At last, India has a few bona fide literary feuds involving talented authors and literary figures, bringing us on par with the rest of the world.
Playwright and author Girish Karnad's outburst at a literary festival in Mumbai regarding Sir Vidia Naipaul's writing has come like a breath of fresh air. Obviously, his views had been pent up for a long time, and what better platform to give vent to them than when the man he criticised was being handed a lifetime achievement award? It made for brilliant, real-life theatre and immediately caught the attention of the audience and the media.
As was pointed out later, had he said it anywhere else, it might not have got the same attention. Impeccable timing! Those who know Girish Karnad also understand that he neither seeks untoward publicity nor suffers from the lack of a Nobel Prize. He has received enough recognition in his own lifetime to be able to stand up for what he believes in. Whether we agree or disagree with him, I don't think we could ever accuse him of being a hypocrite.
Even as we can sympathise with the organisers of the festival who rued that Karnad was meant to talk about something else entirely, the immediacy of his outburst was important. India needs to have some legitimate contrarian views where literature is concerned, as for too long it has been dominated by a few. Now with literary festivals burgeoning all over, one hopes there will also be the flowering of unconventional opinions and not just the worship of the usual suspects.
And though I was not at the festival, it seems Girish Karnad's critique did resonate with what some had been muttering under their breath about Sir Vidia Naipaul. Of course, the opposite is equally true and the stream of his admirers (especially in the west) might never dry up. But does that mean we must all be baptised by the same beliefs?
Of course, this could be the start of a very interesting new phase when everyone takes their gloves off. Not content with having landed a few blows on a living author, Karnad went onto re-examine the literary legacy of another Nobel Prize winner, Rabindranath Tagore, and expressed his own reservations about him as a playwright. Even though it again brought a hailstorm of invectives on Karnad's head, I can only praise his bravery. As someone remarked, he might now need a passport to enter Bengal. But at least he has kicked up not one but two literary controversies within a week, and this can never do any harm to book sales as people will scamper back to re-read both Tagore and Naipaul to check if they agree or disagree with Karnad's views.
These outbursts could not have come at a more opportune time, even globally, as it seems some of the best known literary feuds have (alas) been laid to rest. So we should all be grateful to Karnad for providing fresh intellectual provocation. In a world of diminishing literary duels, a long running bust up between John le Carre and (who else but?) Sir Salman Rushdie over the freedom of speech was recently patched up at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. While Rushdie had earlier termed Le Carre a ‘dunce' and a ‘pompous ass' he now apparently regretted these intemperate descriptions. Similarly, Le Carre, who had equally gently described Rushdie as ‘arrogant', has also finally admitted that he has admired him for his courage.
Neither is Sir Vidia any stranger to literary disputes and (like Sir Salman) probably welcomes it. But he, too, has been abandoning the practice. Last year, I was at the historic Hay Festival when Sir Vidia made up with Paul Theroux, with whom he had been happily exchanging insults for over a decade and a half. As with the mutual acrimony once shared between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, all these disputes perhaps add a spark of passion to the rather solitary profession of being an author!
But hopefully Girish Karnad will take the literary challenge to the next level. And we can look forward to some post-Diwali fireworks as well.
Desai is the author of Origins of Love. Contact her at www.kishwardesai.com