Adil Jussawala: In Discussion with Nabina Das
Adil Jussawala. Image credit: yespunjab.com
Societal pluralism is certainly under threat but literary pluralism continues to flourish
In protest against the draconian circumstances leading to Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula's tragic suicide recently, poet Ashok Vajpeyi, on Jan 18, returned his D Litt degree awarded to him by Hyderabad Central University. Vajpeyi had earlier returned Sahitya Akademi award in protest against the murder of renowned writer MM Kalburgi in 2015. "Hyderabad University's anti-Dalit attitude drives a young scholar to commit suicide. How can I continue to be on the honours list of the Hyderabad Central University?" Vajpeyi was quoted by India Today TV. The context brings back the controversy and zeal alike on the “award wapsi” movement not too long ago by several renowned writers and poets. Nabina Das spoke to eminent poet Adil Jussawalla on matters of freedom of speech and curbs on the progressive elements of our society.
Nabina Das: Let’s go back to looking at the year that has just gone by: In their letters to Sahitya Akademi, some writers who returned awards or stepped down wrote that they were dismayed to find that the Akademi thinks this is a “political issue”. To these writers this was an issue of “basic freedom to live, think and write." How would you, given your stand on the so-called “award-wapsi“ issue, define the terms "political" and "freedom"?
Adil Jussawala: I don't see the 'basic freedom to live, think, and write' as an issue to be fought for at a political level only. I won't dare to define the terms 'political' and 'freedom' here, but surely the “award wapsi” actions sprang out of disillusion, anger and disgust, a response to a national literary institution's silence on the killing and persecution of writers when it should have spoken out.
ND: Why do you think that Sahitya Akademi, a seemingly liberal organisation, failed to voice its dissent in the current political context of *intolerance*?
AJ: It fell back on bureaucratic procedures and the fear of breaking them when it should have been seen to be concerned and outraged. I believe it needs to be reformed – - provisions must be made to allow its president to support writers who are victimised for their beliefs and to condemn those who murder, without waiting for its executive committee to meet at fixed times in the year before issuing a statement. That's absurdly bureaucratic.
ND: Academics argue that the Indian state is essentially bourgeoisie with neoliberal undertones. Is there a substantial change in this nature of the Indian state which is causing the writers to return their awards and resign from their posts of honour?
AJ: Don't know about substantial. Our previous governments, whether at the national or state levels, and of different political hues, have also come down hard on dissenting writers.
But yes, the freedom to criticise, to dissent, to expose basic injustices, is more under threat now.
ND: In what way, do you think that this recent dissent might have impacted the Government?
AJ: Can't tell. The government is trying to show that it isn't rattled but, as a writer who returned his award told me recently, 'We made them shut up.' (By them I think he meant the more extreme and irrational critics of award wapsi – - both those in the government and those among its offended supporters. I'm not thinking of trolls who, unfortunately are here to stay.)
ND: How can these individual gestures of returning awards and resigning from posts snowball into a collective movement involving the masses, if at all?
AJ: I don't think it can, but I may wrong.
ND: Do you think these gestures of dissent at all affect an individual in the society? If so, in what ways? AJ: I'm sure they do affect individuals but only those who believe writers, their writing, their opinions matter. For a great number of individuals on this planet – - I don't know about extra-terrestrials – they don't matter.
ND: In today’s political context, when the government and popular culture seem to discourage progressive literature, and when mainstream literature is occupied by very few individuals and ideas, how and in what kind of space can an aspiring writer with progressive ideals flourish?
AJ: There's no formula for this, surely. Aspiring writers with progressive ideals have much to fight against, including political parties which they think will support them but which, if elected, may not.
ND: "Interestingly, most of these artistes are in their sixties and above, and they reflect an older idealism. One doesn’t see a rush of blood among the younger lot," said arts editor and journalist Sadanand Menon in an interview on the subject of relinquishing awards. Do you agree or disagree? Kindly elaborate.
AJ: Can't say. I don't put 'the younger lot' in one basket. There are bound to be committed 'idealists' – - I don't use the word in its Marxist sense – - among them.
ND: Your own work has been a mainstay for Indian English poetry aficionados as well as Bhasha writers and readers owing to it straddling more than one culture or language in its spirit. Do you see this pluralism eroding in the current political atmosphere?
AJ: Societal pluralism is certainly under threat but literary pluralism continues to flourish. I see it everywhere.
ND: In one of your poems “Imagination” from the beautiful book The Right Kind of Dog, you write: “It's a history, a planet's precipitate.”
As a poet, what do you think is becoming of ‘imagination’ in today’s world, fraught with human and natural concerns?
AJ: Imagination nourishes the literary pluralism I just mentioned. As it did in past worlds. In today's world too, I'm sure of that.
ND: What is your forthcoming work? Could we have a sneak peek into a few lines?
AJ: No sneak peek but those interested can read some of my more recent lines
in I Dreamt a Horse Fell from the Sky, my latest book.
ND: Let’s hope the current environment of oppression and intolerance will die a quick death, In this context, how do you see the future of Indian writing, especially poetry, shaping up for the newer writers and readers?
AJ: It's shaping up well. I don't know about its future, or the future of anything for that matter. Does anyone?