Freedom of Speech – Maya indeed.

Akhila PR replies to Devdutt Patnaik’s Op-Ed article – In maya, the killer and the killed – which appeared in The Hindu, 14th January 2015

Mr. Devdutt Patnaik has written in The Hindu that – in essence – if you mock anything, especially a religion, you should be prepared to pay the cost for that decision on any terms suitable to the offended; e.g. being mowed down by Kalakshnikovs. This differs a bit from the usual expectation of someone being responsible for what they produce in a legal or even moral sense. Dialogue and views on the motivation of the creator is out the window and the offended person’s feelings (valid or not) reign supreme, blotting out all else.

Mr. Patnaik, begins by citing an extract from one incident in the Mahabharat which is rather out of context . This is Krishna cutting off Sishupala’s head after Sishupala insults him a 100 times, with the explanation “The limit of forgiveness was up”, implying that ‘God’ as he was, even Krishna had to retaliate after such a barrage of insults. However, the context of the Krishna-Sishupala story is:

It was fore-ordained that Sishupala would die at Krishna’s hands. Sishupala’s mother, Krishna’s aunt, then begged Krishna to spare her son. Krishna promised that he would forgive Sishupala 100 times but would then kill him.

This introduction, then, is particularly poorly chosen, unless the author wishes to imply that the Charlie Hebdo massacre is part of a larger Cosmic plan where the killers and writers had made a pact in a previous birth to kill and be killed in this life and was not only significant of the inability to not be offended.

The Amar Chitra Katha Version

He then goes on to postulate the interesting, but slightly obfuscating point, that it is Neo-Brahminical to expect everyone to employ language in the way the elite writers do, and that to term ‘barbarians’ those who resort to bullets rather than prose is a priggish, ivory-tower world-view.

To state right off the very obvious counter to this: would Mr. Patnaik be as implacable in his demand for the right to ‘equitable rather than  equal response´ if I were to barge into his place of work toting a gun –  or to be culturally sensitive – a pistol, a kukri, an aruvalu or a flaming torch, because words failed me and I saw no other means of response to his writing?

Let’s put Charlie Hebdo in a bit of cultural perspective: I was rather surprised at Charlie’s hard-line mockery of religion and the State. But I realized how much my thinking was conditioned by my growing up in India, a country where religion and state are as hard to separate as several balls of twine knotted together –not impossible, but requiring aeons of work, burnt fingers and perhaps, ultimately, resorting to snipping off bits that just wouldn’t untangle. From my perspective, Charlie really was playing with fire.

But in France, the separation of State and Church is not only a constitutional guarantee, but one that many publications ensure is kept up through the use of free speech to talk out against all institutions that wield power (religion and state prime among them).  Charlie came up in a time of political censorship and vigilance. It was initially shut down for joking about Charles de Gaulle’s death. The paper re-opened as Charlie Hebdo, determined to speak out against the forces that had muzzled it. While much of the humour is, perhaps, in bad taste (that is to say, not to mine), it is a lively instrument for gauging how committed the State remained regarding the freedom of expression.

1969 cover of Hara-Kiri Hebdo making fun of Charles De Gaulle

To reiterate, Charlie was meant for France – a country where this freedom was welcomed and response in letters was traditional. It is not really Charlie’s doing that in the decade following its rebirth, the world changed dramatically through the wider adoption of neoliberal economic policies and the creation and installation of the godhead of the Web. When Charlie went beyond the borders of France as easily accessible material, it was seen as an attack on their religion(s) by those outside France. And people who had and have no conception of the cultural context in which Charlie was created and read, made it their business to shut it down, a desire which then permeated the country of its creation.

While Charlie is a conundrum that many in religion-bound countries like India will find hard to square with their conscience, there is another example of physical coercion triumphing over the written word much, much closer home: Perumal Murugan.

Mr. Murugan is a Tamil writer with several books behind him. Then came the English translation ‘One Part Woman’, which has been burned and bullied out of existence by a group of religious enthusiasts (to be charitable).  The book, whose Tamil version came out four years ago with no protests surrounding it, is about a childless couple and their attempts to have a child. One of these attempts is a consensual sex-rite at the Ardhanareeswarar temple, a rite where a woman has sexual intercourse with a man who is not her husband, in order to get impregnated.

Yes, a consensual sex-rite in a temple, in a country where temple-architecture regularly depicts orgies and, as that beaten-to-death drum gasps out, whose Kamasutra remains an important, perhaps unparalleled, contribution to the world of sexual relations.

But all this is really quite irrelevant. Mr. Murugan has access to a large and rich world of fact and fiction – the world he creates in his head. This world is answerable to no one and as long as he is not shoving his writing down the throats of everyone in this country (which would constitute several violations of Rights) there is no force, moral or legal, that should stop him penning his thoughts down whether we are known for the Kamasutra or the re-installation of Section 377 of the IPC.

Forces have, nonetheless, succeeded in doing this by burning the books and convincing Mr. Murugan that the safest path was complete retreat. He has recalled all the books from his publishers (the English version published by the much-harassed Penguin), promising to compensate them for any copies unsold and, further, has taken on a vow of silence. ‘Perumal Murugan the writer is dead’, he announced.

When writers are silenced for fear that anything they write will be offensive to someone out there and when the saying ‘the Pen is mightier than the Sword’ is taken as justification for picking up the sword, there lies the death of the author, free speech and human interaction.

Mr. Patnaik states that in today’s world the right to words is being privileged over the right to military action. The self-serving blindness of this statement, penned in a time when there are daily military engagements (state-sponsored and privately-funded) around the world and increasing demands for censorship, should be an indicator of how laughable his basic premise is. Indeed, even the examples he puts forth, citing mental violence, are ridiculous:

So, one has sanction to mock Hinduism intellectually on film (PK by Rajkumar Hirani and Aamir Khan) and in books (The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger), but those who demand the film be banned and the books be pulped are brutes, barbarians, enemies of civic discourse, who resort to violence.”

Laughable though they are, his contentions, which will be taken up by many, are dangerous. His argument that the ‘offended’ can only respond with violence is in itself an offensive polarization of thought and action. Surely somewhere a contradictory point of view can find middle ground between writing and murder? In India itself we have a reasonably vast variety including, of course, burning things (posters, books, effigies – not actual land-property like houses and places of worship). These acts can be seen as a legitimate expression of protest. However, that is where freedom of expression STOPS.

You can protest.  But no legal force on earth should ensure that your choice to be offended trumps someone else’s thoughts’ right to exist.

And this is where his argument about PK and Wendy Doniger runs into a brick wall. Protesting isn’t barbaric. But to demand that your protests be heeded “or else..” is to become an enemy of civic discourse.

And while it is an undeniable fact that language-based hegemonies exist the world-around, stemming from several complex causes, it is fatuous to suggest that because someone cannot write like a Charlie Hebdo or a Murugan, they should promptly take physically coercive measures to silence them.

Writers and ‘artists’ in general tend to stand out because  of the something different they bring to any field of human existence. The sad little fact is that not everyone is a Voltaire or Kalki or Tagore. My inability to respond in Tamil prose is not reason enough for me to ban Kalki being read if something in his writing offends me.

And, interestingly, many of these doers who are so bereft of words that they must needs resort to violence, belong to groups that are led and inspired by immensely articulate individuals who know and milk the power of the Word: Bal and Raj Thackeray, Laden, even Hitler, Gandhi, Obama, Jayalalitha… So the ‘hegemonic power of the Word’, it would seem, is only railed against when it goes counter to one’s beliefs.

Finally, from talking about taking offence and how it can be measured, the author brings up the closing conceit of this article: everything is Maya.  Maya, commonly interpreted as relating to the transient and ephemeral world, which is only a part of the larger, unfathomable universe,  is interpreted here as the world of the measurable and tangible.

Mr. Patnaik’s claim is that physical violence is condemned because it is measurable and emotional abuse (read: offence) is dismissed because it is not measurable; a farcical argument in this case: in a work of art, your engagement with it is your responsibility and your choice.  If something offends you, you do have (among several others) the option of moving away and not engaging further**. Neither of these conditions holds true for the majority of abusive one-on-one relationships in personal life.

Maya is also a leveling concept. One cannot posit that everything is Maya (‘Killer and Killed’, the title states) but go on to imply that some things are more or less worthy of being ‘Maya’ than others, as with the approving tone when talking about the ‘offended’ and the opprobrious tone when talking of the ‘offender’ laughing to the bank.

Everything is subjective, including our experience of the world of Maya, we are told. But if everything is subjective, should everyone remain ensconced in their cozy little construct without engaging outside it for fear of offending someone whose construct might be different? Mr. Patnaik’s article seems to imply that we hold back from ever expressing views which may differ from another’s, since these views fall outside the purview of the other’s person’s experience of reality. An extreme extension of this article would ban education itself as an Other being imposed on my native understanding of the world.

Yet, contradictory schools of thoughts clashed and then became entangled over centuries to create new thoughts and new beings. As seen in Mr. Patnaik’s own popular writings on myth and interpretation, religion itself is in constant recreation and reinterpretation. In the sense of a transient, illusory phenomenon, religion itself is Maya. So if you want to go down that path, what is offence? What is belief? What is sacred?

Large parts of the Mahabharata offend my perhaps Westernized sensibilities and my internalized Indian concept of Guru-sishya reverence. Drona’s warcraft ensured the Kauravas didn’t lose the battle of Kurukshetra, so the Pandava Yudhishtira  (revered as Dharmaraja) lied to his Guru about the death of his son to get him to ‘off himself’. And this was done on the advice and with the able abetting of the ever-present Krishna, whose act of silencing Sishupala is the opening piece of this article. Even in its out-of-context form, isn’t this story, like all stories in all mythologies pertaining to god, just a means of showing that Krishna, an avatar of a God, is not perfection himself? If Krishna were perfection, why the Vishwaroopam++ on the battlefield? Is his conduct (especially as seen in the Mahabharat!) really something to aspire to, especially in this instance?

As if the author himself squirms over this quandary, the closing paragraph of the article goes out of its way to explain Krishna’s act within the framework of the Jay-Vijay myth. But if words are so psychologically damaging and if only actions are allowed to speak, Sishupala’s taunting Krishna is surely more than enough justification for Krishna to lose his head (and ensure Sishupala loses his too)? Why tie yourself into knots to show that Krishna was, really, only part of a larger game? Because, somewhere, Maya or not, there is in inherent recognition of the crude brutality of Krishna’s act and the need to explain it beyond and better than just the desire to avenge offence.


++On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, when Arjuna begins to agonise over the pointless bloodshed, Krishna reveals himself in the ‘divine’ form, of which he is just a physical manifestation, to reassure Arjuna that it is all for some greater good that Arjuna’s conception of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ cannot contain.

Advertisements

What are you thinking about?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s