Writers have chosen the right moment to break into public consciousness! Many returned their Sahitya Akademi awards, while others quit the body to protest against the venomous culture and hate crimes being tacitly encouraged, since the current dispensation came to power. Whether their brave gestures will make any real difference to the scary scenario or embarrass politicians, ideologues and mobs, steeped in Hindutva ideology, is yet to be seen. What use is any writer, if he or she, can't make people reflect even momentarily, or get them thinking? And therein lies the true significance of their protests, at a time when the role and impact of writers and writing, is in danger of paling into insignificance.
What exactly does reading stand for in India today —just another form of entertainment, or an information/knowledge gathering exercise and in some rare cases the illusion of having experienced something profound, inspiring or moving in the words penned by an author that makes us feel we have finer sensibilities than the rest of our superficial brethren. There is no dearth of writers today. The running joke is that there are more writers than readers around. Publishing is booming and there is a problem of plenty as regards both good and bad writing (and writers) in almost every possible genre. But while talent and craft is abundant, the times we live in have also turned books into just another commodity and most writers into either salesmen pushing for a bestseller or pretenders, aiming to win literary laurels.
The inevitable outcome is that readers, and therefore society too, perceive writers through this narrow prism — of being mere providers of creative or intellectual content, catering to different tastes. What has been completely overlooked is that even writers of pedestrian, formulaic fiction are commentators, somehow trying to rearrange the world and society we live in, through the stories they tell, the characters they people their narratives with or the conflicts that unfold. The basic premise is to raise questions, correct wrongs, challenge the status quo, mirror social realities or simply provoke a thought. And this happens in nearly every book whether it’s a love story, murder mystery, fantasy novel, comic tale or serious literary fiction. How effective the effort is, varies greatly from writer to writer, but what cannot be denied is that comment and protest, however mild, oblique or wishy-washy are intrinsic to writing. The writer has to perforce take a stand or present and support a point of view.
It is this important role of a writer, of venturing to act as a commentator on what is happening around us or at least serve as a compass that provides a reality check of the direction in which our society is headed, that has been salvaged from near dormancy and put back into sharp relief by the act of these writers who returned awards. It is a timely reminder to all those who claim to be writers that apart from weaving magic with words, telling interesting stories, bringing alive all that is sublime, poignant and beautiful, they also have the thankless task of questioning the social, cultural, moral, religious and political constructs and values of a society and articulating these concerns.
This might sound pompous, even pretentious, but debate and dissent is the job of a writer. Just putting pen to paper and churning out prose or poetry for the express purpose of providing reading pleasure, becomes meaningless beyond a point. The moot question is whether Indian society gives a damn about what writers have to say on explosive and sensitive issues and, more importantly, if readers and the common man believe that writers do indeed possess any kind of authority to do so. Moreover, how realistic is it to expect writers to voice dissent, given the fact that all it takes is for some group or political party to get offended and target them individually, blacken their faces or rough them up or heap abuse through social media or simply eliminate them in cold blood. There are no easy answers. One disheartening sign is that not many best-selling or popular authors of the current generation have stuck their neck out to condemn the growing intolerance. Time alone will tell whether writers matter today, or whether literary and popular writing has just become another exalted profession, made up of mere wordsmiths, reluctant to leave their comfort zones.
Salil Desai is a Pune-based author and filmmaker.
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