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This prize-return tamasha!

By Rajeev Srinivasan
October 16, 2015 12:00 IST
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'This has absolutely nothing to do with Kalburgi or anybody else, it only has to do with two words: Bihar elections. It's electioneering by other means, let's save the fig leaf of morality,' says Rajeev Srinivasan.

'Poor Nayantara forgot that she is no Tagore. Take away the Nehru dynasty tag, and she is left with nothing,' says Rajeev Srinivasan. Photograph: Seema Pant/

I have been intrigued by the god-awful fuss about Nayantara Sahgal's drama in returning her Sahitya Akademi Award. She was harking back to Rabindranath Tagore returning some British honour in protest after Jallianwalla Bagh, and the marketing idea behind it was quite good -- to insinuate that the Modi government is as bad as the imperialist barbarians.

However, poor Nayantara forgot that she is no Tagore. Take away the Nehru dynasty tag, and she is left with nothing, just like poor Rahul, and pretty much all other members of the dynasty.

Furthermore, she forgot that she got her Sahitya Akademi Award only because she is a Nehru dynast, and only because there was a leftie, Nehruvian-Stalinist cabal that dominated literary circles for 60 years, doing a cozy 'I scratch-your-back-and-you-scratch-my-back' routine.

This incenses me because this clique, just like the self-proclaimed 'eminent historian' clique, ensured that there was absolutely no freedom of thought. There was no room for dissent, or for anything other than toeing the party line, which, like the vidushakas of old, the 'eminent litterateurs' realised, was meant only to glorify the king-emperor, viz the dynast-du-jour. Merit? Freedom of Expression? Pah!

As a result, some of the best literary talents in India were not only not nurtured, they were actively suppressed by these vidushakas. It is these same court jesters who, today, claim to be Freedom of Expression stalwarts. On my Twitter timeline, I encounter some of them, smug, self-satisfied toads: And according to them, 'dissent' is defined as anything that helps Deep State agendas.

These poseurs and social climbers are merely echoing the antics of one of their own -- the late lamented U R Ananthamurthy. This man, a modest talent but a world-class schmoozer, was reigning king of the literary establishment, making and unmaking people based on ideology alone. He was shown up as a liar: He proclaimed loudly that he couldn't live in an India that Modi ruled.

When Modi won in 2014, someone with a long memory sent him a paid one-way ticket to Karachi. The clever URA then weasel-worded, mumbled, pretended he was misunderstood. He expired shortly thereafter, but undoubtedly, if he were alive, he would have been part of the prize-return tamasha: Too much of a circus for him to miss.

There has been an epidemic of other writers returning their prizes, resigning, or otherwise expressing their displeasure. Extra-'secular' Malayalis have been in the forefront of this. K Satchidanandan resigned his position at the Sahitya Akademi. Sarah Joseph, incidentally an Aam Aadmi Party honcho, who apparently is not disturbed by the antics of her bosses, also returned her prize. But others, such as P Vatsala (who said 'Some prizes are given, others are bought; only the bought ones are returned"!) spoke up against this charade.

In fact, what should bother people is the stranglehold ideologically ossified individuals have had over the literary establishment for all these Nehruvian-Stalinist years. They perfected reverse-McCarthyism (referring to the American senator who went on a witch-hunt against 'reds,' getting many blackballed in Hollywood, for example), intolerance, and bigotry. They have been indulging in a McCarthy-style witch-hunt against 'saffron' for years.

I take this personally, because they made a non-person out of one of my heroes: The fabulist O V Vijayan, who, I would argue forcefully and logically, was the greatest Indian novelist of the last one hundred years. Yes, even considering the Bengali stalwarts, and certainly greater than the much-puffed-up writers in English: Of their work, I expect just one to stand the test of time -- the magnificent The Shadow Lines.

It really bothers me, because O V Vijayan, I have come to realise over time, was an absolute genius. He invented magical realism with his debut novel, The Legends of Khasak , a decade or so earlier than Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the celebrated Latin American author. But unlike Marquez, Vijayan did not stick to that genre: He branched out into, for example, Brechtian satire in Saga of Dharmapuri, a coprophagic and truly bhibatsa work about a dictator. Later, he wrote transcendentalist short stories, and The Infinity of Grace, about the search for a guru.

In between, there were The Foetus, The Wart and other stunning stories of Evil about the Emergency, and the small masterpiece The Path of the Prophet, about the Sikh experience in 1984. His final work was the sprawling and autobiographical Generations, about his land-owning family wrecked by carpetbaggers, a sweeping panorama that could easily have become a trilogy, except Parkinson's disease made him hurry up lest he died before he could complete it. Here's my review from 1998.

O V Vijayan absolutely deserved a Jnanpith, and quite possibly also a Nobel Prize, and many people recognized this. I had a correspondence with a Rhodes Scholar who was the then US secretary of the navy -- he wrote in response to my review above, saying he was a Vijayan fan. He had only read the few books Vijayan had translated into impeccable English himself, but he also felt that Vijayan's work deserved the highest recognition, and that he was unfortunate in not having sponsors.

But far from sponsoring Vijayan and putting forward his case, the McCarthyite leftists blacklisted him, for two very good reasons, as far as they were concerned. First, Vijayan, a 'card-carrying, coffee-house intellectual', as he told me in a wide-ranging interview in 1998, he made the grave mistake of leaving the party after he got disillusioned following the Prague Spring. That was apostasy, and the comrades would never forgive him for that. Solution: Simply blackball him.

Second, Vijayan made the ultimate Career-Limiting Move: He dared to mock the Nehru dynasty. In Dharmapuri, he portrayed an unnamed emperor who sat on a toilet-throne. His courtiers literally competed to eat his turds. It is about as accurate a portrayal as there is, of Nehruvian Stalinism. Thereafter, he wrote a series of startlingly original stories, metaphors for the Emergency, that portrayed Indira Nehru and Sanjay Nehru ('the foetus') as they were: Tyrants.

All this meant Vijayan would never be allowed to rise; when I interviewed him, he was philosophical about it, but still hopeful that the establishment would give him due credit. They never did; and today, I am furious that all these frauds, especially the lefties in the Malayalam literary circuit, who knew full well that they were doing tejovadham to a genius writing in their own language, are now indulging in theatrics and righteous indignation.

A pox on your houses, I say! You, none of you who could hold a candle to Vijayan, destroyed his career. You stood by and let that happen, and now you are morally indignant? This is exactly the way Stalinists killed off most of the best talents in the Soviet Union: it took the samizdat underground press and brave dissidents to smuggle out the manuscripts of, for instance, The Gulag Archipelago and Dr Zhivago.

So now, when you wax all moral, I shall respond with a phrase (hat-tip to Ernest Hemingway) translated from Spanish: 'I spit in the milk of your non-existent literary talent!'.

If all of you return your prizes, and in fact, if all of you, like Ananthamurthy threatened to, just leave the country, nobody would notice for months: It would make no difference to our lives.

Most of you have toiled in well-deserved obscurity, to which you will return after your 15 minutes of dubious fame. You have mouthed the Niemoller meme of 'and then when they came for me' but it is you who never spoke up for others, and now your edifice of sham literature has collapsed.

And we all know -- let's not beat about the bush -- this has absolutely nothing to do with Kalburgi or anybody else, it only has to do with two words: Bihar elections. It's electioneering by other means, let's save the fig leaf of morality.

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