about the demolition of Babri Masjid. He read out what Naipaul had said about the Taj Mahal — “the Taj is so wasteful, so decadent and in the end so cruel that it is painful to be there for very long. This is an extravagance that speaks of the blood of the people” — and quipped that this is why Naipaul got the Nobel. Regular people just marvel at the beauty of the structure, he said. Karnad wasn’t measured the whole time. He barely stopped short of suggesting Naipaul got the Nobel only because 9/11 led to a surge of anti-Islamic sentiment which made the timing perfect to give the award to a rabidly right-wing author. But if you look at the script and you recall Karnad’s final words, you’ll see one important distinction: Karnad focussed on Naipaul’s work. No mention of Augustus, the cat; no pronouncements about whether or not Naipaul is obnoxious. Karnad was thoroughly professional. A playwright, author and Rhodes scholar (who studied Philosophy, Political Science and Economics) presented a critique of the ideology articulated in the works and statements of an award-winning novelist. It was a fight between equals.
Not that people in the audience felt that way. Dharker attempted to rap Karnad’s knuckles by saying it wasn’t polite of Karnad to use the platform the festival had provided him like this, Karnad replied, “I don’t have to be polite. I’m following in the footsteps of Naipaul.” Farrukh Dhondy, who was also in the audience, said that this seemed to be one of those court rooms where only the prosecution can talk and the defence can’t get a word in. Except of course the “defence” had more than an hour on 31st October, when Naipaul was given the lifetime achievement award, and no doubt many newspapers and magazines will be more than willing to give Dhondy space in their pages to defend Naipaul. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to know what lies ahead. Dhondy will argue that Naipaul is misunderstood and that Karnad tried to connect dots that are disconnected. One can only hope that Dhondy will show Karnad the respect that he showed Naipaul and construct an attack that is as intellectually solid.
If on the other hand Tata Literature Live!, and perhaps Dhondy, believe Naipaul’s contrarian views are simply offensive, then there’s no need to debate and they’re fully justified for feeling huffy that Karnad ran away with their show. Though in that event, someone spare a thought for Karnad, who at 75, expended much thought and energy on a bunch of words that matter as much as insults flung by vicious children in a playground.