Hashtivism at #JLF

Twitter mirrors Diggi Palace in our instinct for limited dissent

Written by Charmy Harikrishnan | Published: January 25, 2012 3:31:44 am

In the age of retweets,epiphanies are difficult to come by. But then one happened: you don’t have to be in Jaipur to be in Jaipur. When smart people with even smarter phones,Twitter handles and hashtag wisdom have bussed,flown and on belated Shatabdi rode through fog for the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF),you can do without taking a coach from Delhi. You can key in #jlf.

The reason for reaching out to Twitter may have been convenience and curiosity,but then #jlf turned out to be possibly better than the venue,Diggi Palace. Twitter was where People at JLF and the Author Who Was Not at JLF talked about JLF,where People fought for the Author,and the Author wondered aloud about the People who fought for him and did not. This was where writer Hari Kunzru first tweeted that he should “buy a hat” and the next day declared that he was about to “defy bigots and shoe throwers” by reading @SalmanRushdie’s The Satanic Verses with writer Amitava Kumar on stage. This was where @amitavakumar talked about the Kunzru Punch on the opening night of the festival — dark rum,lime juice,grenadine,7 UP and angostura bitters,if you must know — before exhorting,“Writers: assassins shouldn’t be allowed to stifle writers join us in reading from Satanic Verses. @harikunzru Jaipur Durbar Hall 5.15 PM.” Such loud asides about peripheral personal fun and such open intimations of public defiance.

However,following that,you got only tweetlets: not even 140 full characters on the aftermath of that pyrrhic act of reading The Satanic Verses. Kunzru tweeted,after a day’s wait: “I left India of my own volition based on legal and security advice.” Kumar’s almost Presleyesque tweet was in its own way half-stupefying: “I have left the building. In fact,I have been seated on the tarmac for hours.”

Why has our liberal defiance become so confined,stymied,that there is not even enough anger to expend on a few tweets,forget a protracted act of offline dissent? If I have to believe the hashtag,then Kunzru,Kumar,Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi,who all read out The Satanic Verses,which was banned in India by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1988,were soon persuaded by the organisers of the festival to stop doing so. Thayil and Joshi were “whisked away”,said a tweet. Rushdie had a rather plaintive response addressed to William Dalrymple,writer and co-director of the festival,and Sanjoy Roy,the producer: “@amitavakumar says organizers asked him not to continue reading from Satanic Verses. Willie,Sanjoy: why did this happen?”

The ban-bashing instinct that is supposedly fundamental to every book lover was nowhere to be seen in a letter Dalrymple addressed to authors: “We are planning more statements in solidarity with Salman and many of you may well want to do the same at your sessions. However you should know that unfortunately The Satanic Verses is still a banned book in India,and if you read from it you make yourself liable to arrest and imprisonment,and put the festival in danger of immediate closure and hand us all,authors and festival,bound and gagged into the hands of any individual or group who wish to prosecute us. We are holding strong here,and are going to continue to fight for free speech and expression and the right to dissent,but we have to do so within the law and Constitution of this country,and we do beg you to do the same,at least while staying as our guests at the festival.”

It’s not merely a desire to be on the right side of the law,it is the Darwinian instinct to survive. We no longer want to be bound and gagged for the sake of a book,a canvas. It’s not worth a festival,a fair,a public fight. We will rage about it over wine when the mela is done and dusted.

If the government can be rightly blamed for not standing up to protect the life and freedom of an individual,then our festivals and fairs,our elaborate extravaganzas for the sake of writings and paintings and sculptures,have been guilty of the same. How many protest marches have we seen for Ramanujan or Rohinton Mistry? How many exhibitions in this country have meekly removed an M.F. Husain canvas,like at the Harvest show in Delhi last year? Our biggest and chaotic art exposition,the India Art Summit’s inaugural edition in 2008 played it safe by not allowing galleries to show a Husain; their weak-kneedness and his absence continued abysmally into the next; but in 2010 Husain canvases were tentatively put up,removed,and as the Delhi Art Gallery dug its heels in and security beefed up,again reinstated.

The literati,by refraining from any purposeful and sustained expression of individual or collective dissent,only end up as seemingly sharing the government’s perfidious disinclination to act.

Now this pusillanimity is for a book that,Rushdie’s open letter to Rajiv Gandhi in October 1988 says,was banned under Section 11 of the Indian Customs Act — which can only prohibit “the import or export of goods of any specified description”.

Kunzru,on Sunday,finally tweeted a link to his blog which included his statement at JLF,where he rightly said,“Freedom of speech means the freedom to say unpopular,even shocking things. Without it,writers can have little impact on the culture,” but then ended with a self-defeating apologia,“I apologise unreservedly to anyone who feels I have disrespected his or her faith.”

On the last day of the festival,#jlf was all about if Salman would indeed Skype,and even Kunzru stayed in with prawn-flavoured crisps — until Rushdie was denied permission to even promote his new movie,as owners of the haveli,with its painted jharokhas and sepia portraits of mustachioed Thakurs,did not want anything untoward to happen to their heritage property or to anyone on it. Such fervent peace-lovers,who put their fests and family holdings above that comparatively inconsequential thing as the right to freedom of speech,have again congregated at the same place at the same time as atrophied defenders of public culture.

On Twitter’s eternal timeline,something else was on display,an elitist evisceration of Chetan Bhagat,who said two eminently debatable things: let’s not make a hero of people who hurt,and that the Jan Lokpal movement was inspired by his new paperback. Tweets raged: Now that Bhagat has graced JLF it’s time we dropped “literature” and call it just Jaipur Festival,went one; Bhagat at a literary fest is like an item number in a Satyajit Ray film,went another.

Ours is the rebellious instinct of the middle class,which finds Bhagat a harmless villain to goad and Rushdie a dangerous hero to stand up for,which goes as far as lighting candles when the weather at India Gate is pleasant,and which looks for hashtags in the comfort of our homes and hotels to examine and express dissent.

On Saturday,1.45 pm,Satanic Verses was trending on Twitter — at one time there were 26 new #jlf tweets in six minutes — but look at the order: #YouKnowYoureDrunkWhen,#WhatIMissMost,#jlf,Chetan Bhagat,Satanic Verses,Rajasthan,Yup,Raj,Yep,Yeah. Just 12 hours later,on Sunday,2.20 am,Bhagat was still trending,but Rushdie and his Verses were nowhere among Pune Warriors and #ReplaceMovieTitlesWithChikni.


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