In a perverse way, the roaring success of Midnight’s Children in the Western world proved that Churchill was right when he said that Indians were fit to be governed only by foreigners. The history of “independent” India in a way is a sorry tale of her political, economic, social, cultural, and spiritual impoverishment at the hands of just one dynasty whose founder was a brown racist proud of the language of his own country’s oppressors. And so, that section of the British establishment which wanted to feel good about having done a service to India by oppressing it was enthralled when it read Midnight’s Children: nice brown man writing in flawless English about what an awful place India has become after we left! It also helped Rushdie that there was no dearth of India-ignorant Western reviewers who waxed lavishly on Midnight’s Children for example, in The New York Times.
No better illustration is required to show this critic’s yawning ignorance about Indian literature; it is clear that what he views as the “literary map” of India includes only Indian writing in English. Valmiki Maharshi, Veda Vyasa, Kalidasa, Bhasa, Shudraka, Pampa, Kumaravyasa, Kamban, Tikkana, K.V. Puttappa, Devudu, Vishwanatha Satyanarayana….none of them find a place in this map.
Let’s look at what has happened ever since: every wannabe Rushdie began to ruthlessly mine the Indian society to unearth its “inherent” evils—which usually meant a variant of Katherine Mayo’s gutter inspection. The “evil caste system,” the superstitious, backward and primitive Hindu people, open sewers, dowry, child marriage, widow maltreatment…the sepoy-turned-gatekeeper did everything to reinforce such Western stereotypes about India. For a few dollars more.
Let’s take another random example. Rohinton Mistry. You find stuff like (paraphrased) “…and the pious Brahmin lifted his buttock and farted loudly in the face of the poor low-caste labourer working on the farm who hid his disgust and continued to stand there reverentially with folded hands.” One can almost visualize Mistry fantasizing even while he feverishly wrote such sentences: “One day, one day! I will become Salman Rushdie! Or Kiran Desai. Or Vikram Seth.”
It is precisely this sepoy-ambition that formed the seed capital for Dalrymple and his club to establish the Jaipur Literature Festival notwithstanding what they say its real objectives are. We return to Hartosh Singh Bal who tells us how this works:
Since the original article was published, the Dalrymple bio at the Jaipur Lit Fest website has been amended. The additions in the few days since I wrote my piece are telling. They include the Crossword Prize for Non-Fiction for The Last Mughal, the first Asia House Prize for Asian Literature for Nine Lives and the French Prix D’Astrolable for The Age of Kali. These additions only serve as a tacit admission of the truth of what I had written: ‘This director of an Indian literary festival does not consider it important to mention an Indian prize he may have received or an Indian publication he may have written for. His eyes are trained on the recognition that Britain’s literary world offers (even if there is the hint that commercial success in India has started mattering), and in that recognition lies his strength.’
This postmortem pretence of honesty is entirely consistent with Dalrymple’s remarkable, serpentine flexibility that makes the necessary twists to suit the occasion. But it still doesn’t change the allure he offers to desi wannabe Rushdies: an opening for a potentially prosperous literary career right on home ground, in India. In return, they mine deeper to extract newer and newer muck from their own society, culture and past. The politics of the last seventy years have actively encouraged “social justice” of this sort and it makes for good copy for Western readers wanting to “know” India from a “native” perspective.
Which makes us revert to the question we posed in the previous part of this series: what business does an Oprah Winfrey have in this ostentatious festival of “literature?” A 23 January 2012 news report in DNA on the Jaipur Literature Festival says:
There. That again fits the template for who is an authority on literary matters: the right (i.e. wrong) skin color, the right gender, the right kind and amount of beatings and abuse you’ve received…actually no. What actually counts is how effectively you encash your sob story. Not too long ago, it was considered beneath dignity for a person to publicly recount his or her painful past much less use it as an instrument for financial and career success. Oprah Winfrey has made Abuse-Sob-Story TV a hugely successful, multimillion dollar commercial venture. This in itself is a naked commentary on the stars and stalwarts at the Jaipur Literature Festival who erupted in spasms of rapture at her mere presence there. Or for that matter, a person like Tarun Tejpal whose paper Tehelka, used extortionist methods to get what it wanted.
So let’s just call the Jaipur Literature Festival by its proper name: it is the Festival of Politically Correct sissies driven and enforced by the Left-Liberal ideology. More concisely, it is the annual watering hole of breaking India forces.
Forget literature, most of the luminaries that populate this charade care nothing about free expression, and their support for Salman Rushdie is as fake as the fame of some of the literary worthies who annually preen there. It is a march of self-aggrandising and brazen careerists who sway according to the changing wind. They make the right noises as long as it’s safe for them to do so and abandon the very ideal they claim to hold dear at the first whiff of threat.
Let’s start with the boss, the White Mughal, William Dalrymple himself. Hartosh Singh Bal’s searing essay (The Literary Raj) elicited the predictable accusation of racism from the stung Mughal. In response, Bal called Dalrymple’s bluff (Does Dalrymple know what racism really is?) telling him he doesn’t know what racism really means. Dalrymple then slunk away muttering a “regret.” Schoolboy lessons work: a bully will never bother you again if you hit back with equal or greater force.
Let’s pick another name. (Late) Girish Karnad. The man who famously led a tribe of followers to “protest” against the “communalisation” of Datta Peeta or Bababudangiri about twenty years ago in Karnataka. But this genteel activist instantly dumped his pet cause, deserted his trusting minions and fled to the safety of Bangalore at the precise moment he learnt that the police planned to put him in jail as a preventive measure.
Let’s pick yet another name: Salman Rushdie. To put things in perspective, his Satanic Verses is famous only for inviting the fatwa. Yet we need to be thankful to Rushdie for writing it because it was the resounding slap that awoke the comfortably-numb Western world to the dangers of creeping Jihadism, still relatively dormant then. Satanic Verses became an international issue, even a “civilizational fault line (sic)” because of Rushdie’s fame as a tremendously successful English writer of global renown. Had he been an obscure and undiscovered Indian writing in English, one of these things would have happened: the novel would’ve never been published or if it was published, would’ve been banned or worse, an Islamic fanatic would’ve murdered him like say, Theo Van Gogh.
Years ago, Rushdie proclaimed: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” And living with the sword of the fatwa continuously hanging over his head, he claimed, a few years later that he
And he’s also the same man who removed a sentence in Midnight’s Children as part of an out-of-the-court settlement because an offended Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had sued him.
All this from a man who gave us that well-worded definition of free speech.
It is this precise trait of hypocrisy that binds him with all the other champions of political correctness: they seem to think that they’re unaccountable for their utterances. Had Rushdie practiced what he himself preached about free speech, he would’ve fought Indira Gandhi in court, and would’ve courageously stuck to his stand instead of issuing an apology to those perpetually offended Islamic clerics. Rushdie’s apology indeed, was his way of doing a Girish Karnad—dumping cherished values for personal comfort. This is self-deception of epic proportions.
At the level of fundamental human impulses, a global congregation of such liberal deceptionists is what Jaipur Literature Festival is all about.
If you’re a writer, write; keep writing. The rest are distractions.
A Novel of India's coming of age: Clark Blaise, 19 April 1981, New York Times
A Fine Balance: Rohinton Mistry
Does Dalrymple know what racism really is?: Hartosh Singh Bal, 15 January 2011, Open Magazine
Tarun Tejpal was arrested in December 2013 on charges of allegedly raping his much junior female employee.
The piece you ran is blatantly racist: William Dalrymple, 15 January 2011, Open Magazine
Rushdie Expresses Regret to Muslims for Book's Effect: 19 February 1989, New York Times
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