Note: This is a translation of Pratap Simha’s piece that appeared in Kannada Prabha.
The Mumbai Lit fest on Friday witnessed major drama when veteran actor and theatre artist Girish Karnad slammed Nobel prize laureate VS Naipaul and called him anti-Muslim. Karnad, who was present at the lit-fest on Friday to conduct a class on theatre, spoke at length about Naipaul.
The first paragraph of CNN-IBN’s news report makes it clear that the purpose of Girish Karnad attending the Mumbai Literature Live! festival was entirely different. Had he been invited to take a class on theatre or had he been presented with a platform to abuse Naipaul? If Literature Live! gave Naipaul the Lifetime Achievement Award, what exactly pricked Girish Karnad’s heart?
It’s true, as Karnad says, Naipaul has written three books about India.
…but what strikes one from the very first book, A Wounded Civilization, is their rabid antipathy to the Indian Muslim. The “wound” in the title is the one inflicted on India by Babar’s invasion. Since then, Naipaul has never missed a chance to accuse them of having savaged India for five centuries, brought, among other dreadful things, poverty into it, and destroyed glorious Indian culture.
What exactly has happened to Karnad? And what’s incorrect in what Naipaul has written? History tells us that just as the Romans destroyed the Persian civilization, the Christians the Greek civilization, the Ghazni-Ghori-Tughlaq-Mughal combination savaged that of India. Did Babar come to redeem or uplift India? If that was really his intent, why didn’t he start with redeeming his home country, Uzbekistan? How does a factual criticism of the deeds of an alien invader morph into antipathy of Indian Muslims? If Karnad’s reasoning is that those criticizing Muslims shouldn’t be given awards, didn’t Dr. B.R. Ambedkar talk about the Muslim mindset in his Thoughts on Pakistan? Does Karnad imply that he shouldn’t have been awarded the Bharat Ratna?
Further, Karnad quotes Naipaul who brushes off Romila Thapar’s statement that the Taj Mahal was an expression of the “rich efflorescence of the mixture of Hindu and Muslim styles, by attributing her judgment to her Marxist bias” and that the Taj, according to Naipaul was actually a symbol of the invaders’ atrocity. What’s wrong with Naipaul’s statement? Doesn’t the Mughal Empire have a history of atrocities? Mr. Karnad, who was Aurangzeb? Wasn’t he too a Mughal emperor? Is his firmaan of 1669 ordering the demolition of the Vishwanath temple at Varanasi a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity or that of atrocity? Mr. Jnanapith, what spin would you give to the extortionate Jaziya tax he levied exclusively on the Hindus?
Karnad then says that “[A] point that strikes one immediately about these books is that there is not a single word in any of these books on Indian music. And I believe that if you cannot respond to music, you cannot understand India. Music is the defining art form of the Indian identity. Naipaul’s silence on the subject when he is exploring the whole of modern Indian culture proves to me that he is tone deaf…” Let’s put this same question to Girish Karnad. Naipaul wasn’t born in India and didn’t live here. He tried to understand India by travelling through the land. But Mr. Jnanapith, you who were born here, you who have written in Kannada, an Indian language, in which play have you written about sculpture, a vital aspect of Indian culture?
The history of India is more truly reflected in her sculpture than in any (history) book. Mr. Karnad you question Naipaul over music but where have you written about Indian sculpture in any of your work? How can those who don’t understand Indian sculpture claim to understand India? Additionally, in which work of yours have you written about the Vedas which are so intricately, inseparably woven into Indian culture and ethos? If you think these questions are irrelevant, your claim that Naipaul hasn’t written about Indian music is equally irrelevant. Because he hasn’t written about music, it doesn’t mean Naipaul hasn’t understood it. Is there a rule which says that one needs to write about everything one has understood?
Let’s cut back to 2008. Police Commissioner Shankar Bidari had ordered all pubs to shut down music and down their shutters by 11 P.M in the wake of the terror attack in Bangalore. Recall how you had gone to town with a protest? Recall what you had thundered back then: is it a crime to listen to music in pubs? Where should those who work till late in the night go and relax if not to pubs? I hope you haven’t forgotten this Mr. Karnad. Tell us Mr. Karnad, which pub plays Indian classical or Sufi or Bhakti music? If pub music is Indian music according to you, then isn’t a Trinidad-born-and-raised Naipaul more knowledgeable in music compared to you?
Also, Mr. Karnad, you question Naipaul’s knowledge of Indian culture on the basis of music—so, to what extent have you been faithful to the same Indian culture?
This may be personal but this is something you yourself have written in your autobiography, Aadaadta Aayusha. You dated for about 17 years before marrying the woman who’s now your wife. In that period, as you mention, you both had an agreement which said that each partner was free to do “whatever” he/she wants, and that there was no restraint of any sort. What exactly is the hidden meaning of this agreement sir? You’ve also written about your stint at Oxford University Press in Madras where a certain married woman used to visit your room every afternoon at lunch time. What part of this behaviour, what part of this lifestyle can be termed Indian culture? What even gives you the moral authority to talk about Indian culture? Your play Anju Mallige deals with incest between brother and sister. Incest is which part of Indian culture, Mr. Karnad? Given all this, does Naipaul need to take music lessons from a person like you, Mr. Karnad?
It’s true that Naipaul wasn’t born in India. But he came to here on a quest to learn everything about the land of his forefathers. His books about India are more in the nature of a travelogue. He wrote about this country as he grasped it. He has said that Muslims have an intolerant streak that shows up in whichever nation they migrate to. What’s wrong with this? Haven’t we as a nation experienced this for hundreds of years?
Nietzsche’s quote that “the higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly” applies to you perfectly. Because you cannot ascend to Naipaul’s stature, he appears small to you. You’re just an opportunistic politician in the garb of a litterateur and dramatist. When the then Higher Education Minister D.H. Shankara Murthy (correctly) claimed that Tipu Sultan was anti-Kannada, you went hammer and tongs against him with a raucous defence of Tipu. When eminent writer and novelist Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa tore into your Tipu-defence line by line, what did you do? You characterized Bhyrappa’sVamshavruksha and Tabbaliyu Neenaade Magane as crappy works, you said you regretted directing those two works (these novels were made into movies directed by Karnad). When you were nothing you needed these books to fetch you fame. Now, after you got the Jnanapith, they suddenly became crappy? When this selfsame Naipaul won the Nobel, you had claimed that he was the “greatest living litterateur of Indian origin.” And now he suddenly appears anti-Muslim to you? Isn’t this attitude a reflection of your own mind’s Heap of Broken Images? (Ed: Heap of Broken Images is the name of Karnad’s play in the original Kannada entitled Odakalu Bimba, which was also translated into Hindi as Bikhre Bimb).
Perhaps Anil Dharker, the organizer of Literature Live! accurately understood this attitude of yours and remarked that “We gave you (Karnad) the chance to speak about your life in theatre, but you never spoke about it. Instead, you chose to go on about a writer who has won the Nobel Prize for literature.”
As for your Kannada—ever heard what Kannada-speaking folks in the Hubli-Dharward region say about your works? They say that Karnad’s Kannada needs to be translated to Kannada and laugh loudly. Keerthinatha Kurtakoti faithfully did this translation as long as he was alive. You wrote pretty much nothing after he passed away.
Please stop your publicity-seeking drama, Mr. Karnad. Or come to a face-to-face debate. Stop indulging in spit and run tactics. Enough of spending your life accusing other people.