On the ‘Verses’, and Soft Targets

The regrettable Rushdie affair is kind of over, with media moving onto other stories,  I suppose. A lot has been said on the subject, and I guess people are bored. But then, the advantage of a blog that’s rarely read is that one can go on and drag dead horses around. One’s gotta capitalize on blessing in disguise.

My reaction to the whole affair will be no surprise to anyone who reads this blog. I’m terribly upset by the politicization of everything cultural, and the way philistine mobs are ruling the country covertly, under the disguise of democracy. From Mistry, to Rushdie, we’ve seen how political landscape has subverted the cultural scene, making India’s claims to being a liberal democracy hollow.

We’re a mobocracy. We’re a religio-fasist-republic. Rights have stopped meaning anything in this country, unless they’re rights to be offended on the grounds of non-provable, irrational beliefs. Freedom of expression has degenerated in India over the last few years alarmingly. And what’s terrible is that the state has gone from a passive – I can’t protect your freedoms – stance, to an active denial of rights – since I can’t protect your freedom, I’ll stamp it down. Any special interest group can threaten with violence, and viola, state will abandon it’s responsibility to uphold individual rights, in the name of threat to law and order — with one exception: if the right is the right to be offended, and backed by theological power.

As if that were not enough, we’ve bogeymen who question literary/artistic merits of works in the middle of these atavistic attacks, when they should ideally support the defenseless artists/writers, but if not that, then at least have the decency to shut up.

For instance, in present case, the literary merits of The Satanic Verses are entirely besides the point. But given that these morons are out spitting at it, as a huge fan of Rushdie’s writings, I cannot help but step in an defend the book. I first picked up the Verses, way back, when I had no exposure to good literature, no real mental repertoire to grasp any of it. Predictably, I put it down after twenty odd pages. The friend who had lent me his copy had warned me, saying it’s a pathetic book, and the controversy probably helped its sales. I don’t deny the latter part. Controversies help sales of the books, not necessarily the books though. Controversies make people who do not have repertoire to appreciate an artistic work flock to it, and I’m not sure it’s a good thing for the work. When I picked up Verses again last year, I was totally knocked down by its sheer brilliance. It’s of course okay to not like it, and to say one doesn’t like it. But why bring that up when what’s at stake is larger issue of freedom of expression?

And that brings us to Bhagat. Some say that he’s a soft target. Well, he thrives on being a soft target. Bhagat is essentially a literary counterpart of Bollywood — empty, mediocre, basking in its own success (defined as acceptance by masses), full of cliches, and whose understanding of the word controversial is : able to generate eyeballs. But controversial in arts has so much more to offer — and that’s lost on both Bhagat and bollywood, because this idea of being controversial for the sake of art is an anathema to them. If it’s so controversial that it offends, then it will alienate the masses. And what good is that?

Bhagat’s comments in this media circus were a typical case of ‘attention whore syndrome’, where one hopes to steal part of limelight that an unpleasant controversy has generated, but, of course, without the unpleasantness. So what better route to take than to cast Rushdie as a non-Indian, branding those who are outraged at the politicization of arts as ‘extreme liberals’, and generally trying to remain in the center, without really questioning the center of what? But then I’m being lenient. He knew center of what. Center of attention. Issues be damned.

I can forgive bad writing, more so because I know how easy it is to land up there; I can even forgive bad writing that’s gone viral and is popular, for that’s no fault of the writer; I can forgive bad thinking, for we’re all capable of that, without realizing it; but what I cannot forgive, is bad intent. And Bhagat has displayed that in this whole mess. And it’s a shame that despite being a writer himself, he has zero understanding of what it means to be a writer or an artist in general. And looking at his recent verbal diarrhea, I don’t think he’s ever going to get it. And that’s the real shame (pun entirely unintended).

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