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Attention must be paid: Maharashtra's action against Salman Rushdie's tweet is dangerous

"All writers are lunatics," author Cornelia Funke observed in her novel, Inkspell. As insightful observations go, this one deserves to be framed, especially in the current era of glamour shots, press interviews and literary festivals during which writers are either on their best behaviour or bored (sometimes both). Culture in the present day and age — shepherded as it is by PR, marketing, law suits and social media outrage — has entered the age of political correctness. What this will yield in terms of the quality of the art we produce is something future generations can judge. At present, it seems our primary concern is that creativity be palatable. And so, writers, like all other public figures, are expected to be reasonable, balanced and polite.

News flash: few writers fit that bill.

Most authors are opinionated, prone to emotional outbursts and the sort who bear grudges. As they grow older, they tend to add being cantankerous to their charms. And thank god for it. Well-behaved authors are boring. Ask any one who's ever attended a book reading, lecture or literary festival. The authors who don't shoot off their mouth may be less trouble for organisers, but they're also less fun. This is why literary feuds are as long-standing a tradition as they are.

Salman Rushdie. AFP.

Salman Rushdie. AFP.

When the Jnanpith Award was given to Marathi author Bhalchandra Nemade last week, Nemade kickstarted the latest literary catfight. At an event organised by Matrubhasha Samvardhan Sabha in Mumbai, Nemade declared English a "killer language" (note to the hip: he didn't mean it as a compliment), recommended "eliminating" English and criticised VS Naipaul and Salman Rushdie of "pandering to the West".

This is not the first time Nemade has voiced these opinions. Over the years, Nemade, a passionate advocate of regional languages and literature, has regularly held up Naipaul and Rushdie's work to show how Indian English writing is disingenuous and a sellout. (Never mind the minor detail that Naipaul is Trinidadian and Rushdie has been a British citizen for years.) This time, Nemade's comment reached Rushdie, courtesy the world wide web. Rushdie responded with this tweet: "Grumpy old bastard. Just take your prize and say thank you nicely. I doubt you’ve even read the work you attack."

Those three sentences have been described as Rushdie "lashing out" or "hitting back" at Nemade. Clearly, those headline writers don't know Rushdie (who once called John Le Carré "an illiterate, pompous ass") or the stuff of which authors are made. Sniping at one another isn't just a cherished pastime for this tribe, it's a tradition.

Back in the age of the Romantic movement, Lord Byron called John Keats a "little, dirty blackguard." Fellow poet William Wordsworth described Samuel Taylor Coleridge as "frustrated by a derangement of intellectual and moral constitution." Did I mention they began as the best of friends?

Speaking of friends, who can forget Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald? When Fitzgerald sent Hemingway his comments after reading A Farewell To Arms, Hemingway responded with, "Kiss my a**." You decide whether that's more or less violent than punching Wallace Stevens, which also Hemingway did.

As entertaining as Stevens and Hemingway's fisticuffs was Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal's hate-hate relationship, which included both physical and rhetorical violence. Once, the two were to appear on a television show and in the green room, Mailer head butted Vidal. During the programme, Mailer accused Vidal of being "absolutely without character or moral foundation or even intellectual substance." Vidal said certain parts of Mailer's book Prisoner of Sex "read like three days of menstrual flow".

Mario Vargas Llosa gave Gabriel Garcia Marquez a black eye, though rumour has it that this fight was over a woman rather than literature. The lines between personal and professional are often blurred in literature. Take, for example, the feud between Martin Amis and Julian Barnes which started when Amis dropped Barnes's wife as his agent. Barnes sent Amis a letter in which he told Amis to "*&%@ off". It was less brutal than many reviews that Amis got, including one that led to another feud. Tibor Fischer wrote a scathing review of Amis's Yellow Dog. Amis responded with, "Tibor Fischer is a creep and a wretch. Oh yeah: and a fat-arse."

Though as far as lashing out at reviewers goes, Alain de Botton deserves a cupcake for this comment he left on a reviewer's blog: "I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude."

Keeping it even more simple, Stephen King said of James Patterson (while accepting a lifetime achievement award, much like Nemade), "I don't like him, I don't respect his books because every one is the same."

We're not far behind in India. Taslima Nasreen accused Sunil Gangopadhyay of being a hypocrite on Twitter. Girish Karnad launched a potent and pointed attack against both Tagore and Naipaul at different literary festivals in India.

My personal favourite literary feud, however, is from 2008, between Derek Walcott and Naipaul. Naipaul had observed that only Walcott's early work showed talent so Walcott responded by writing a poem for and about Naipaul, titled "The Mongoose". You can hear Walcott recite it here.  It includes lines like, "The old mongoose, still making money as a burnt out comic"

What's worth noting in all these examples is that the authors fought (sometimes viciously), but these incidents didn't take on proportions that intimidated either party. If anything, the provocative statements encouraged debate and discussion. There were no silences because of these feuds; only conversations that were louder and more passionate.

The spat between Rushdie and Nemade isn't following that pattern, unfortunately. The Maharashtra government has decided to take up cudgels on behalf of Nemade. No doubt they know how ridiculous it sounds to "take action" against a tweet and perhaps that is the underlying reason. Legally speaking, our laws against obscenity and causing offence do offer the government the option of taking action against Rushdie. There may not be much apparent gain in doing so, given Rushdie doesn't live in India and has extensive experience in dealing with accusations like this. However, the message is not to Rushdie, but to us, at home, in India. Beware of what you say, choose your words carefully, tow the politically correct line, because the government is watching — that is the point of taking action against Rushdie's tweet (and not, for instance, Ashoke Pandit's tweet even though its language is far more objectionable).

"It is necessary to take action against the tweet. The Home department is considering it," said Cultural Affairs Minister Vinod Tawde. You've got to ask — why is it necessary? Why does the government need to step in the middle of a conversation between two authors? That the state government respects Nemade's work is obvious from the fact that he's been awarded the Jnanpith. Why is that not enough? Taking action against Rushdie's tweet doesn't make Nemade's contribution to Indian literature any greater, but it does send a message: behave.

Tawde and the Home department hope that their threat to take action against Rushdie will intimidate the rest of us into behaving ourselves. The constitution grants us all freedom of expression, but recent events in Mumbai make it clear that the government is more intent upon upholding the freedom to be offended. The real beauty of the state machinery being deployed against a tweet is that it's so ludicrous, it's frightening. If this is how they react to a mostly harmless tweet, then what will they do when faced with real provocation?

Here's what the Maharashtra government is telling us. In a state where newspaper vendors can be arrested for selling a particular newspaper, where journalists are given no protection, where people can be taken into custody for a Facebook comment and where the self-appointed guardians of culture scan Twitter for objectionable language, writers better learn to curb their tongues. Otherwise, action will be taken. It's difficult to not feel intimidated when you have laws like Section 294 dangling over your neck like the sword of Damocles. The shadow that a criminal case casts over an individual is long and ominous, restricting both your movements and your expression.

And yet, if there's anything we can take away from the literary feuds, it's that there's no telling what writers will do or say. They really are lunatics, and we can thank literature for that. If the government is hoping to intimidate us with the ridiculous, then we'll just have to respond with the sublime. Ladies and gentleman, may the words be with us.

Updated Date: Feb 13, 2015 17:01 PM

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