Many headlines this week seem to be bound together by a common theme: what is tolerance?
The first story is that an article written by Taslima Nasrin years ago was translated by a Kannada daily, reading which Muslims in Shimoga and other places in Karnataka turned violent and clashed with cops and Hindus. Lives were lost. In case you haven't read Madam Taslima's article, here it is.
The second story is that of M. F. Hussain accepting Qatari citizenship because he was hounded out of the country by Hindu fundamentalists who opposed his depiction of "Bharathmata" in the nude. This issue, too, is years old. The painting came up for auction more than four years ago and looks like this.
The reason I've provided these links is because our mainstream media believes in talking endlessly about such controversies without showing us what the fuss is all about.
Anyway, the easy parallel between both stories is that two people belonging to creative professions offered viewpoints that supposedly hurt the religious sentiments of Indians. Indian Muslims in the first instance and Indian Hindus in the second. In both cases, the hurt public believed that burning, shrieking, hurling stones and issuing threats were excellent ideas and would certainly bring the artists to their knees.
They, of course, had alternatives:
1) Ignore the works
Indifference is more resounding than a slap and more scalding than fire. An artist fears nothing more.
2) Ask for an explanation
If the anguish by the works was so deep that it needed a response, then can one not demand an explanation from the artist? Are our Gods so weak that we cannot use their wisdom to counter the viewpoint of a mortal artist, assuming that the artist indeed was dreadfully wrong?
For better or for worse, the Constitution is the only holy book in a democracy. We know who wrote it, when and why. And the best part: it's subject to change. We can always reassess this holy book and align it as per the changes occuring in society. Religious books, on the other hand, offer metaphors that define a past era. That they are often profoundly valid in our time is a tribute to writers and visionaries burned and buried long ago.
Extrapolating, I cannot but wonder: can it be ethical or even legal to ban an artist's work? How does one justify that in a democracy? Why can't even rabidly vulgar works be brought out and examined for what they are? Is this because we're a developing country with unenviable literacy rates? Is tolerance a matter of education? If so, how did Gandhiji manage to acquire our Independence by selling his vision to the illiterate millions of India? Aren't we typically smug by suggesting that intellectual debate requires refinement as we understand this word?
I really cannot fathom these expanding fringes in our society, but I wouldn't mind their existence in the very least if they were just rabble-rousing tongue lashers. If only they shunned the easy short-cut: violence. These people probably underestimate the power of the human tongue. It's not just a festering ground for germs and a sensuous barometer of the kiss. It's also a potent weapon. Haven't we all slayed with our tongues? Haven't our dear ones, especially, felt its venomous darts? Perhaps we can argue that the tongue doesn't work half as well when used to lash strangers. Ah! The proper practitioner of this banal - yet dark - art can reduce even strangers to tears. Bertrand Russell and, more recently, Simon Cowell come to mind.
And speaking of lashing tongues, I'd like to ask anybody who'd care to listen: just why is it so unacceptable to criticize Sachin Tendulkar? I think now is the best time to ask this question - when he has made the transition from immortal to divine. I particularly want to ask those former captains of Indian cricket (Mumbaikars, most of them) why they felt it so necessary to crucify Sanjay Manjrekar for making unflattering remarks about Sachin? Again: are our Gods so weak?
Reminds me of 1989. I and my then best friend Stephen Pinto used to sit on our building terrace and discuss Sachin deep into the evening. Any nitwit who has held a cricket bat in his hand could immediately see that the 16-year-old Sachin was a phenomenon like no other. Stevie and I were convinced much before the Indian think-tank that Sachin must open in ODIs. We were also always critical of Sachin. Simply because Gods must save the universe every single day. Because the man who was born Spiderman cannot have the weaknesses of Peter Parker. Sorry, that's how it is. It's cruel, yes, but true nonetheless for puny humans like us. We expected Sachin to play the 1997 Sharjah sandstorm innings every time he went in to bat. And for so many years in between, Sachin heaped the numbers without leaving a lasting impression in my mind. I daresay Stevie would agree.
That changed in March 2008 when he won us the Triseries Down Under. We didn't even have to play the third of the best-of-three finals. Since then, Sachin has been playing the way he was designed to. He's consistently winning us matches and, in the process, pointing us to the gap between him and a Ponting or a Lara. The God himself is putting finishing touches to the temple we're erecting for him in our minds. That's how it should be. And if experts believe that the extraordinarily few criticisms have spurred Sachin to greater heights, then there's all the more reason to lash our tongues.
I think Gods do welcome a little challenge thrown at them by mortals. So Sachin: do you think you have enough gas left in the tank to lift the World Cup? Really? Show me.