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In India, there is always context to a statement. So much context, apparently, because of how complicated this country is, that Indians often prefer to ignore all context completely. This is the case with the outrage across the internet, and in West Bengal, that the writer Girish Karnad, known for writing some of modern India’s best-loved plays, called Rabindranath Tagore a “mediocre playwright”. This statement was part of a discussion of Tagore’s multifaceted output — he was a poet, a novelist, a writer of short stories and plays, a composer and an artist — and Mr Karnad’s perfectly reasonable point was that he was better at some of these things than he was at others. Mr Karnad argued that many of Tagore’s plays were meant to be performed in-house, and by family members; and also that he thought that some of the poorer characters were one-dimensional. Tagore was, however, a great poet, he insisted, and helped form modern Indian literature. Naturally, various luminaries from the world of theatre and politics have sprung to Tagore’s defence, though it should be apparent that someone with his reputation and body of work needs no defending. If anything, he deserves to be discussed.
In some ways, Mr Karnad’s recent statements have demonstrated various problems with Indian cultural criticism and debate. A short time ago, he caused a bit of an uproar when he denounced another Nobel laureate, V S Naipaul, as writing “unreliable” non-fiction that was fatally flawed because of its authors’ antipathy to Islam and Muslims. On the one hand, of course, there’s the inability to see a statement in context. On the other, there is the demarcation of large parts of culture, history and myth — and of many aspects of peoples’ biographies and accomplishments — as off limits for reasonable debate and disagreement. For example: to bring up, at a literary festival that has just honoured him, the fawning adulation that some in India bestow on Mr Naipaul is somehow described as boorish. No other writer that India can claim has won the Nobel since Tagore, and so it is very necessary that Mr Naipaul’s reputation not be assailed, or the justness of prizes awarded him questioned. And, of course, Mr Naipaul is a hero to many fundamentalists in India, who view him as an intellectual icon — and therefore, to speak against him is to offend their view of the world, a crime in and of itself. When writers are made into icons — for reasons of ideology, as with Naipaul, or for reasons of shared ethnicity, the way that some in Bengal revere Tagore or in Punjab think of Saadat Hasan Manto — their work is as diminished as their myth is exalted.
A writer’s work is meant to be constantly discussed, debated and dissected. When this process stops, that work stops being alive and vibrant, and becomes mummified. And thus the saddest part of the reaction to Mr Karnad’s criticism of Tagore is perhaps that, in all the commotion, Mr Karnad’s arguments have been lost. Whatever the truth about the quality of Tagore’s plays — and many would differ with Mr Karnad, especially about Yeats’ favourite, Dak Ghar (The Post Office) — they should not be immune to criticism, or they will become museum curiosities rather than works meant to interest and provoke. Rather than responding to Mr Karnad’s carefully laid-out argument with a restatement of faith that Tagore did all things perfectly, Bengal’s, and perhaps India’s, greatest modern writer deserves a defence that takes every individual work seriously.