Officials investigating the Gauri Lankesh assassination discovered your name on a hitlist. When were you informed of the threat?
On July 20, an Intelligence Bureau official contacted me through a friend. I was told to be alert, especially when I travel to Karnataka and Maharashtra. He then took down details of my flights for the next few weeks, including journeys to Pune and Udupi. He said I would have police protection because my name appeared on some hit-list, and the central agency had asked its Goa office to keep a watch. The list of names included Girish Karnad, Kannada writer KS Bhagwan and me.
You are now a writer with a police patrol team by your side. How have things changed for you?
The cops looking into my security said, ‘For the first time in Goa, a writer is getting a threat. Frankly, we do not know how to tackle it!’ Initially, they were not sure how many police personnel would accompany me. After some days, they wanted to guard the house and family, too. The protocol was again changed. A commando, who is a part of my security cover and walks with a loaded gun, turned out to be a poet. One morning he said, ‘I can guard your body, but not your ideology.’ Later, after fresh intelligence inputs, the police sought panchayat permission and all the high shrubs, including two trees opposite my house, were chopped off. ‘Anyone could hide,’ they told me.
I said that I do not want my mobility affected. I go for a morning walk — four kilometres by the beach — every day. That bothered them greatly because most writers were killed apparently during the early hours. So now, a two-wheeler with a beacon follows me on my walks. For the villagers, it’s a sight.
What do you think prompted such a threat?
When we realised that the liberal voice is being scuttled in India, we thought we should start a movement. So with Ganesh Devy in the lead, a writer’s march — almost 600-strong — was held on January 30, 2016 at Dandi, Gujarat. That march had 15 persons from Goa, including me. At Bilimora town in Gujarat, we stopped and had a public debate, and I chaired the event. I said that, as someone from Goa, I am proud of its communal harmony but, I feel ashamed as all the suspects related to the assassinations are connected with the Sanatan Sanstha, which is headquartered in Goa. They (Sanstha) responded to my speech in their paper in the days that followed.
Where else have you been as vocal?
After Dandi, I was part of the Brahmaputra Literary Festival in February. I spoke about how it was time for the writers’ fraternity to be aware of the changes happening in the country, that one language and culture was being forced upon people. Then, it was the turn of the chief guest, Union minister of human resources and development, Prakash Javadekar, to speak, and I sensed he was hurt. He had not taken my statement lightly.
Last year, there was another incident. I was invited by the Sahitya Akademi for the valedictory session on freedom of speech, especially for writers. It was chaired by SL Bhyrappa who, according to me, is a known right-wing writer. When my turn came to speak, unlike the others, I mentioned the assassination of intellectuals, and also the restrictions on Perumal Murugan and Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd. When Bhyrappa spoke, he demolished whatever I said.
When did you first hear about the Sanatan Sanstha?
The 2009 Margao blasts changed it all. We were told the suspects were carrying skull caps to misguide the arrests and narrative. I will tell you an incident that happened a few years ago… I was invited to a house-warming by a friend. At night, stones were hurled at the house. Even as a fight started outside, I escaped from the window, though my nephew was badly injured. It was a fight due to personal animosity. But the rumours that spread hinted otherwise. Next day, six persons walked into my home, offering their sympathies. ‘You name them as culprits. We will teach them a lesson.’ Who were ‘they’? ‘They were the Catholics’, the men said. I told them Catholics were my best friends — the first to respond to any crises of mine. They returned disappointed. Later, I found out that the men were from the RSS.
Growing up, I was never told by my mother or anyone from my family that there was an ‘other’. I played football with Catholics. I went to school with them.
Do you know Anthony Gonsalves, the musicologist from Bollywood? Anthony’s sisters called me dudhbau — which roughly translates to milk-brother. Because their mother literally breastfed me when my mother was unwell. This is the way I have been brought up. But now I see the RSS and the right trying to create a divide. But I still have full faith in the Constitution of India.
What is your take on the spate of killings of writers and rationalists, the arrests of activists and the clampdown on freedom of expression?
Writers who have originality will always side with the people who are marginalised. Why should I sympathise with the privileged and the rich? My duty as a writer is to my people, the people who suffer, the Dalits. I would say every writer’s sympathy goes to the marginalised. Otherwise, why would they feel like writing?
The role of a writer has always been important. All of bhasha literature revolves around the suffering of the marginalised, despite the fact that the literature was monopolised by the upper class.
Did you personally know any of the writers who have been killed?
I have read Narendra Dabholkar. I started reading Govind Pansare after his death — I wanted to know why some people thought he should be brought down. I have also worked with MM Kalburgi and translated his work, and I was really pained by his death. I knew Gauri’s father.
Why do you feel regional language writers are targeted more?
Only when you are translated into English people realise the impact — like what happened to Perumal Murugan. Extremists fear that a translated work will spread quicker across the nation… So they feel the best thing is to kill them. They have their eyes on the forthcoming elections, where they want to see a Hindu Rashtra evolving. They are not bothered about the Muslim intelligentsia or Dalit scholars, because they think they can take care of them. They are more scared of Hindu writers who oppose their ideas. Because they feel these writers, opposed to Hindutva, can influence the Hindus more.
What are you busy writing?
I have been working on a book where the protagonist is a gay man. It tackles a wide gamut of emotions and love is a central theme.
Who are the people who have reached out to you so far?
There has been heartwarming solidarity from Assam, Kolkata, Mumbai, and many countries. Of those who called, there are some I have only heard of and not met. The very idea that so many people are with you is a victory. Among friends, K Satchidanandan, Amitav Ghosh, Vivek Shanbhag, Ram Kumar Mukhopadhyay, Nayantara Sahgal, Keki Daruwala… everybody expressed their concern.
Gulzar was very upset — he is an old friend and had written a poem after Kalburgi’s death. I call him every two days now. Discussing literature with him is a way to divert my attention.