Why Writers Protest?

  • Freny Manecksha
  • Publish Date: Jan 19 2016 12:36PM
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  • Updated Date: Feb 17 2016 5:25PM
Why Writers Protest?

Histories of loss and longing, anger and the delicate but unmistakable tone of protest—all these elements were present as Mir Liyaqat Nazir, a scholar from Kashmir researching on resistance literature, spoke of the legacy of Agha Shahid Ali, Kashmir’s iconic poet who wrote in English.

The poetry event took place amid a small gathering in Mumbai, held just a few days after the infamous inking incident whereby workers of the right wing Hindutva Shiv Sena party made an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the book release of former Pakistani minister Khurshid M Kasuri by throwing ink on the chief organiser Sudheendra Kulkarni.

Upholding the power of the word, Nazir, who is pursuing his research from Pune University, expounded on how the late Agha Shahid Ali had emigrated to the US for further studies but used his poetry as a canvas for an imaginary painting of his homeland, bruised and besieged albeit but with a mesmerizing landscape and unique culture that remained an alter ego for him.

Dwelling on Ali’s The Country Without A Post Office: Poems 1991 -1995, Nazir explained how this part autobiographical volume was penned against the backdrop of the conflict that raged in the nineties. Ali’s poems spoke of killings, of torture of young Kashmiri boys in interrogation centres, of displacement, of Pandits fleeing the Valley, but the poems also brought into focus the suffering of his people through the ages. Suffering that was inflicted by different oppressors and the colonization of the land.

Nazir noted how Ali could be compared favourably with poets such as Derek Walcott of the Caribbean, Seamus Heaney of Ireland and Mahmoud Darwish of Palestine, who remained rooted in place and native landscape and whose poetry was surcharged with the political overtones of their homeland.

Quoting from various poems in the volume, he explained how Ali’s poetry cast its craft and concerns upon histories of loss, longing, injustice and brutality, particularly those endured by Kashmir but also how the sufferings from Sarajevo could also be interwoven, giving the poems a universal appeal.

As Edward Said observed, “The extraordinary formal precision and virtuosity of these poems, as well as their searing imagery, derives from Agha Shahid Ali’s responses to Kashmir’s agony. But this is poetry whose appeal is universal, its voice unerringly eloquent. A marvelous achievement.”

Predictably enough the animated and heated discussions that followed the session in Mumbai tended to focus around geo-political conditions and the inevitable India versus Pakistan debate but it was to Nazir’s credit that he was able to bring back the focus on Kashmir and the Kashmiris. He ended with a poignant and fervent appeal to Agha Shahid Ali’s spirit that it should perpetuate the legacy of chronicling the people’s pain.  A legacy that continues with many young writers like Mirza Waheed who now proudly wear the honour of being known as Kashmiris writing in English. Nazir emphasised that aspect drawing a distinct difference from Indians writing in English.

The issue of writings emanating from a place and being rooted in its politics has gained special significance in the current scenario when, writers from all parts of India and also from Kashmir, are returning the awards they have received and registering their protest over the shrinking spaces of dissent, the violence from right wing political outfits and murders of writers like M Kalburgi.

In Mumbai, it was poet Pradnya Daya Pawar, daughter of noted Dalit writer Daya Pawar, who stressed upon her identity as a Dalit writer. In her protest letter circulated in media circles she said she felt a special need to speak out as Dalits have been acutely aware and sensitive to injustice and so could not stay silent.

What then is this obligation of a writer, the need to define identity, the need to scrutinise society and self and to use the mystery of the Word through one’s skills for transformation?

The late Nadine Gordimer, South Africa’s noted writer of novels and short stories, who remained the nation’s interpreter and voice of conscience in pre and post-apartheid years, examined some of the concerns of place and politics in her book The Essential Gesture, Writing Politics & Places. Published in 1988, many of the essays hold a striking relevance even today. For example in an essay of the same name, Gordimer reflects on the writer’s dual commitments: to society and to writing itself and to hold these two in balance. She states: “From the corpus of language, within that guild shared with fellow writers, the writer fashions his enterprise, which then becomes his ‘essential gesture as a social being.’ Created in the lot of common language, that essential gesture is individual; and with it the writer quits the commune of the corpus; but with it he enters the commonality of society, the world of other beings who are not writers.”

Gordimer points out how for writers from certain places (like the former Soviet Union, Taiwan, certain Latin American countries and South Africa in the apartheid era) there is a demand to make the essential gesture as a social being. This gesture means one must act as spokesperson for the oppressed and also to take punishment from the state for that act.

Writing more on responsibilities, she adds further in her essay: “One thing is clear: ours is a period when few can claim the absolute value of a writer without reference to a context of responsibilities. Exile as a mode of genius no longer exists; in place of Joyce we have the fragments of works appearing in Index on Censorship. These are the rags of suppressed literatures, translated from a Babel of languages, the broken cries of real exiles, not those who have rejected their homeland but who have been forced out of their language, their culture, their society.”

Gordimer points out how African writers like Wole Soyinka and the late Chinua Achebe from Nigeria became “more than writers” sacrificing for some years the energy of their creativity to demands of activism. Soyinka, in fact, spent years in imprisonment.

Perhaps a similar essential gesture, a sense of responsibility to one’s community and sense of place – or where a person is coming from – fashioned and created the genre of Dalit literature in India.

In their introduction to The Exercise of Freedom, K Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu, point out how Dalit literature did not grow out of literary discussions or the practice of writers but “is a social movement invested in the battle against injustice and driven by the hope of freedom, not simply a literary trend or a formal development.”

This literature encompasses diverse forms of intellectual and creative work by those who, as untouchables, are victims of economic, social and cultural inequality.

Dalit writing has given birth to autobiography whereby the individual’s life becomes a moving testimony of a people.

Baluta, Daya Pawar’s autobiography, caused a storm when it was first published in Marathi in 1978, not just for its stark depiction of the cruelties of the caste system but also for the candour with which it put the author himself, his family and Dalit politics under the scanner.

In the introduction to the English translation of Baluta, the translator, Jerry Pinto points out how Pawar interestingly chose to name his book from the very demeaning practice of baluta (a practice akin to forced labour whereby 12 categories of labour are to be offered free to the village in return for the baluta, a share in the village’s produce) that was imposed on Pawar’s community of Mahars.

Thus the very title of the book situates it in a certain political and social context. As Pinto again points out, although not “a misery memoir”, Balutais, nevertheless is disturbing in the sheer pervasiveness of the cruelty of the caste system.

Interestingly, during a book reading of Baluta  (English translation) held at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, barely a month and a half ago for which Pradnya Pawar was also present, a young man asked whether  Dalit writers should continue to write about caste or then break with this particular identity. Pawar replied that while she would not like to proffer advice, she wanted to remind people that the injustices of caste and discrimination still prevail and the identity of a Dalit writer and thereby his social obligations still remained pertinent.

A Chetan Bhagat can snigger at the gesture of writers who return awards, having not an iota of concept whatsoever of the political environment that people of Kashmir, or Khairlanji, or Dadri or the slums of Mumbai inhabit. But as Gordimer’s essay informs us the essential gesture comes from writers of integrity, an integrity that Chekov demanded “to describe a situation so truthfully…. That the readers can no longer evade it.”