India's Ministry of Hurt Sentiments spares none

Last Updated: Wed, Jan 30, 2013 06:45 hrs

Afghanistan is one of the last bastions of the exotic left to writers. It is often written about from a great and sentimental distance, in a way that is no longer possible with other places. (Shangri-La is a hotel chain, French-led forces have marched into Timbuktu, the once-subversive comedy of Mandalay’s Moustache Brothers is now a tourist attraction.)

Only Kabul was left, to be colonised by kite runners. Few writers had any strong sense of what the city had been, just four or six decades ago — the comfortably cosmopolitan city of the 1950s and 1970s, where women took education and freedom in their dress and careers for granted.

William Dalrymple’s Return of a King was a lucid reminder of the complexity of the conflicts in Afghanistan’s past, holding up a mirror to the country’s present state. But it has been considerably more difficult for fiction writers to write about Afghanistan with clarity, without turning their books into vivid romances filled with blood, gore and almond-eyed beauties shrouded in their veils.

Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden, his fourth novel, punches through every stereotype of the Afghan School of Writing, in part because he is a superb stylist. In addition, he takes the radical step of treating his characters as individuals, rather than representatives, and he has spent time making sense of the emotional and political landscape of Afghanistan.

“The logic is that there are no innocent people in a guilty nation,” he writes early on in The Blind Man’s Garden, in reference to the American approach to Afghanistan. It is one of many acute observations, and yet, you’re going to read The Blind Man’s Garden for Mr Aslam’s powerful storytelling and his ability to write about extreme violence with extreme tenderness, rather than for his political insight.

The challenges his characters encounter are ripped from the most bloodstained of headlines in the most baroque of landscapes — and yet, they remain essentially human. In an early image, birds are held captive in a delicate snare of wires set across the branches of a tree, and attempts to free them come too late. But even as he shows us their corpses, Mr Aslam also suggests the beauty of their lives as once-free creatures. As he said in a Guardian interview: “Paper is the strongest material in the world. Things under which a mountain will crumble, you can place on paper and it will hold: beauty at its most intense; love at its fiercest; the greatest grief; the greatest rage.”

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It is unsurprising that an FIR was filed this weekend against the scholar Ashis Nandy, not because of the content of what he said, but because of the legal precedents set in the last 10-15 years. Mr Nandy’s remarks had to do with caste, and much might be said about whether he was factually correct, politically incorrect or even mistaken in his central points.

I will not address the content of his remarks. What is the point of discussing the value or limits of his arguments when the problem is a legal and social one? If your laws allow any community or special interest group to ask for redressal when their sentiments have been hurt, few groups have the incentive to engage with the issue at hand, when there is the easy, silencing remedy of a court case instead. It’s the way many arguments on Delhi’s roads end: “You shut up!” “No, you shut up!”

At the Jaipur Literature Festival, where Mr Nandy made his comments, his arguments were dissected, digested, defended — and torn apart by some. These were appropriate responses; but filing an FIR shuts down the entire debate. Caste, like religion, will join the growing list of subjects that we cannot discuss openly — especially at the Jaipur festival. India’s best-known literary festival attracts many who are eager to use the willing mikes of the media to peddle their stores of grievance, of rage, of disenfranchisement.

Mr Nandy, like all public intellectuals and private citizens, should have the right to give offence (and to take the heat generated by his comments). He should also have the right to be wrong, or to make an incomplete argument. The problem with using the law is that it absolves the easily offended — a rebuttal of Mr Nandy’s ideas on corruption and caste has not been heard from those who sued him. “My sentiments are hurt” may be an accurate statement, but it is not an argument.

As we’ve seen, whether it’s the Hindu right-wing trying to silence A K Ramanujan’s ideas or Muslim fundamentalists refusing to allow Salman Rushdie to speak at all, the ministry of hurt sentiments is open to all — and it conducts a thriving business in outrage. But these cases or even the odd ban or two rarely change people’s minds about the subject at hand; all it does is to convince the mass of Indians of the dangers of speaking one’s mind. A weak argument is best countered with a stronger one, not with forced silence.

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