Death of an Author

Vishram Gupte

All humans are mortal. An author, being human is mortal too. This old Socratic logic comes to one’s mind because the present literary discourse is replete with the issue ‘Death of an Author’. We have already seen how the three extra-literary forces -media, market and money- affect the literature of the day. Now we will look at the interrelation between the threat of death issued to a author and his creative writing.

On 7th of January 2015, the Tamil novelist, Perumal Murugan declared his own death as a author. Henceforth, he proclaimed on the social networking site, he will live only as a teacher and not as an author. The news went viral and the then unknown Murugan came into the lime light. The reason? His novel, as the town people complained brought shame on them. Murugan readily apologised to them.

In the changed political atmosphere of the day, fortune has smiled on the self styled stalwarts defending and safeguarding  ‘our culture’. This has jeopardized author’s freedom of expression. The Murugan episode has intensified their anxiety. Whenever uninhibited criticism of mythological, religious, historical and political traditions is brought to a standstill, society stagnates.  On the other hand, free criticism, as western countries have shown, lets civil life flow like a spring. There, dissenting books are not banned every now and then; nor are injunctions issued and authors killed for their noncompliant rebellious thoughts. Not that there are fewer orthodox traditionalists in Europe and America; but the value of ‘freedom of expression’ is ingrained in their minds.

Murugan’s apology sounds quite theatrical as a prerequisite for media coverage. His stand in rendering his apology is exaggerated as in a Tamil film. He says, he will refrain from any writing hereafter and burn all his books written earlier. This is certainly not becoming of an author to be silenced on being intimidated by his antagonists. It is difficult to determine whether Murugan is trying to create a sympathy wave or exposing his opponents by apologising. Here one has to recognise and accept the importance of the all-pervading print and electronic media in our lives. They influence both the diehard cultural chauvinists giving vent to their anger and the Murugans surrendering to them. It will be interesting to see whether people really burn Murugan’s books or whether they  achieve record sales. His death publicized through media may even resuscitate him with a new life as an author. A fascinating paradox by the media!

Authors like Murugan advertising their own death through media live with a new vigour while vigorous authors like Tarun Tejpal, the previous editor of ‘Tehelka’ who wrote the agitating novel ‘The Alchemy of Desire’ are destroyed by the media. With his secular-liberal outlook, Tejpal constantly opposed the rightists’ point of view. The ambitious Indian English author loved life. However when he was accused of having committed a sexual assault his primordial human character burst out impairing the author in him. Everything he did in his defence bounced back and the same media that made him larger than life, ruined him.

Murugan on the other hand has survived after announcing his own death while Tarun Tejpal, the fighter, is lying on his death bed as an author. If something scandalous is eventually revealed in the Sunanda Murder case, Shashi Tharur, the post-modern author of, ‘The Great Indian Novel’ too will be persecuted to his death as an author like Tarun Tejpal. Both Tharur and Tejpal are powerful orators; both of them moved about in the media triumphantly. Today they appear defeated. Media being neutral cares little for the author; what it is interested in is News and brings unknown authors into limelight and throws the well-known and popular ones into gloom.

Murugan’s proclamation of his own death and the religious injunction issued by the Iranian president Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 to kill Selman Rushdie are not the same. Murugan’s proclamation is a metaphorical suicide while Khomeini’s injunction was to authorise Rushdie’s murder.  Poor Rushdie had to spend ten precious years of his life, hiding like a rat in its hole and nearly 60 people with no connection with his controversial book had to pay with their lives. This is a first ever instance where so many human beings had to sacrifice their lives to uphold an individual’s right to freedom of expression.  A much smaller number of individuals were shot dead for the ‘Charley Hebdo’ publication.

Throughout the period of injunction, the British Government provided Selman Rushdie a 24 hours Z+ security. Many British people questioned the propriety of bearing the expenses for Rushdie’s security by the British Government. They objected to society being obliged to pay for the ideas and thoughts of a maverick. In his book-‘Joseph Anton’ relating his memories of injunction period, Rushdie narrates how the injunction to kill him affected the politics of the world. Only because of the ‘ten years 24 hours’ security provided by the British Government, Rushdie is alive today. Thus the British Government have virtually bought ‘Freedom of Expression’ of the author by spending lakhs of pounds for it.

More frightening than Murugan’s metaphorical suicide or the injunction to murder Rushdie is the killing of Sufder Hashmi, the Indian author, by his opponents. Hashmi, a Marxist, wrote Street Plays. On 1st Jan 1989, during a street play in a town near Delhi, opponents of the Congress made an armed attack on them. Safdar Hashmi was killed. Rambahadur, a worker was also killed. But no one took notice of it. A question then arose whether an author’s life is more valuable than that of a common man. Even after so many years the bitter resentment seen in this question has not reduced.

Earlier those who opposed freedom of expression did so symbolically. In the 1980 decade Kartarsingh Thatte infuriated by Tendulkar’s play went to his house and beat him with a cane. The religious fundamentalist surrounded Tendulkar;  yet Tendulkar did not declare his own death unlike Murugan. On the contrary, in another such incident, he came out with a gun and threatened to shoot at his challengers.

Compared with the way traditional society oppresses freedom of expression today, Kartarsigh’s symbolical caning of the playwright Tendulkar seems quite mild and preferable. In a vastly communicative society a huge network of media emerges. Everybody and every group is able to express their own opinion freely. Resulting in a great commotion of arguments and counter arguments. However these are not the people whom Dr Amartya Sen portrays in his book, ‘The Argumentative Indian’. They are those ultra cultural chauvinists who insist that what they say or believe is right and all others are wrong.

This cultural terrorism out to kill enlightened and forward-looking authors is surely not a recent trend. It is entrenched in the traditionalist Indian mind since several centuries. In India, proud of its ancient Indian religion and religious traditions critical thinking is almost frozen. Here superstition, credulous devotion, pressure of family traditions, belief in the book or the word are rooted in people’s mind so deeply that it is simply impossible to criticize them. To add to this peril, many Indian writers choose to romanticize traditions that hinder progress, instead of criticizing them. Many authors write to enthral the crowd and those who refuse to do so have to face threats to their lives or get caned. Some have to declare their own death. Authors like Safder Hashmi have to die.

In the Indian hierarchical society the freedom to live as a human being is denied to a large section of the population. Where the basic Human Rights are denied to the Dalits, the original inhabitants and the nomadic tribes, how much importance can be given to the right of free expression of an author? Activists like to ask this question. The reply is: education is most important for nomadic tribes; so is freedom of expression for the authors. For, both these are constituents of the human society and preserving the dignity of both is the responsibility and obligation of the culture. Furthermore nobody is immortal. Every human being is mortal and the author too being human is mortal.

(Translated by Ms Suman Oak)