Sahitya Akademi awardee Tanuj Solanki on freedom, Article 370, and the irrelevance of the 'apolitical artist'

Tanuj Solanki, panelist on HarperCollins India's debate, speaks about how he defines and understands freedom, what the scrapping of Article 370 means for India as a democracy, and the role of writers and artists in today’s socio-political milieu, and more.

Aarushi Agrawal August 08, 2019 09:51:44 IST
Sahitya Akademi awardee Tanuj Solanki on freedom, Article 370, and the irrelevance of the 'apolitical artist'
  • Tanuj Solanki founded the Bombay Literary Magazine. He also authored Neon Noon (2016) and Diwali in Muzaffarnagar: Stories (2018)

  • He takes inspiration from the writings of Toni Morrison, Milan Kundera, and Slavoj Žižek.

  • Solanki is a panelist on HarperCollins India’s ‘The Debate: Does Freedom Exist?’

Only months after winning the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for his collection of short stories, Diwali in Muzaffarnagar: Stories (2018), writer Tanuj Solanki speaks to Firstpost on what entails freedom, and why there's an urgency to address questions on the subject. Founder of The Bombay Literary Magazine, the 33-year-old achieved critical acclaim with his first novel, Neon Noon (2016), which made it to the shortlist for the Tata Lit Live First Book Award.

Hailing from Muzaffarnagar himself, Solanki's award-winning anthology touches upon a range of subjects, — from feminism to communal violence, all of which are underlined by the title story of two brothers who view the universe of their small town homes through vastly different lenses.

In the interview, the writer talks about what the abrogation of Article 370 means for India as a democracy, the role of writers in today’s socio-political milieu, and more. Excerpts:

Sahitya Akademi awardee Tanuj Solanki on freedom Article 370 and the irrelevance of the apolitical artist

Writer Tanuj Solanki

How do you define 'freedom'?

The freedom to do whatever is legal and to also question the basis of legality itself.

Just to give context, when the national debate was happening on homosexuality and Section 377, there was a certain degree of freedom that was needed to question the illegality of homosexual relationships. So I think there should be freedom to question that. At the same time, for example, while it is legal for an Indian citizen to take residence wherever they want to in India, the fact remains that I’ve lived in Bombay, and in many localities in Bombay, someone from a non-Hindu community might find it difficult to rent or buy a house. So, where it is legal, they don’t have the freedom to do that. So, the freedom to do legal things and the freedom to question the legality of things.

Everyone understands individual freedom in different ways. How can one ensure cohesiveness when trying to have a dialogue?

The dialogue will need to define its limits because otherwise it can get a bit too philosophical — this discussion on freedom. Philosophers might have argued that even in a cell, in captivity, [one has] the freedom of the mind. But that discussion is completely arbitrary when we are talking about political freedom or we’re talking about fundamental rights. So when we discuss this I think we will have to define the mould in which we are going to interpret and discuss freedom.

Do you think India is doing a good job at assuring its citizens of their freedom?

You’d have to look at the last 70 years of what we now know as independent India. I think it’s mixed records. The constitution of course guarantees a lot of freedoms and citizens have been able to enjoy these freedoms. Yet, there remain parts of society to whom these guarantees are not functioning. Whether it is because of the tardiness of the judicial system, or whether it is some other sort of status condition, I think it can be discussed.

It’s definitely an issue, but we have a mixed record, and I would say that of late our record seems to be trending downwards.

How do you think the scrapping of Article 370 affects our understanding of freedom as a democracy?

The effects of it will be seen in time. It’s just been a couple of days, but the most damning thing about it is the way it is done and advertised. The ruling party’s spiel is that Kashmir is now integrated, whereas Kashmir is probably facing the biggest shutdown that has happened in India ever, probably after the Emergency. So I think this basic contradiction is something that I hope doesn’t set a precedent in this country. Regarding the abolition of Article 370, I’m reading a lot of reports where people are pointing out technicalities, so I’m not sure what the effect will be, but what is sure is that the way this has been done, it’s a bit of a shame.

I think it should have been arrived at with some sort of discussion. But it is clear that it has shocked everyone in mainstream politics in Kashmir. It was like demonetisation — it just hit.

As a writer, what type of effect do you think talking about such issues can have?

I’ve been discussing recent events with my writer friends. I think the responsibility of writers has sort of increased. We are probably entering a phase in our history that will be studied a lot, if you think of 50 years later. I’m of course imagining a scenario where we somehow survive 50 years later – 'we' as in humanity. But taking that scenario, I think this period in Indian history, the ‘Narendra Modi era’ or whatever you call it, I think will be something that will be of particular interest to historians later on. They would all look to the way writers documented this era or the way reportage was done. And in that sense, our responsibility is of course higher.

The figure of an apolitical artist or the ‘art for art’s sake’ artist — I don’t think we have time for that anymore. So there is a certain amount of urgency, political engagement of all artists, including writers, is needed. If not as people who will go out on the streets to protest or fight against the state, at least as people who in their art will talk about or represent the issues or political concerns of the day.

Do you have any influences that you think express the idea of freedom particularly well?

One of them died [recently], Toni Morrison. She talks a lot about freedom, even outside her work, [through] the dialogue she has engaged in with regard to race in America. Milan Kundera talks about a certain kind of freedom, especially in his earlier works like The Unbearable Lightness of Being. You could actually interpret what he’s saying as having relevance to individual freedom. Then there are the more urgent philosophers of our time. The Slovenian Slavoj Žižek glamourised the Communist personality, and I read him quite a bit, and enjoy watching videos of his.

Do you think India is intolerant towards the idea of having a conversation?

These two isolated groups – people who will like this debate to happen, and who don’t care about it – the challenge is the two sects of people don’t talk to each-other.

If I had to prophesize, I think it will get worse from where it is now, before it gets any better.

I’m hoping that people develop this habit of listening to each other, and keeping some allowance for them to change their opinion. This is true for those who call themselves the left and those who call themselves the right, both of them.

Tanuj Solanki is a panelist on HarperCollins India’s ‘The Debate: Does Freedom Exist?’, to be held on 8 August, 2019, 6 pm - 8 pm, at India International Centre, New Delhi.

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