Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Some thoughts on sanity, truth, violence and protest

I was interviewed recently by Saumya Kalia for Outlook magazine. One of the questions she put to me was taking off on something I said after my book Prelude to a Riot won the Tata Litlive Award for fiction. I had directed my comments towards the sponsors of literature festivals and book prizes, and the question and answer that follow build upon some of my thoughts at the time: 

"On winning the Tata Live book prize, you wrote about sponsored literary festivals and the motivation of the rich and powerful to get speakers to participate. For any society to remain sane, a little truth must survive, was your hypothesis. Can you explain what you mean by that?"

Me:  The question of who sponsors art, and what art achieves in any society, has been troubling me for a long time. The vision of artists and their sponsors is often at variance. How does this relationship work, then? Artists are dependent on others, not just for their income, but also for spaces (physical, digital, metaphorical) wherein they engage with their audience. Picasso can make Guernica, but where will it hang? Will it survive if the powerful decide to get rid of it? Some of the greatest Renaissance art in Italy was commissioned by patrons like the Medici family, bankers and businessmen. Why did they bother? We have had stories told down the ages about kings and queens, their infidelities, filicides and parricides. Books, plays, oral storytelling arts were supported by the nobility or very wealthy merchants for most of our history. Why did they not insist on censoring all stories so that the nobility was only cast in benevolent light?

This might be for multiple reasons. One, truth itself is powerful. Those who wish to remain powerful must retain an acquaintance with the truth. They may serve disinformation to the rest of the country, but they themselves must have access to correct information. They may not invest in mass access to the arts, but they themselves must have access to the vision, the beauty and even terrifying clarity that artists bring. Two, lack of truth is associated with breakdowns of all kinds. What do we recognize as a loss of sanity? It is a state in which you can no longer tell what is real and what isn’t, what is harmless and what isn’t. Individuals who lose touch with the truth react in unpredictable ways. A society cut off from the truth, and from truthful art, starts to lose itself in similar ways. It becomes unpredictable and does not necessarily act in self-interest, much less underwrites someone else’s profit. Alternately, the truth goes underground, leaving the powerful in the dark and, this is worse for them. Look at any society where truth and art have been suppressed, and you will see that it is a sick/sickening society or a nation at war. I don’t think this state of affairs suits too many people, not for too long anyway.

The full interview is available here: 


Monday, December 28, 2020

On touching, un-touching and segregation

From my essay on learning from the lockdown and the new normal, published in The Indian Express:

In the new millennium, I saw new kinds of informal touch: air-kissing, fist-bumps, high-fives. By early 2020, the casual half-hug had little emotional significance. It remained, however, a significant social contract. Hugs assured participants of a certain peerdom for, always, there were others, people bricked off from your affection. You could always tell which social class you belonged to based on who gave you a hug while leaving the room, who would merely nod, and who didn’t feel the need to acknowledge you at all.

Now that separateness is the norm, now that we hesitate at thresholds and elevators and are constantly alert to each body’s proximity, I see clearly what was always there, but not easy to acknowledge. Casual social hugging had become one of those tools that affirmed class distinctions.

Indians are not new to social and physical distancing. Long before the pandemic, there were separate lifts and staircases for ‘service’ staff. Private gardens restricted access to “non-residents”. It is no secret that most upper caste households keep separate cups and plates for domestic workers. There are apartment complexes where Muslims or Dalits may not reside even if they can afford to. Public parks charge entrance fees, effectively barring the poor and the homeless. Kids are routinely segregated via food with certain schools insisting on vegetarian tiffin, and many states refusing to allow eggs or meat in school lunches.

Read the whole essay here: https://indianexpress.com/article/express-sunday-eye/social-distancing-is-now-the-norm-but-segregation-has-always-been-around-7121312/

Saturday, December 19, 2020

On English, elitism and writing in India

Here's a passage from a short essay I wrote about Indian writing in English, and the insinuation that it was an elitist club. You'll need a subscription to read the full article in Outlook:

Occasionally, I also heard charges of elitism levelled at this club and, in the beginning, these made me nervous. I knew Hindi well enough but English was the language I could touch with no gloves on. I was aware that it was accessible to a smaller fraction of the population but if we were going to do fractions, what language didn’t have its elites, its tell-tale dialects that gave away the country cousin, the migrant, the unlettered worker? Even so, a tail of suspicion attached itself to cultural production in English. The baggage associated with its colonial antecedents has shifted so that, instead of examining inheritors of actual power – politicians, priests and businesspeople – a certain outsider-hood was invented for those who had a special relationship with English.

These suspicions confused me. Growing up, much of my reading was English ‘classics’, which is to say, mainly British novels and plays, some American short stories and translated works from Russian, German or French. Later, travelling and working as a journalist, I saw that the concerns of people remain the same, no matter what language they spoke: how to survive, how to secure your present so the future appears a little less uncertain, how to gain freedom, how to protect a reputation, how to find and keep love, how to transgress without being destroyed by the hegemony of the day. Such were the struggles and conflicts described in the stories I read, whether they were set in nineteenth century pastoral England or twenty-first century India. Was it possible to measure the democratic quotient of a book based on how many people could potentially read it? And what happens to nations where the majority is unlettered? Are all literatures elitist if most people cannot afford to read for pleasure?

Full article here: https://magazine.outlookindia.com/story/books-way-through-an-old-sieve/304029 

Tweets by @anniezaidi