Thursday, January 7, 2016

Asokamithran, Ilayaraja, Vijaykant and a Feudal Society: Thou Shalt Not Question

Three separate incidents involving three different persons, of varying intellectual gravitas, illustrated unwittingly what a feudal society India still is. Of the three, Ilayaraja and Vijaykant had public skirmishes with the press and are far better known than the third, Asokamithran, a novelist who joins this list thanks to a column he penned for a Tamil daily.

First, Asokamithran. After all, of the three, he, being a writer, I'd say "should know better". Asokamithran is a much hallowed name in Tamil literature for writing what is considered unpretentious but chiseled prose. I've read his legendary short story about a guy who masquerades as a tiger in shows and his novella 'Spy' based on his stay in Iowa, USA and a smattering of his non-fictional essays. Asokamithran richly deserves a Nobel prize not just for writing about unremarkable and ordinary people but for writing about them in equally unremarkable prose with sharp diligence in avoiding event a subtle hint of intellectualism in his narration. If his fiction is written in ordinary style his non-fiction does not disappoint by showing any inadvertent flashes of brilliance either. It is remarkable talent indeed to be consistently unremarkable. The aging octogenarian has been apparently commissioned by the Tamil edition of The Hindu and Asokamithran started the New Year with a bang by writing a column that recounts a curious incident regarding Indira Gandhi.

Asokamithran. Image courtesy

Asokamithran's column in 'Tamil Hindu'                                                             மவுனத்தின்-புன்னகை-1-இறக்காமலே-இறத்தல்/article8053374.ece
Asokamithran, having written a few books then, was member of some innocuous organization called 'Authors Guild of India'. The column which makes an attempt at humor recounts Asokamithran's travails with the Guild for getting reimbursements and royalty payments. The column recalls that the Guild which is normally ignored by the government had an unusual excitement when Indira Gandhi told them she'd visit and deliver a speech. It was during 'Emergency' period that Indira decided to pay the Guild a visit. Apparently the authors got dizzy with excitement and prepared for a formal grand affair replete with speeches recounting what the guild does etc. Prior to the arrival of Indira, Asokamithran recalls, the authors were heatedly discussing about the electoral prospects of Indira and Sanjay given the popular resentment against 'Emergency'. Indira, contrary to expectations, did not wait for customary speeches but just delivered her remarks that Asomakithran says was a remarkable speech that catered to authors, publishers and broadcasters. Though Indira lost in the subsequent elections she had, thanks to the crisp speech, earned the admiration of authors says Asokamithran.

In an attempt to attest to Indira's liberal attitudes towards free speech Asokamithran says that despite pleas from Communist party Indira refused to ban Dr. Zhivago, both the movie and the book. Indira also refused to intervene in a dispute about banning obscene works and had a familiarity with creative literature.

Now, where do I start? The column itself is shoddily written crap. It is appalling that a Prime Minister who unleashed the most repressive regime in independent India's history and almost destroyed Indian democracy earns the admiration of authors with a canned speech that probably her clerk wrote for her. Not even hindsight of what happened in the darkest chapter of free India elicits any word or caveat from a man who is frankly the most overrated writer in Tamil literature. Asokamithran is the quintessential bourgeoise middle class citizen who, even with the benefit of years behind him, could only think of the paltry royalty due to him and the pittance of reimbursements that were denied to him by a clerical organization. But then the so called intellectual class has often been enablers of authoritarianism. From intellectuals who were palanquin bearers to Stalin to Jeyakanthan and Khushwant Singh the story is sickeningly familiar. That the authors could be bought over by an Empress deigning to speak to them shows a dangerously feudal society. To be fair others like Ramnath Goenka and Jayaprakash Narayan paid a very heavy price for standing up for freedom. Asokamithran and his column are an insult to those heroes.

By the way Indira could not have contemplated banning Dr. Zhivago the book since it was published in 1957. Also, interestingly, Indira Gandhi, according to some reports watched the movie version the night before she announced the devaluation of the rupee.

Tamil Nadu was recently ravaged by floods that made many think that the heavens had opened and a primordial flood had been loosed upon a hapless population. The state government was paralyzed and civic administration was a mockery. Ilayaraja, Tamil Nadu's much adored and way overrated film music director, surprised many with a very rare gesture of generosity by distributing some aid to those in dire need. Of course being Ilayaraja who is known for an ego mania that dwarfs King Kong he had to do one more special act of royal benevolence. He decided to award certificates, signed by him, to a few who had done some service during the difficult period. A token of appreciation. Ilayaraja, let us remember, does not head any organization and his 'certificate' has value only in as much it can be considered an 'autographed paper'. Well if that makes somebody happy so be it. As he was leaving the venue he was mobbed by his fans and the press. In the days after the flood a blatantly expletive filled obscene song had rocked Tamil Nadu's social media. A reporter asked Raja "what do you think of the 'beep song'?" That was it, his royal highness the Lord of music laced into the reporter.

Without a doubt the question was intemperate because of the inappropriateness of the occasion. Raja was there to show appreciation to those who had done selfless service and it was certainly not the occasion to ask what he thought of an obscene song. Raja could easily have brushed him aside with a "No, comment" or even a brusque "this is not the occasion for that question". No, no, no that's what mortals do. Raja admonishes the reporter, "do you have brains". The reporter meekly replied "well that's why I asked you a question". Then Raja parries, "with the aid of which intelligence did you figure out you had intelligence". That's a head scratcher. Then, he who had scored music for very raunchy and obscene songs, delivers the blow "are you qualified to question me?" This from a guy who boasts freely that he has scored music for films that he disliked and thought were crap. Bharati Raja's 'Muthal Mariyathai' is a much appreciated movie for the distinctly underplayed acting by the usual over-acting Sivaji Ganesan. At a music release recently Raja boasted that though he did not like the film he delivered good tunes because he wanted to do justice to his calling as a musician. Apparently a good compensation is all it requires for Raja to meekly deliver the best despite his misgivings about the quality of a movie though he dresses it up as serving a higher cause.

Raja also offers his unsolicited theological opinion that certainly God had let loose this flood to bring about amity in the city. I honestly think that between Raja and the reporter  it is Raja who needs to wonder if he has brains. It is disgusting that some guy could dis out this nonsense and escape condemnation for it.

Given the fanatical fan following Raja enjoys in a society that largely has no deeper aesthetic or intellectual understanding of music the incident drew widespread applause for Raja and a smattering of support for the hapless and intemperate reporter. Only in a feudal society can a press reporter be harassed thus and still draw condemnations. More than anything the crowning indecency was the attitude of "how dare you question me".

Few days after the incident with Raja the press became the butt of another round of gleeful ridiculing. Vijaykant, the least intellectual of the trio being discussed today, is incidentally the leader of the opposition in Tamil Nadu's state legislature. A gaggle of reporters had surrounded him and peppered him with questions and one of them asked, repeatedly, "do you think ADMK would win the next election in 2016?' A visibly irritated Vijaykant shot back "would you dare to ask this same question to Jayalalitha" and then he spat on the ground. Raja's supporters and Jayalalitha haters joined hands for a unified chorus of "shame on you reporters".

Not many remembered that Vijaykant himself, like every other politician in Tamil Nadu, owns a TV channel and he, to the best of my knowledge, has not employed Walter Cronkite or Anderson Cooper and the reporters of his channel, I can bet, are no better. Jayalalitha, though a recluse these days, has in the past given pretty lengthy interviews unlike Karunanidhi who only holds press meets to read out prepared announcements or deliver canned replies. Jayalalitha faced off Karan Thapar's arrogant and condescending questions and returned volley for volley. She had a lengthy sit down with Simi Grewal. After badly losing in 1996 she did an interview with Rabi Bernard (on her own channel, though). I wonder if Karunanidhi has done any lengthy and substantive interviews. Note, Narendra Modi, unlike Jayalalitha, walked out of an interview with Karan Thapar.

Spitting at a person is considered a gross act of disrespect and that a politician can do it on camera and be appreciated for it shows the rank feudalism that runs the gamut of the society. Granted that the TV reporters are uncouth and intemperate but it is equally true that those who ridicule them are mostly no better. India has undergone a sea change from the days when only a government run and government controlled channel existed. The plethora of TV channels, their dubious funding and partisan attitudes not withstanding, have undoubtedly democratized the discourse. Arnab Goswami maybe the most ridiculed anchor in India for his shout-fests but it is undeniable that to see central government ministers and politicians of all stripe is gratifying.

While looking up interviews by Jayalalitha I came across a real gem. Here she is ripping into Ramadoss who relishes fanning the flames of communalism and Jayalalitha does this in the legislature. It is a point by point rebuttal of a very powerful caste leader.

To be sure, Jayalalitha is no paragon of free speech and is known for being titular and vindictive just like Karunanidhi.

Democracy is ill served by fertilizing feudal instincts and the worst feudalism is to arrogantly ask "how dare you question me". Today Barack Obama is addressing a town hall meeting where those like his policies and oppose him are given equal chance to question him on his latest proposal regarding gun reforms. This is democracy at its best.

PS: I'm sure many admirers of Asokamithran will rush at me with brickbats for saying the column was shoddily written. Here's a sample:

"அவ்வளவுதான். ஒரே பரபரப்பு. இதில் விசேஷம் என்னவென்றால் அக்கணம் வரை எல்லா எழுத்தாளர்களும் அரசைத் திட்டித் தீர்த்துக் கொண்டிருந்தார்கள். ஒரு தொகுதி கூடக் கிடைக்காது, தாயும் மகனும் படுதோல்வி அடையப்போகிறார் கள் என்றெல்லாம் பேசிகொண்டிருந்த மனநிலையில் பிரதமரை நேருக்கு நேர் எப்படிப் பார்க்க முடியும்? ஆனால் பிரதமர் வந்தால் யாராவது முக்கிய அங்கத்தினர்கள் அவரை வரவேற்க வேண்டும், வரவேற்புரை ஆற்ற வேண் டும், அந்த அமைப்பு என்ன பணிகளில் ஈடுபட்டிருக்கிறது என்று எடுத்துக் கூற வேண்டும். ஆனால் படைப்பிலக்கியம் வரை இந்திரகாந்தி அவர்களுக்கு நல்ல தெளிவு இருந்தது. அப்போது கம்யூனிஸ்ட் கட்சியின் ஒரு சாராரைக் ‘குட்டி’ காங்கிரஸ் என்று கூடச் சொல்வார்கள். ஆனால் அவர்கள் வற்புறுத்தல் இருந்தும் கூட ‘டாக்டர் ஜிவாகோ’ நூலோ, படமோ தடைசெய்யப்படவில்லை. அதன் பிறகு ஆபாச எழுத்தாளர்களை அரசு கண்டிக்க வேண்டும் என்று ஓர் எழுத்தாளர் அமைப்பு கோரிக்கை விட்டபோது, “இந்த மாதிரி விஷயங்களில் தீர்வு காண அரசாங்கத்துக்கு நுட்ப உணர்வு போதாது, ஆதலால் இதுபோன்ற விஷயங்களை உங்களுக்குள் பார்த்துக் கொள்ளுங்கள்” என்று சொல்லிவிட்டார்."


Unknown said...

You could have easily avoided writing about all of them

Victor Suresh said...

Enough of Jayalalitha's debating skills in the assembly have been evident in the use of Rule 110 and incidents like how Vijayakanth was handled as the opposition leader. Karunanidhi does a much better job of parliamentary debate and his lively engagement with the ruling party, opposition and his own partymen is a matter of assembly records.