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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Akademi Award winner shut out by Goa: ‘Objectionable content’ in poem

Khandekar told The Indian Express that he was told by the officers in the Akademi that Sneha Morajkar, the then acting President had cancelled the order citing “objectionable and obscene content”.

Written by Smita Nair | Panjim | Updated: January 14, 2020 7:01:08 am
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THE Goa Konkani Akademi, a state government body, has rejected the purchase and circulation of a book of poems titled The Words by Konkani poet and Sahitya Akademi Award, 2019, winner Neelba Khandekar.

A three-member committee of the Goa Konkani Akademi, formed in August 2018, had, in fact, approved 64 books — Khandekar’s was one of them — from various authors and poets, to be purchased and circulated officially. A purchase order was issued on January 19, 2019 for 90 copies of Khandekar’s The Words. But the Executive Committee of the Goa Konkani Akademi eventually cancelled the order.

Khandekar told The Indian Express that he was told by the officers in the Akademi that Sneha Morajkar, the then acting President had cancelled the order citing “objectionable and obscene content”. The two words that were found to be objectionable, he said, were ‘yoni’ and ‘thann’ (vagina and breasts in Konkani). These appear in his poem ‘Gangrape’ — seventh in the anthology of 43 poems — that won the Sahitya Akademi Award.

While jury members of the Sahitya Akademi Award, 2019 described the same poem “a piece of art”, and the “strongest piece of work”, the state akademi raised objections and refused to endorse the book on the grounds of usage of “objectionable words and lines”.

Khandekar, a retired upper-division clerk from the Indian Navy, is now filing RTIs and traveling between Margao and Panjim to seek answers why those two words were objectionable. “I am standing in hearings to know why my poetry is offensive. No one answers. So its only RTI that speaks to me now. This also puts the language in a very serious space and vulnerable to such burecartic interventions as the censure is not just on poetry, but on the very usage of these words,” he said.

Prakash Parienkar, one of the three members which approved the 64 books, said: “We were briefed by Sneha Morajkar that the Akademi has received some letters from outside raising objections to the poetry and that it was a policy decision.” Parienkar is Associate Professor, Goa University, Department of Konkani, and also a member of the Executive Committee which took the final decision to cancel the order.

“Khandekar’s poetry is very very different as he deals with unique, but real topics. The content is life itself, and this decision now deprives a scholarly probe on his work, which would have otherwise happened had the Akademi purchased and endorsed his work. Having read the book for approval, we didn’t find anything in any of the poems vulgar. It was Sneha Morajkar who had found it objectionable. We were told that it could be dangerous if the book goes into the hands of children,” said Parienkar.

When contacted, Morajkar, however, said it was the Executive Committee’s decision and not hers alone. “It’s being put on me now as Khandekar’s book went to win an award. They are now in a soup and they cannot blame me. We are simple people, not ‘hi-fi’. I saw the words (vagina and breasts) in the book and I didn’t feel bad, but I did ask the three members of the selection committee, all three men sitting in front of me. If it wasn’t a problem, they shouldn’t have agreed to put the matter in front of the Executive Committee and the Executive Committee should not have agreed to cancel the purchase of the books in the special meeting. Now, it’s an afterthought.”

Khandekar, who has till date filed, and is following up, four RTI applications – two to the Goa Konkani Akademi, and two to the Directorate of Official Language – said the minutes of the meeting on September 13, 2019 are “revealing”. The response to RTI applications received Monday confirmed that the Akademi “has no record of having received any letter of objections from anyone”.

While the initial opposition came from Morajkar citing letters received from public, many members in the Executive Committee agreed the book shouldn’t be purchased. The minutes, reviewed by The Indian Express, reveal that two members asked if the book can be published after the poem with “objectionable words” was removed.

Morajkar notes that the book is already published so it cannot be done. Another member points that in future the Akademi should frame policies or guidelines on what is “objectionable” before it goes to the purchase stage. While a few members have pointed the exercise could impact Freedom of Speech and also suggested purchasing the book for the Akademi’s library, another, a woman member, has questioned the need to even purchase the book for the members since “objectionable words are of women which are not acceptable”.

Konkani author Meena Kakodkar, juror of the Sahitya Akademi Award, 2019, said: “The jury’s decision was unanimous. You cannot forget his work. They are very, very strong, speak of social issues of our times and it lingers in the mind even days after you have read it. As a woman, I felt nothing objectionable. His poem Gangrape is very powerful. In fact, what is happening around us is offensive — not his retelling. That particular poem is so strong, in fact, we discussed it at the jury. It’s a piece of beauty. If the Akademi has refused to endorse it or taken any such order, it’s time they revisit.”

Prakash Padgaonkar, poet and another juror, Sahitya Akademi Award, 2019, said: “Khandekar’s work is suggestive, strong and representative of the downtrodden. He speaks of universal suffering and his poems call for a united action, not just in and of Goa, but across the brotherhood.When the jury read it, we felt this had a very unique style to it, he introduced new thoughts, and all through his imagination.”

According to Padgaonkar, the poem Gangrape was also “new in treatment and hard hitting”. “The general view we gathered from the Akademi was that they want to censure some words and do not want it to flow into the language, as it does in English. Literature shouldn’t have such barriers. Words should flow, and in this case, the poet has chosen them to speak and give his voice to a social evil,” he said.

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