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Add to the legions of writer V S Naipaul’s global detractors the Indian playwright and actor Girish Karnad.
Those outside India who know of and respect/detest Naipaul are unlikely to have heard of Karnad but he is a figure in Indian literature of some consequence. Unlike many I hesitate to dismiss anyone, including Karnad, as a relative lightweight although I would not be surprised if Naipaul’s admirers do so.
First, some quick background before I take a non-position position on this trivial literary feud, something Naipaul himself, if he had the enthusiasm of his younger days, might brush aside as mere “chuntering.” But he is 80 now, an age of resigned rumination about the fate of the world.
Mumbai is in the midst of hosting the Third Mumbai International Literary Festival at the National Centre for Performing Arts. It is called Tata Literature Live! because I suppose it has been largely sponsored by the industrial house of the Tatas. I could not tell you much about the rationale behind the exclamation mark in its name other than saying every time you read about it you are supposed to exclaim “Live!”
This year the festival decided to honor Naipaul with the “Landmark Literature Live! Lifetime Achievement Award.” It is ironic that a literary festival could not come up with a more elegant nomenclature or alliteration for its signature honor.
I do not mean to demean this particular honor but there must come a time in any creative person’s life when they must decide to politely decline all honors. That time came in Naipaul’s life as soon as he pioneered the genre of unsparingly judgmental chronicling of contemporary history. In my unsolicited opinion he should have displayed the strength to reject even the Nobel Prize for Literature. After all, all honors and awards are nothing more than printing ornate certificates, forging semi-erotic statuettes and manufacturing plaques. All of those things can be created quickly and cheaply by almost anyone almost anywhere now. You might counter my cynicism saying it is not the process of production of those things that is important but who is giving them. That’s fair but not as fair as you might think.
As part of the honor Naipaul was interviewed “Live!” on stage by writer and friend Farrukh Dhondy. Naipaul talked about this, that and the other with the practiced ease of a master who knows he could shuffle his hat and stroke his goatee and people would still lap it up. In between he became emotional while talking about his early life. In short, all very proper for a literary festival.
Then came the turn of Karnad who was supposed to offer a “master class” in theater considering his long and distinguished career in theater. Instead, he chose to do a Naipaul on Naipaul. Other than acknowledging him as a great writer Karnad’s tone was one of derision and rejection. He described Naipaul as tone-deaf, anti-Muslim and an unreliable chronicler of Indian culture and history. In particular, Karnad said Naipaul being “tone-deaf” to Indian music he could not possibly get to the heart of the contribution made by Muslims to Indian culture. In short, it was the kind of performance that may not have been so out of character for Naipaul himself. My objection would be mainly to the poor cadence of Karnad’s delivery rather than to the substance of it. I am, you might recall, a shallow creature.
Karnad ended up offending a lot of people who were at the event, in particular the festival’s director Anil Dharker who found it “impolite” and an “abuse” of the platform provided to the playwright. I think both those characterizations are accurate but not necessarily unwelcome. It is bad form but not particularly jarring because in the end all creative pursuit is about the ebb and flow of conflict and convergence.
I am amused by the rather specious defense offered by Dharker and Dhondy against Karnad’s charge that Naipaul is anti-Muslim. They both strenuously pointed out that Naipaul is married to Nadira, a Pakistan Muslim, and the two have adopted a son who is also a Muslim. It is not my case at all that Naipaul is anti-Muslim but the fact of his wife and son being of Muslim faith hardly constitutes a counter argument. He married a woman he loves and not created a strategy where a Muslim woman whose presence in his life would forever mitigate his strident civilizational views on Islam. This is not a Hindi film of the 1970s and 80s where every villainous Muslim had to be balanced by a gloriously ideal one. Married to a Muslim? Really, Messrs Dharker and Dhondy?
That said, I am still not sure what the big deal is about how Naipaul sees the world and how Karnad thinks Naipaul sees the world. There is room for both views because there ought to be room for all views.
And may I remind all concerned that we are all dwellers on a planet that is forever in geological and climatic ferment which can upend all certitudes and views and opinions and prejudices and biases in about three and a quarter seconds. That includes what Karnad thinks of Naipaul as well as what Naipaul does not think of just about anyone, including Karnad. So, so like that.
P.S.: Since all the usual suspects show up at these lit fests I am compelled to coin an umbrella term for the subspecies. Let’s call them Addictum Festivica.