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Wednesday, September 17, 2014  
Grabbing headlines

by AJ Philip
Men like Karnad create a controversy and thrive on it

Headline-grabbing seems to have become the be-all and end-all of public life. Last week, veteran theatre person Girish Karnad was in the news not for any new production or performance but for his comments on Nobel laureate VS Naipaul. The forum was a literary festival, which almost every town from Kovalam in the south to Dehradun in the north now hosts, because there is big money in it.

Karnad was listed to speak on theatre at the Mumbai festival but he used the occasion to fire a fusillade at Naipaul, who was given a lifetime achievement award the previous day. The festival, which had not received much media attention, was suddenly on the front pages of newspapers with the television channels following up as usual.

He took the festival stage with some questionable quotations from Naipaul’s book India: A Wounded Civilization that many saw as “anti-Muslim”. Those references in his book had endeared Naipaul to the votaries of Hindutva, who even managed to organise a public reception to the author with then prime minister AB Vajpayee in the chair when he won the Nobel.

Without getting into the historical correctness or otherwise of Naipaul’s assessment of the Vijayanagaram empire as the last bastion of Hindu  civilisation brought down by the Muslims and the construction of a mosque by the first Moghul Emperor as “an act of hubris”, let it be said that much water has flowed under the Yamuna bridge since the book’s publication in 1977.

It is puerile to expect a writer to be consistent in his views when he has to respond to changing situations. Similarly, a person or object may not evoke the same response from everyone. However great the Taj is as an architectural wonder, I felt peeved when an acquaintance sent me its picture with the wishes that my new flat might be as beautiful as Shah Jahan’s creation. He, perhaps, did not realise that it was a tomb.

One can also see in such ancient works of art the sweat of thousands of labourers and artisans who spent their lives building them in slave-like conditions. But then, Naipaul is not a historian but a fiction and travel writer, who admits that he has no political views. Anyway, he has come a long way since writing that book.

His India: A Million Mutinies Now, published in 1990, is far more beautiful and sympathetic to India. It could even be considered as a correction of his earlier views, compared to Katherine Mayo’s on India, which Mahatma Gandhi described as no better than a drain inspector’s report.

Not many know that author and politician Arun Shourie, who earned the wrath of several communities by critiquing their holy texts, began his writing career by critiquing Hinduism. It’s a different matter that he no longer mentions it in his list of books, probably because his views on Hinduism have changed!

The charge of anti-Islam levelled against Naipaul has lost much of its sting after his marriage to Nadira, a Muslim, and adoption of her two children. In any case, a person should be judged by his whole body of work, not by his stray comments. Arthur Koestler’s The Lotus and the Robot failed to impress because he selectively quoted Mahatma Gandhi and the Paramacharya of Kanchi to show them in a bad light.

When it comes to headline-grabbing, no one can rival politicians, particularly Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. His vitriolic comment that Union minister Shashi Tharoor had a “Rs500 million girlfriend” in his wife Sunanda boomeranged on him when his own party colleagues took a dim view of it.

Tharoor, who once made the tactless mistake of describing economy class in the airlines as “cattle class”, thereby antagonising the millions who cannot afford to travel in first class, curtly but brilliantly shot back: “My wife is worth a lot more than your imaginary 500 millions. She is priceless. But you need to be able to love someone to understand that”. Needless to say, his riposte won the hearts of many a woman.

Smart one-liners are what every politician wants to make. Minister Jairam Ramesh recently made one such comment, “India had more temples than toilets”, which did not go down well with many people, who wished he had shown similar enthusiasm in actually constructing toilets.

Ramesh knew that it was far easier to make such statements than to initiate a toilet revolution in a country where over 50 per cent people did not have access to clean toilets. Similarly, Girish Karnad would have had to work very hard to produce a play that could grab headlines in the Press. It was infinitely easier to choose a literary Goliath, catapult some stones at him and get instant attention.

Oman Tribune

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