'It is sad a murder has gone unacknowledged'

Author Shashi Deshpande opens up on her reasons for resigning from the General Council of the \'silent\' Sahitya Akademi

Published: 12th October 2015 05:07 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th October 2015 05:07 AM   |  A+A-

QUEEN'S ROAD: In a tranquil home that is over 35 years old but is as timelessly evocative as a piece of great literature, author and Padma Shri awardee Shashi Deshpande is nursing a cup of tea. She is grateful that the interview is not being conducted amid an intrusive photo shoot. She is happier that her decision to quit the Sahitya Akademi General Council has stirred a debate. The diminutive, soft-spoken writer is not on social media engaging in heated debates but her courage, like her writing, has always had the unmistakable steel of conviction.   

murder.jpgIn 2002, at an international theatre festival at Neemrana, Deshpande was the only author to stand up to Sir Vidia Naipaul when he dismissed as banal the debate about a feminist space in Indian literature. At a time when even the cold-blooded murder of Prof M M Kalburgi has not elicited any cogent response from the Akademi, Deshpande calls a spade a spade. It may not be a convenient time to voice dissent but she says, “Why did I resign? Why do I always speak my mind? Well, because I don’t need or want anything from anyone. My only need is to be able to work and write the way I want and I am fortunate that I am able to do that.”

Deafening silence

Recounting the sequence of events leading to her resignation, she says, “I met professor Kalburgi twice. He was a gentle and soft-spoken man, a scholar whose research had got him into trouble even before with the right wing.  And then this August, two men ring his bell and shoot him. He was a Sahitya Akademi winner at the state and national level. And not a word from the Akademi? It is sad that his murder has been brushed under the carpet, as if it did not happen.”

According to her, Prof Kalburgi paid with his life for swimming against caste-centric politics because his was a progressive voice in his community.

She is also struck by the fault lines in the argument that writers returning awards or resigning from the council are somehow politicising the issue. “Politics cannot be shut away from any space, especially from  a writer’s mindspace because it is her or his job to

make observations and comment on the events that unfold in society. I waited a while for the Akademi to respond to the murder. I even contemplated writing to the council but who do you write to?” she asks.

She cites the example of former

Akademi secretary and poet K Satchidanandan who recently announced his decision to resign from all the committees of the Akademi. “If he did not get any response, what chance did I stand to hear from the Akademi?”

Deshpande has never been one to court controversy for the sake of it. “As a writer, you must be responsible for what you write. Self-censorship is important. Prof Kalburgi had researched his work. It was not a figment of his imagination and yet, he was killed. If the Akademi had condemned his murder forcefully, what a difference it would have made,” she says.

The Akademi, she says, is a council of writers and its inability to stand up for writers is a sign of cowardice.

“There is some kind of explanation that the rules do not allow the Akademi president to comment on issues such as this. But I think in such situations, those rules should be changed. The Akademi must take note of what is happening. We cannot say that politics is not a part of the literary world. It already is and so is religion, which in an ideal world should never have come in the public domain and should have remained a personal matter between us and our conscience or God.”

And politics of class, gender, language and caste infects every aspect of our existence, she says. “The Akademi is a male-dominated monolith that must rethink its role and its purpose.

It is not just there to publish books and translations or hold a certain number of meetings. It must have a voice in times like these.”

Defying the Goon Raj

Something must be said about the ‘Goon Raj’ that is trying to control the arts and politics, Deshpande adds. “We should ban the word “culture” because it always becomes a weapon to control the way women dress and behave.

“So now, we have diktats about what they should wear, how they should not carry mobile phones! They are dragged out of clubs and beaten.

There is a minister redefining gang rape and today, politicians have reached an unprecedented point of degeneration. Young, educated Indians must enter politics now to change things for the better.”

She believes that what is happening at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) is symbolic of the times. “Students are being coerced to accept a man unfit to lead them. The problem today with most of our institutions is that the voices of rationality are being snuffed out. Our education system does not teach young people to speak their minds. We as a nation take pride in being emotional. But rational thought is not prized as much.”

Does she see any hope for this rational thought to flower in the future? “I have not given up hope because I want to leave a better world for my grandchildren. I inherited a world where my father (Kannada dramatist and writer Srirangi) asked us to write ‘Indian’ in the box that required us to mention our religion. We inherited a world of values, of courteous discourse, of leaders who were not petty-minded. We are at a dangerous junction today and we should ask our leaders if economic development can replace the loss of the principles that built this nation.”

“This intolerance and violence that we see in all domains must be countered one voice at a time. We must not miss any chance to speak up because every voice of dissent counts,” Deshpande says. 


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