Can a person run away from his country? Kamal Haasan was desperate, frustrated and angry when he said he would. He cited two precedents, Subhas Chandra Bose and M F Husain. Both cases actually proved the opposite—that you can take yourself out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of you.
Bose left India to be with India and fight for India. In the rule book of the British, he became a war criminal and so, when Britain won the war, he just could not return to India. There is credible evidence that he did not die in an aircrash as publicised, but escaped to Russian territory and got back to India where he lived for many years as a sanyasi.
Husain did not leave, he was hounded out. When fanatics put his life in danger, his country’s government did not protect him as Salman Rushdie was protected by his adopted country. Husain accepted the refuge offered to him abroad in order to continue doing the only thing that mattered to him. He said, wherever he lived, he would want to be known as an “Indian painter”.
Many great men of history were hounded out of their country by fundamentalist forces. Albert Einstein wanted a teacher’s post in Germany, his homeland, but was refused because he was a Jew. That was how Germany’s loss became America’s gain. Sigmund Freud, another Jew, had to flee his country when the Nazis walked into Austria. Karl Marx, too, was of Jewish origin, but he was expelled from Germany, France and Belgium for something more dangerous—new economic theories.
Charlie Chaplin lived in the US for 40 years, but kept his British citizenship. When Mad Macarthy’s anti-communist crusade reached its mad climax, Chaplin was one of numerous artistes and intellectuals who were accused of “communist leanings”. Chaplin settled in Switzerland and said, “I would not go back to the US even if Jesus Christ was the President”.
Strangely similar to Husain’s case was Saadat Hasan Manto’s. One of the greatest writers of India, he was a humanist without a single communal fibre in his being. Some of his Partition stories became world classics. He was at his best when he made savage satire of the two-nation theory. He also became a major figure in the film industry. But a few months after Independence, he suddenly left his beloved Bombay for Pakistan.
This was contrary to what most Muslim stalwarts of the film industry were doing. For one Noorjehan who left, dozens of K Asifs and Mehboob Khans, Naushads and Dilip Kumars stayed back and helped develop Bombay into the mighty Bollywood while Lahore as a film capital collapsed. So why did Manto, of all people, become an exception? Years passed before it became known that post-Partition hate mail had poured into Filmistan, where Manto was employed, accusing him of infiltrating Muslims into the company. The hatemongers warned that if Muslim employees were not dismissed, the studio would be burned down.
Manto, the sensitive poet, was hurt and withdrew into himself, finding solace in the bottle. His wife Safia told a biographer in 1968: “He had no intention of leaving, but Filmistan handed him a notice of termination and that, believe me, broke his heart.” Migration did not heal his heart. He kept writing, but nothing that rose to greatness. He succumbed completely to the bottle and died before he was 43.
People like Einstein can work as long as a laboratory is available. Marx produced his seminal works sitting in the British Library. But artistes and film-makers cannot function in isolation. They need opportunities to interact with their audiences. Cut off from their audiences, they feel cut off from their inspiration. Haasan cannot find in Los Angeles or London the audience connectivity he gets naturally in Coimbatore or Bangalore. His art is where his public is. Like all creative people, he will have his battles to fight. But he will have to fight them on the homefront. We cannot change our country any more than we can change our mother.