The freedom of expression is well and truly under fire. All our national debates seem to revolve around some form of freedom of expression or the other. With social media, much of our personal debates also seem to centre around the freedom of expression.
Take, for instance, this reprimanding email (from an aunt) that my sister and I received for quarreling on my Facebook wall. For the record, the quarrel was in jest. And yet the email told us off for fighting in public. Just to put things in perspective, I have been an adult for more than 10 years now and my sister is 5 years my junior. I reassured my aunt that it was indeed in jest.
But what if it wasn’t? What if I did have a public spat with someone? Wasn’t it my right? What was it that made someone wag-a-finger-scold us? What I concluded was this. Yes, I had the right to have a public spat. And yes, it is none of my aunt’s business. No, there is no question about it. And yes, I have wasted my time and energy thinking about it. So does this mean that my freedom of expression is not important? It is only as important as my aunt’s scolding has made it out to be. The freedom of expression debate sticks us into a polarized world of pro-against that, in reality, exists only in the minds of those against.
The recent Salman Rushdie controversy is a case in point. Here are the facts. Rushdie might have written blasphemous fiction. However, you cannot issue fatwas and threaten to kill him. He is free to move anywhere in India including Jaipur. If the government cannot provide enough security, it has to acknowledge administrative failure. Period.
No need for Chetan Bhagat’s pompous sound bite imploring the media not to make a hero of Rushdie. No need for Justice Katju’s comments about the poor and substandard nature of Rushdie’s novels. No need, in short, for the media brouhaha that ensued. What else was read and discussed at the Jaipur Literary Festival, we will never know. And all this for a book that was published more than 20 years ago.
I am reminded of a year ago when Aditya Thakeray, that philistine offspring of Udhav Thakeray and undergraduate student at St. Xaviers college, decided that Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey should not form part of English Literature course. I will not go into ‘why’ because, like Rushdie’s blasphemy, the ‘why’ is immaterial. And yet, he wields so much power ( so bad for one so young) that the university vice-chancellor removed it from the syllabus effective immediately.
Like my aunt, these numbskulls have been allowed to determine the contours of the ‘freedom of expression’ debate. The truth is I don’t want to ever defend my right to free speech ever again.
And with that, I am off to read The Satanic Verses (a book that my country has deemed unsuitable for me), a PDF version of which was posted on Facebook by an ever resourceful friend.
When I was 18, I wrote a short story for my college magazine. With a first person narrative, it was the story of a commercial sex worker from a ‘respectable’ middle class background who ‘chose’ to sell sex in an attempt to run away from her boring and rather predictable life. When I wrote it, the first people to read it were family and reactions were as varied as could be. My mother loved it but as usual had lots of inputs for me to improve it. One cousin was ‘relieved that your description of Kamathipura (the commercial sex district in Bombay) is sketchy’. Another cousin felt I was ‘trying too hard to shock’. And my 13 year old sister, who couldn’t disassociate the ‘I’ of the narrator from her sister, was in tears. She couldn’t understand why I would feel this way about life!
Many years later, I wrote a short story about an old man. A friend read it and her immediate reaction was, ‘I don’t like it one bit’. A week later, she called to say that she might have been mistaken. Perhaps she just wasn’t ready for what the story was trying to tell her. Later, she thought there were some great ideas that were in there and that she must be open to them. A writer aunt loved it from the beginning and gave me inputs to improve it.
My friends reaction would be how I would describe my own reaction to Meena Kandasamy’s poetry. The first poem I read of hers was
Rather crass, I thought! To the extent that it mocks the caste system, it is political. It is also full of sarcasm, hatred and irreverence- all conducive for making great poetry. And yet, to me this was and is very very mediocre stuff. Then I read,
Again, I wasn’t impressed. Don’t get my wrong. The questions are all legitimate. And yet, theres so much concern with the content, that the play with new structure i feel is a half-hearted dabbling. This is when I start feeling that ‘here is a woman with all this legitimate anger and has decided to use poetry to express it…but what next?’ This is also where I feel that there is more ‘activist’ in her than ‘poet’. And then I read this delightful piece,
Beautiful, powerful, political, angry, and indignant! This was just what I wanted to read. I could now see the ‘poet’ in her. And then this,
oh haunting poetry at its best. Loving it…anger, despair, the injustice of it all with a skillful wielding of words. And then I read this,
By now I am converted. I love Meena! I decide to go back to the first 2 poems. Give them another chance. I tell myself, ‘Perhaps I am not ready for their hard-hitting candour. Perhaps I don’t like them because they are, infact, threatening my caste. Perhaps I am a casteist after all.”
But no! I am not liking those even now! And now I am thinking may be for someone churning out poems by the dozens, Meena is entitled to a few crass ones. Literature serves two purposes for the writer- to communicate and to be therapeutic. Sometimes the therapeutic side takes precedence and the general aesthetic of it is thrown to the winds. Either way its legitimate poetry.
Like my story on the commercial sex worker…however unlikely, i think the story is today, it just had to be told because all my commentators were right. I was trying hard to shock; I was talking about something (Kamathipura) I didnt know; and I was writing from the perspective of an 18 year old middle class predictable girl who was literally no different from me!Funnily enough, all this ‘criticism’ is exactly why the story needed to be written.