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The year in literary feuds (And 5 rules to make a good feud)

Thank god for Salman Rushdie.

Had it not been for him The Daily Beast’s list of the greatest literary feuds ever would completely bypass the subcontinent.

Unless you count Sir VS Naipaul as one of us. In that case we can get a few extra brownie points for the Naipaul vs Paul Theroux feud. Other than that it’s pretty vanilla – Vidal, Updike, Capote (sometimes more than once).

Since that list came out in 2010, our subcontinental writers have upped their game a bit in the literary mudslinging. So perhaps they could give the Updikes and Hemingways a run for their money. Here are some of the notable spats of 2012.

Amitav Ghosh vs the Jaipur Literary Festival: Amitav Ghosh kicked off the literary feud season with his blog musing about why Salman Rushdie was so drawn to attending the Jaipur Literature Festival. (So we can dub this Ghosh vs Rushdie as well). Ghosh was actually writing about how the “old, impersonal relationship” between the reader and the writer was changing in the din of the festival as “tamasha-stan”. But most literary muckrakers  saw the opening lines as a clarion call for war:

I have never attended the Jaipur Literary Festival; nor does a visit loom in the foreseeable future. This is largely (but not wholly) because I have no taste for tamashas.

Girish Karnad vs VS Naipaul: Naipaul’s acerbic tongue is always good for a little literary sting. But when he ended up in the middle of a literary slugfest this year he was, for a change, at the receiving end. Girish Karnad went after Naipaul who was receiving a lifetime achievement award at a literature festival in Mumbai, slamming him for his “irresponsible remarks (about Muslims)”. In case anyone missed the first round he followed it up with an column in India Today that took on the grand old man’s Nobel prize coming as it did the year after 9/11. Karnad wrote “Many of us saw it as a result of his being a nice brown face spouting venom against Muslims.”  Farookh Dhondy complained Karnad’s outburst was  "like a courtroom where the prosecution was allowed to make points but the defence was silenced".  But the last word still belongs to Karnad. On being rapped on the knuckles for not being “polite” by festival organiser Anil Dharker, he retorted “I don’t have to be polite. I’m following in the footsteps of Naipaul.” And that sir, is a direct hit. Touché.

Girish Karnad went after Naipaul who was receiving a lifetime achievement award at a literature festival in Mumbai, slamming him for his “irresponsible remarks (about Muslims)”. AFP

Girish Karnad vs Rabindranath Tagore: Karnad was obviously on a vitriol roll this year. He sent Bengalis into a tizzy by saying “Tagore is a great poet but his plays are unreadable.” Granted, while most Bengalis are reared on his songs and poems along with mother’s milk, and in that order, chances are the average Bong these days has never come within spitting distance of Tagore’s plays. Karnad might have a literary point there. But hey, not fair, no taking pot shots at the dead poets society. It certainly got Bengali dhotis in a twist. "I have known Girish for many years. He is fairly intelligent. But his comment is very unfortunate," said theatre director Rudraprasad Sengupta. “The rebellion against Tagore is understandable, but why kick the ladder on which you are standing," said academic and writer Ananda Lal. "You are being willfully ignorant."

Mahasweta Devi vs Mamata Banerjee: Alright, this one is stretching it but Mamata is a published writer and a poet. Her great trump card during the election campaign was winning the support of the grande dame of Bengali literature – the redoubtable Mahasweta Devi. It was a signal that the intelligenstia was shifting towards her. But as Didi grew increasingly imperious, Mahasweta Devi quickly jumped off the ship. In May she resigned as the chairperson of the Bangla Academy. The pretext was the state government had ignored her recommendation for a Vidyasagar Award to a particular author.  But Devi had been looking for a way out for awhile. Last year she had raised the alarm about Mamata’s “fascist tendencies” and irked the chief minister.  The writing was on the wall about this relationship. In an interview with Rediff this year, Devi said that when Mamata came to power “the people were in a trance.” But now the party has got “too much power too soon.”

Salman Rushdie vs the world: Where there is Rushdie there is controversy. The year began with the grand appearance that never was. His cancelled Jaipur Literary Festival appearance became a giant mediastorm. Rushdie and Chetan Bhagat locked horns in a Twitter war. The organisers at Jaipur found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. The Wall Street Journal saw it as a blot on India’s record on upholding freedom of expression. But Firdous Syed writing in DNA saw it as a “fictional controversy at best.”

If Rushdie, braving all threats — as a shining knight of freedom is ordinarily expected — had stuck to his original plan, barring a few protests — the hallmark of our noisy democracy — the heavens would not have fallen. It was quite possible for him to participate in the literary festival safely; the state security apparatus is not in such disarray that it cannot ward off a few imaginary threats.

There were other spats but it’s clear from the list above that for a feud to really set the pens on fire, it needs a few choice ingredients.

a) It must have a big name. The failsafe lit feud fuses in India are Rushdie, Naipaul, Chetan Bhagat, Arundhati Roy, William Dalrymple. You must include at least one in your feud. Tagore is also a good firestarter because Bengalis have short fuses anyway when it comes to the old man.

b) At least one person, preferably both people in the middle of the feud should preferably have Twitter accounts. They should also have other writer friends who are willing to take sides and write op-eds. The more twitter the better. Personal blogs are good but only as a starting point of a feud.

c) Literary prizes are a must. No feud is worth its vinegar if the fighters don't have at least a Jnanpith award between them. Nobels, Man Bookers all help up the quality of a feud and its gravitas.

d)  A literature festival is a good venue to have a feud. The media is already there. Television is there. There are a lot of other literary talking heads who can be piled onto the evening show and who can write columns in the print media. Also it saves the media from actually trying to report on what anyone is saying during the sessions of the festival.

e)  A little politics always helps spice up a feud. The Tagore feud fizzled because Karnad was really just sticking to the literary merits of the man’s plays. But Naipaul, aah that's always good because it can get into the Muslim issue or sexism.  If all else fails, issue a blanket condemnation like all Tamil literature after 1947 is worthless. Or writers in English just suck up to the west.

“There’s nothing like a literary feud to make a literature festival buzz,” writes Deepanjana Pal. In fact now a literary feud isn’t the cherry on the cake. It is the main course itself. It’s not enough to just have top notch talent at the festival, you need a literary dust-up to make the news. As playwright Mahesh Dattani writes in The Week:

Village people have their melas to fulfil their social needs like meeting friends and relatives from neighbouring villages. City people have their literature, drama, music and film festivals. The spirit is the same. To congregate and catch up on gossip with an apparent sense of purpose. In the city, sensation replaces gossip. So unless you can rustle up a good controversy, your festival isn't really a successful one… So now, the pressure is on for future festivals to match up in scandal, sizzle and slur.

Once we had the year in books. Now we have the year in literary feuds. The pen does not have to be mightier than the sword especially when you are using it for backstabbing instead of writing.

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