Sunday, November 07, 2010

Not ikebana, at any rate

The easiest thing to be is a cynic. And I have often behaved like one. I continue to do so (my mother will be nodding her 'aye's at this) even now - constantly shrugging off small attempts at change, constantly asking 'when has it ever been any different?'
Perhaps, it is even wise. Perhaps, the total compounded wisdom of the world comes down to this: 'When was it ever any different? What makes you think things will change this time around?' I don't know if it makes any sense to go on thinking we can - I can - change anything at all. But then I read this:

In 1966, the specialists at the Pentagon went to US President Lyndon Johnson – a thug prone to threatening to “crush” entire elected governments – with a plan to end the Vietnam War: nuke the country. They “proved”, using their computer modeling, that a nuclear attack would “save lives.”

It was a plan that might well have appealed to him. But Johnson pointed out the window, towards the hoardes of protesters, and said: “I have one more problem for your computer. Will you feed into it how long it will take 500,000 angry Americans to climb the White House wall out there and lynch their President?” He knew that there would be a cost – in protest and democratic revolt – that made that cruelty too great. In 1970, the same plan was presented to Richard Nixon – and we now know from the declassified documents that the biggest protests ever against the war made him decide he couldn’t do it. Those protesters went home from those protests believing they had failed – but they had succeeded in preventing a nuclear war. They thought they were impotent, just as so many of us do – but they really had power beyond their dreams to stop a nightmare.

Imagine! A bunch of people - probably not a very large bunch - stood around in a public place to let powerful people know that it wasn't okay - this, whatever was happening, it wasn't done, they weren't going to stand for it. And a nuclear war didn't happen.

Change isn't just about the things you accomplish at the end of a day, or a month, or a even year. Change is also about preventing bad decisions. Too many of us don't show up for protests when it really matters because we think nothing moves. But so often, nothing moving is a good thing.

The odd thing is, change can be wrought in so many small, painless ways, it is almost surprising we don't bother. Take this business of censorship. A few years ago, I remember being in Delhi and attending a show of the play, Line. I forget the name of the theatre company but I think it was a show supported by the First City foundation (somebody correct me if I'm wrong), which does support a lot of cultural activity in the capital. So far, so good.

The script, however, was not an easy one for the average conservative Indian audience to digest. There was sexual content and not of the comic, innuendo-laden type to which we are safely inured. It wasn't particularly brutal sex either. But it was discomfiting. Perhaps, that was the point of the play? We didn't have a chance to find out.

Mid-way through the performance, somebody was discomfited to the point that they asked the group to stop. The director stepped up and apologised and told us, the audience, that the rest of the performance stood cancelled.

Now, this was the point we could all have stood up and gone home. It should have been easy. The play wasn't bad and I don't usually walk out of a performance, but that wasn't the point. None of us had invested enough time and money into attending this show for us to make a fuss about it. The money wasn't the point either.

We - the self-nominated liberalati, culturati, media people in Delhi - stood in the foyer, uncertain. What should we do? Should we just go? Should we... ask somebody? We asked a few questions. Neel, one of the producers, told us that somebody (I can only assume that it was somebody important enough to call off the show) found the play offensive.

That was when we all stood there. Just stood a little longer than necessary and said, no, we want to watch this. Let the full show be performed. I am not very sure who spoke to whom, and when the decision was reversed. But reversed it was. The show went on.

At the end, I have this to say: My sensibilities were slightly offended. I got the point of it but as a woman, I found the premise of the lone woman character and the way the script used her sexuality... well, problematic. The script left me and my friends feeling mildly nauseous. But if a performance of Line was to come to my town, and was to be disrupted again, I would once again be willing to hang around in the foyer. I should be. Because today it's Line. Yesterday it was Sakharam Binder. Today, it is Arundhati Roy. Yesterday, it was Gandhi. People have to have their say. And we have to let them, no matter how strongly we disagree.

And for god's sake, we have to stop thinking that what we think, or do, will not matter. Particularly those of us who are in the business of thinking and expressing. NSR puts it best, as usual:

The best writers in every age have also been deeply engaged citizens, and to ask, as we are now doing in India, for writers to stick to their writing is a little like asking investigative journalists to stick to their knitting. What we’re really asking, when we pose the question of a writer’s responsibility, is for writing to be like bonsai-growing, or ikebana: a strictly ornamental occupation that challenges nothing, shakes up nothing.

1 comment:

Jai_C said...

Thank you Annie. I have many disagreements on AR, and shudder to see her compared to Gandhi.

But I appreciate your honesty about FoS. I had asked another blogger who appears to share much of your worldview and who I read regularly for some examples of speech that he found personally offensive but would support.

He came back with something like:

"I have problems with ppl telling lies and twisting facts but they're free to do that" :-(

whereas I was really really looking for something on the lines of your support for this play.

Your support for FoS involves costs to yourself that you willingly bear.


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