Dissent is in the Indian air with authors expressing their deep dissatisfaction with rightwing attempts to curb free expression, and also the government’s refusal to respond. Writers are known to circumvent repressive forces and get their voices heard using the Joycean trinity of silence, exile and cunning.
Even as India debates intolerance, the Nobel prize for literature has gone to Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist who has documented the experiences of Russian women during World War II and the Chernobyl disaster. Svetlana belongs to a country that once had perfected the art of repression of writers; one cannot forget the Soviet Union and the writers who bore the brunt of Stalin’s oppressive regime. While the state attempted to silence dissident writers like Osip Mandelstam, a writer like Boris Pasternak also showed how silence could be a deafening sign of protest. He refused to publish anything original during Stalin’s regime. This is what we saw when Perumal Murugan, faced with the attacks on his Madhorubhagan, renounced his creative life and, in a Prospero-like gesture, decided to “break his staff” and bury it certain fathoms under the earth. Murugan’s act was a statement that creative writing is impossible when the mind is in fetters.
Silence was also by and large the refuge of writers in India when repression was institutionalised in our country through the Emergency. While writers like Harivanshrai Bachchan and Amrita Pritam openly supported Indira Gandhi and the Emergency, people like Mulk Raj Anand maintained a resolute silence on the Emergency excesses. Shrikant Verma and Sohanlal Dwivedi of Writers’ Forum initiated a resolution stating that all Indian writers supported the declaration of Emergency. However, there were also vehement denunciations like that of Marathi writer Durga Bhagwat. As president of the Marathi Sahitya Sammelan’s meeting at Karad in 1975, she delivered a scathing criticism of the muzzling of free speech. Bhagwat was arrested. Thereafter, she firmly refused all governmental honours and apparently declined the Padma Shri and Jnanpith conferred on her after the Emergency.
There are many who choose to leave the homeland rather than remain silent. M.F. Husain was forced to emigrate to Qatar for daring to paint Hindu goddesses in a manner unpalatable to a few. Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin had to be in a perpetual state of exile. Novelist Thomas Mann decided to leave Germany when he found his fatherland being taken over by the Nazis. There was an exodus of writers from Germany during this time, prominent names being Bertolt Brecht, Hermann Hesse and Stefan Zweig.
There is another form of dissent writers resort to when they don’t want to withdraw into silence or exile — subterfuge. They resort to irony or writing in equivocal language. An example of an innocent surface that hides criticism is Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Written as a children’s novel, it is a thinly disguised fictional version of the fatwa imposed on Rushdie. But Haroun never got into trouble the way Satanic Verses did, probably because the enemies of speech never thought to look too deeply.
Writers find numerous ways to work around restrictions to make their voices heard. As Mandelstam wrote: “You took away all the oceans and all the room. You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it./ Where did it get you? Nowhere./ You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.”
The writer teaches at IIT-Kanpur