Monday, 17 October 2011

UNDER THE MASK


Nobody expected it at the Kovalam Litfest. It felt so relaxed that you chatted with strangers as with friends. And yet here was a bearded, elderly man in the row behind mine raging at the Israeli playwright Savyon Liebrecht. Wagging a finger, ignoring all reprimands, he tried to establish through persistence alone that he knew, if nobody else did, how terrible were the Jewish people because he had lived in Germany for thirty years and they had been awful to him and this proved that they deserved the Holocaust.
The festival organisers managed to put the lid on him — only for the moment as it later turned out — but that moment was occupied by another voice: “Why you are still stuck in the past Madam? Why you don’t think of the future? The Germans have the best brains. They make the best machines. They make the best films. Why you are stuck with the Holocaust?” (In another context, this could have been Modi’s question: “Look how much I have done for Gujarat. Why you are stuck in Godhra?”)
The bookstall at the Kovalam Litfest; courtesy of Noctilucent

It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so nasty. Liebrecht is the author of novels, short stories, plays, and novellas. She has won awards in three countries and has been Israel’s Playwright of the Year. Born in 1948, she is the child of Holocaust survivors and has devoted her entire writerly life to it. She stood on stage now trying to absorb what the audience was flinging at her: a prolific writer at a loss for words.
And Liebrecht was not the only one trying to make sense of the hatred pouring out from an audience that had appeared so benign. Poet, translator and activist Meena Kandaswamy, not even thirty, is already well known as a radical political writer, not afraid to use explicitly sexual language as a shock tactic. She read a series of angry, polemical, passionate poems on womanhood and Dalithood. Then went through an exhausting hour of attacks from the audience.
I listened more and more bewildered by the aggression as people pulled out all sorts of old chestnuts. They informed her that Dalits today no longer suffered; that they actually had it rather good what with reservations and all; that when they got those reserved-quota jobs they never worked, etc., etc. One bitter generalization followed another.
In the questions put to both Liebrecht and Kandaswamy, suffering was weighed in scales. Whose was worse? Were not the Palestinians as oppressed as the Jewish people had been? Wasn’t India’s Partition a Holocaust as well? Some wanted to know why Kandaswamy focused on Dalits. Did not the disabled deserve poetic attention? If Surpanakha could be the subject of a poem, why not Draupadi?
Not everyone in the audience was as perverse, of course. Several people tried reasoning it out. Rebecca Mammen, criminal lawyer at the Delhi High Court, gave examples from her own cases to prove how violence against Dalits was rarely punished by the state. Novelist Binoo John and cricket writer Suresh Menon attempted arguing with those brushing away the Holocaust. Various others tried turning the discussion towards less hostile directions. Nothing worked.
I realized later that the booing sections had sat beaming through Fatima Bhutto telling them all sorts of uncomfortable truths about India. The same listeners who were more or less spitting at a Dalit poet and a Jewish playwright had been fawning over the visiting princess from Pakistan. There wasn’t a single inconvenient question. Did her pedigree and our love of kings and queens create that submissiveness? Or was it a sane response to the eloquence of her appeal for Indo-Pak brotherhood?
Prefacing her reading, Liebrecht spoke in a quiet voice of the silences and absences in her family because of the Holocaust. She spoke of not having cousins or grandparents or other relatives. Of discovering very late in life, from a photograph, that her father had had a different family before the war. The story she read to us was a moving one, of ghastly memories tumbling out from an old man who had been silent thus far about his years in Auschwitz. Nothing in her reading suggested she was looking for a fight. (Kandaswamy — something of a firecracker both in what she writes and the way she reads from it — certainly was, and took an endearing pleasure in the battle.)
Given that much literature is now obviously and overtly political, all writers  — even those who do not write in that vein — expect political rather than literary questions at book events, whether in India or the West. It is the level of acrimony that is strikingly different. There must be verbal versions of rotten eggs and tomatoes at literary festivals in the West, but I haven’t seen comments being worded as personal accusations. I’ve been asked pointed political questions and seen them being put to others. But there was always the underlying acknowledgement that the writer pinned by that spotlight, trapped on that podium, deserved courtesy and attention.
Liebrecht later said she was used to occasional hostility — but had not expected it in Kerala. What image had she, or we, of Kerala? Mammen, John and Menon, all Malayalis, defined Kerala for me. Like most outsiders I knew only of its cultural richness, its natural beauty, its leftwing politics, its stable birth rate, its incredible literacy rates, its enviable healthcare and old age care systems. Landing there from Delhi, where even the Chief Minister reprimands women for driving alone at night, I was delighted to see stout matrons in saris and helmets ferrying their children about on speedy little scooters. I felt unthreatened walking alone on the beach. Everyone I spoke to was welcoming and cordial. My first impressions confirmed my view that Kerala had got it all right. I would not have been surprised by aggression anywhere else in India. I hadn’t expected it in Kerala.
It’s not just Kerala. Most writers assume that they and their readers share a protective sheath of liberal values — but it disintegrates alarmingly during most such occasions in India. We usually associate rightwing aggression with loutish mobs. That’s a mistake. It may be the woman in the tussar sari or the man in a linen suit, sitting next to you in an air-conditioned hall, listening to poetry. Scribbling notes. Sharpening knives. Priming the bomb. Adjusting the mask.
 Published in The Telegraph. Read it here.