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Born in Shahdol in Madhya Pradesh, Hindi writer Uday Prakash is best known for his short stories Peeli Chhatri Waali Ladki and Mohandas, the latter a disturbing tale of a Dalit boy who sets off to rediscover his stolen identity. Later made into a film, Mohandas fetched Prakash the Sahitya Akademi Award for Hindi in 2010. Through his writings, Prakash has explored themes of displacement and alienation, and given voice to the concerns of the marginalised. Last year, Prakash was the first of many artistes to return his Akademi Award over the killing of fellow recipient, Kannada litterateur MM Kalburgi. He was objecting to the literary body’s silence over the assaults on writers, and sparked a national debate over intolerance and nationalism.
You returned your Sahitya Akademi Award a year ago in protest over the killing of M M Kalburgi. How do you look back on that decision?
Honestly, it was fear that prompted my decision. All these killings were done by fanatics, by people of a particular mindset. Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and Kalburgi — they were all people like me, elderly. They were shot at home or while they were out on a walk. I had met Kalburgi twice. I knew Dabholkar too. These people were killed in cold blood and what surprised me was that there was no uproar over their deaths. The institution that had awarded Kalburgi did not even hold a condolence meeting for him. When a rail accident takes place, the department of railways goes to the home of the victim to console the family and offer compensation. But when these writers and rationalists were killed, no one reached out. It made me ponder, do we even exist for society? Do our awards have any meaning? Are these deaths like dry leaves falling somewhere soundlessly?
When I tried to express myself on social media, the reaction was such that I had never seen before. Previously, too, writers have been critical of many things but now, there was a mob trolling us in such abusive language that many of us took down our Facebook pages.
My decision to give up my award was shaped by fear, but fear also gave me courage. I recalled a Soviet film, The Ballad of a Soldier, in which a young soldier, who was part of the Russian army at war with the Nazis, commits a daring act because he fears losing a girl. When asked what prompted his brave act, he said, ‘fear drove me’. Similarly, unmindful of the consequences, I returned my award.
Did you anticipate the response that followed?
The decision to return the award was an individual one. I hadn’t anticipated the reaction that followed. Initially, I was scoffed at, but I got a lot of support from both English and regional authors including Nayantara Sahgal, Sarah Joseph and Ashok Vajpeyi. Not just writers, artistes from all fields came out in support of me and what started as an individual decision, gradually became a movement.
After I returned my award, I was away from the country for a month. When I got back, I discovered that from being known as a writer, I had gone on to become a person who had returned an award. That became my new identity. It had its problems but it also helped. For instance, when a meeting I addressed in Ahmedabad attracted a huge crowd, I knew we had made a difference.
A writer works alone, but you got a lot of support after you returned your award. Did this act of solidarity enthuse you?
I have been vice president of the Janwadi Lekhak Sangh (Progressives Writers’ Association), I became a full-time member of the Communist Party when I was 16. But after 1969, when even the Left writers’ groups became more of think-tanks who gave little freedom to individuals, it felt lonely to be a writer. With politics turning into a machine that runs on its own fuel of media, criminals and corporates, the writer feels more isolated than ever before, with only his readers left as supporters. So, loneliness is something that we have to deal with.
What are the challenges facing a writer in today’s India?
The only functional ideology in India remains the caste system. You will find that everyone in language and literature groups is organised along the lines of dominant castes. Even amongst writers, it is only the Savarnas that dominate, the non-Savarna writers are totally marginalised. But this domination is certainly being challenged. My writing too is challenging it but writers like us are challenging the existing order from the margins. We don’t get the kind of support and privileges that some others do.
As Engles (German philosopher Friedrich Engles) said, language is the practical consciousness of humanity. Whatever you do, you think via language. So, it is in languages that you will find all thought distilled. Visit the department of Urdu, English or Hindi in any university and you will find conservatism, orthodoxy, sectarianism and all prevailing outlooks reflected there. It’s difficult to modernise in such circumstances. Modernisation is India’s prime challenge. We are still living in the medieval period, trapped in the thoughts expounded by Brahminism and Manu Smriti and living in hate. What else explains why so many Indians live in fear because of their eating habits? You are isolated unless you are “one of them”. Thinking writers are made to feel like they are a minority.
We may be stuck in the past in many spheres, but India has also seen change.
Yes, of course, there has been change. Go to the villages and you will see that the demography is changing and it’s challenging the status quo, but those who are being confronted by this change too are fighting back, and fighting back aggressively. These are dangerous times, we are witnessing change and the pushback to it. New media and technology are fuelling rumours and media has become a powerful instigator of violence, spreading rumours, superstition and hate. This war-mongering media would make us believe we all want a war but go and speak to the people and you will see no one wants a war.
The jumlebazi and dialogues of Gabbar Singh and Sholay will go on, the hectoring will continue but this regime is losing the trust of people. The more that trust erodes, the more hysterical they become in their speech. This needs to be spooled back, calmly and coolly.
You studied and later taught at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). What are your thoughts on the controversy that engulfed it earlier
The attack on JNU was an organised one. They want to finish certain institutions like JNU and FTII. This regime wants to destroy all institutions of excellence, knowledge and thinking. This is because they are not rational and don’t have an ability to provide answers. When they introduce odd policies and are questioned on it, they have no answers. They want to finish off the tradition of thinking people.
What, according to you, is the role of artistes in shaping society? Should they speak out on issues?
Painting, composing poems, making sculptures, all these are individual pursuits. Given the reality of the capitalist system, art usually survives on patronage but in times when masses galvanise and things pick up, artists do join movements. For instance, India’s Independence movement saw the participation of artistes of all kinds.