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Politics collides with arts, letters

Tuesday, 29 April 2014 - 6:00am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna
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Dr BR Ambedkar wrote The Annihilation of Caste in 1936 for a meeting of a group of liberal Hindu caste-reformers in Lahore. After reviewing the speech and finding the content too offensive, the conference organisers withdrew the invitation. Dr Ambedkar himself published copies of the speech which became an immediate classic. MK Gandhi published his refutations in his own paper, which Dr Ambedkar intensely contested. In January of this year, Navayana re-published The Annihilation of Caste with detailed annotations that have received praise, and a long and vocal introduction by Arundhati Roy. Such a publication is meant to bring this significant text back into contemporary discourse, an act of breaking the codes and prejudices of mainstream publication.

In the context of this republishing of a text that was initially silenced in the 1930s, last month Navayana called off the publication of the translation of Sahitya Akademy winner Joe D'Cruz's novel Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (Ocean Ringed World), translated from Tamil by V Geetha. The translator and the publisher withdrew the publication because "it is both appalling and disturbing" that D'Cruz has decided to support Narendra Modi. V Geetha says "…I am sorry Joe has decided to trade his considerable gifts as a novelist for a politics that is fascist and dangerous."

In a recent article in the Outlook, Gautam Bhatia casted the issue of Navayana withdrawing the publication as a problem of free speech, open access to texts and the flow of knowledge. He suggested that Navayana's withdrawal must trouble the liberals as much as Penguin's handling of Wendy Doniger's book did. Bhatia points at the problem of how the publishing industry controls what is read and not read, and how the industry hinders the free flow of texts, creating a culture of self-censorship. Although a valid point, it is only tangential to this context. To also clarify at the outset, the problem is not one of legalities or of constitutionality. The parties involved are private parties and hence the dispute is a contractual one at the most. I, therefore, will suggest recasting this issue as a problem of ethics.

As a point of departure, I am going to evade the "good, bad and the ugly" debate on Modi. Standing in the shoes of the translator, I 'assume' (for the lack of a better word) that he is a "political disaster, and downright evil", as the translator V Geetha puts it (endorsed by the publisher). The question that then arises is this: is the publisher acting ethically when it decides to call off the publication of a novel because its author holds a politically disapproved of stand? To rephrase the problem: can the "writer" be separated from her/his "writings"? Can Joe D'Cruz's writing be uncoupled from his problematic political stand? Navayana seems to suggest that the writer and his works have to be seen as a continuum, and therefore a problematic political stand implies that his works are also infected by the same. The literary, and more broadly, aesthetics itself, is intertwined with the ethical and the political. The counter-argument would be that the literary is somehow separate and distinct from the political, hovering over and above the problem of ethics. As if, an artist can paint what she wants because it is her creative impulses that make her do so and not political or ethical deliberations. This line of argument would suggest that an artistic work must be judged only on its artistic merit and not the political or moral merits. For Navayana on the other hand, the creative is always enmeshed with the political and the ethical. This I believe is the debate that is at the heart of the issue.

Although I haven't read it, the novel supposedly "captures the rich and unique history of the seafaring community of Tamil Nadu in an epic tale spanning three generations". In some ways, the novel is therefore not an act of pure creative impulse (is there ever such a work?), but carefully studied and researched literature. The novel therefore is already set in a politically charged context.

In an article in November of last year by the Tamil post-modern writer Charu Nivedita, he contemplatively meditated over a relevant ethical question. He begins with his admiration for Tarun Tejpal's literary genius on reading his novel The Alchemy of Desire, and compares him to the likes of Dostoyevsky and Kazantzakis. He says that the book influenced him much more than even Georges Bataille and Mario Vargas Llosa. But his discomfort is about how to relate this 'literary Tejpal' to the alleged 'sexually abusive' one. This discomfort takes Nivedita through another incident (or an event?) where the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda sexually abuses/rapes a Tamil Dalit woman in Sri Lanka. Nivedita alludes to the philosopher Slavoj Zizek who calls it "a shameless story of a rape, with the dirty details discreetly passed over." Similar questions are raised in the case of the Polish director Roman Polanski accused of raping a 13-year-old girl or Woody Allen's abusive relation with his daughter. Martin Heidegger hailed as one of the greatest western philosophers of last century, was an anti-Semite who supported the fascist Third Reich.

I am not making analogies or comparing the above illustrations to the political positions of Joe D'Cruz. It would be absurd to suggest that every person who takes a certain political stance in the current elections is being a fascist. In fact, one can criticise the publishing house in question for creating such binaries of "with us or without us", "friends or enemies", "in or out". Possibly, Navayana can be criticized of constructing liberal taboos of the unspeakable or even the unthinkable. I want to avoid this. My intention is merely to suggest that the relations between the aesthetic and the political involved in an issue such as this, are worth contemplating and thinking through.

The author is a research associate at CLPR, Bangalore




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