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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 39, September 12, 2009

Writer in the Time of Terror: The ‘Other’ as a Metaphor

Saturday 12 September 2009, by Mohan K. Tikku

“What happens from here on is no longer a question of ideological oppositions, but a struggle for global reality. There are two global realities, resembling in a nonrepresentational way the old programmatic realities of East and West: the imaginary electronic globe, and the poetic-specific-eco-community.

“The poet’s job is to short-circuit the imaginary globe.”

Romanian writer Andrei Codrescu in

The Disappearance of the Outside: a Manifesto for Escape

Like the East European writer who was struggling with his altered identity and location in the global order of things in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the South Asian writer today must look at himself and the world around him with fresh eyes. It is essential to do so to be able to spell out the nature of the reality he is engulfed by, and the ways to deal with it.

The writers have been perennially faced with the problem of dealing with the other. In fact, it is through the ‘other’ that a writer comes face to face with oneself and the times one is dealing with. The otherness of the other, though, keeps changing in form and location. Like a bahuroopi. And the nature of the problem is not just to situate the other, but also to deal with it in a creative and non-dogmatic manner. The other is out there—as Codrescu would put it. But the ‘other’ is not just out there— but here, there and elsewhere as well.

For the writer, everybody else may be the other.

The other is the subject that he is dealing with. With empathy and understanding, he pierces through layers of reality to grab the essence of a character or a situation, an image or an idea.

And while he does so, he renders it to the reader or the audience, who constitute the other kind of the ‘other’. For, it is the reader who is the destination as well as the destiny of a work of literature. He is the ultimate custodian of its meaning and purpose. In so doing, he also shapes the work of literature.

So we thought the hero, the conventional protagonist of a play or novel, said it all. He represented the writer’s voice, and so in his or her own way was the obvious other. In that framework, the villain often acted as the hero’s other. But when the two exhausted their possibilities, the writer had to come up with the anti-hero as the other.

Almost half a century ago, A. A. Alvarez interviewed a number of East European writers to find out how they managed to say things they wanted said—and to what extent—that were not to the taste of the communist regimes they were living under. Though the communist regimes are not there any more, the shadow of the coercive power of the State is very much around in many countries of the world. For the writer in such regimes, the State or the censor then becomes the other that the writer has to bear in mind while writing. What can be said, to what extent and how become the shaping force of the writer.

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But something even more sinister than that happens when that faceless entity emerges on the horizon. He, the terrorist, comes with a silencer gun (gun as the ultimate silencer rather than as gun fitted with a silencer) as the medium and the message with no room for reply, and things begin to change radically. The hooded face of the terrorist tends to enforce meanings and circumstances on everybody else, including the unsuspecting writer.

How does a writer cope with this newcomer on the South Asian landscape? This being the other ‘other’? Looking back one may ask, where did the writer lose the battle; and where must the battle begin?

But let’s look at what has been happening before we got here. On December 9, 2008, the UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide completed sixty years. The drafters of the Convention had Hitler and the Holocaust in mind when they scripted it. The mass killings had made it the bloodiest century in human history.

What has been happening since the passage of the Convention by the UN General Assembly sixty years ago is not very encouraging either. Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Darfur are the major mileposts—but there are many other less spectacular cases of mass killings across the globe that call for attention.

In Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg, one of the accused in that horrific drama asks his jailmate whether all the charges of mass killings hurled at them could have been true. How could so many people have been killed? His better-knowing friend replies that killing a whole mass of people is not any difficult; it is disposing of their remains that is the more problematic thing to handle. In a somewhat similar vein, it may be said that mass executions in all the above instances were not difficult to do, it is managing the world opinion and keeping the critics at bay has been the harder thing to handle. So, who your friends in the international community are is what makes all the difference.

Traditionally, it used to be axiomatic to counter-pose the power that a writer exercised through his writings against the might of the strong-armed, including the State. Hence the adage of pen being mightier than the sword. Today, that appears like the age of innocence. Looked at from a twenty-first century perspective, not only the State but even the non-State actors exercise enormous power without any accountability now strut the world stage. Nobody today would say that the pen could be stronger than the gun that the terrorist wields. We must ask why?

The reason is not about the relative merits of the sword as a killer weapon as against the gun or the grenade. It is about the relative positioning of the writer and the assailant. There could be some kind of a discourse between the pen and whoever was wielding the sword. But there is no room for dialogue or discourse between the writer and the terrorist. It is the disappearance of the middle ground, the intervening space that is the issue here.

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Since the writer’s fight against terror cannot be conducted on the frontlines, it is instructive to look back to see how the creative people have been pushed to the margins by factors that are indigenous as well as international. The writer, about the middle of the last century, at least in this part of South Asia used to be in the frontline of every battle—social, political, intellectual. The progressive writers’ movement, certainly in sub-continental India, stood as the institutional vanguard in such battles. It was not much different in Europe where the writers played a part in shaping contemporary events that affected everybody—whether it was the fight against Franco in Spain or the Resistance against the Nazis in France.

Then came the abridgement of the writer’s role and his gradual relegation to the sidelines. The existentialists represent the last flicker of the flame that had burnt so bright in Europe. And gradually, as other forces took over, the movement lost its momentum in this part of Asia as well. What led to this? These are complex issues to be discussed in any detail here, and so outside the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that the space of the writer was constantly abridged, and the writer’s role has been constantly under pressure. And the writer ceded ground apparently without much resistance.

The rise of religious fundamentalism in the last quarter of the last century could only make it worse. In a sense, the fundamentalists began to occupy the space that had earlier belonged to the writers and the artists in these societies. How things changed, and how much may be illustrated by the following episode.

In 1978, Muhammad Alavi, an eminent Urdu poet and writer from Ahmedabad, wrote one of those short poems that he is adept at. The poem was read in numerous mushairas all across the country and published in various places, and appreciated. Nobody felt any reason to complain. Nobody’s religious sensibilities were hurt. Until a good seventeen years later a maulvi teaching in a local madrasa in Ahmedabad happened to notice this little poem published in a newspaper. He found it blasphemous. He did what maulvis do best: he issued a fatwa against Mohammed Alavi. Not many writers thought it fit to take a position on the issue, and raise their voice in protest. And Alavi felt it best to let the controversy be done with by apologising upfront.

Luckily for Alavi, the maulvi had not read the dedication of his 1978 collection of poems, Teesri Kitab. Alavi had dedicated the book to God Himself, with words that ran:

Khuda ke naam, jis ke nahone ka mujhe dukh hai.

(Dedicated to God, who, much as I feel sorry for it, does not exist.)

It may perhaps not be too bad that the custodians of religions do not read much literature. Writers indeed would have been much worse off having them as their readers!

Nobody perhaps is more impacted by the resultant “tension between civil liberties and national security” than the writer. For while he has to cope up with the absolute denial of space by the terrorist, one has equally to come to terms with the abridgement of civil society space including freedom of expression that results from steps the governments often take in their fight against terror.

The writer thus faces a double whammy. It is the absolute impossibility of dialogue on the one side, and reduction of free space on the other. The extent to which such measures result in shrinkage of free speech in societies may vary from country to country and society to society. But worse still are situations where the war against terror has resulted in institutional damage to the media and other instruments that make the civil society what it is. This has happened in some of the countries currently engaged in this campaign.

A few months ago, Frank Moorhouse, the Australian writer, recorded in graphic detail how the free space available to the civil society in that country had been abridged as a result of the measures taken by the government in its attempts to offset a possible terrorist attack. It is worth bearing in mind that Australia is not in what is sometimes described as the “frontlines” of the war on terror. The situation obviously is much worse in societies that have to grapple with the problem of terror at closer range and on a day to day basis.

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The position of the writer in such a situation is not made any easier, or better, by the fact that the world’s most powerful country has appropriated the moral high ground to itself. Thus, a human rights abuse issue in one country does not seem to matter, while a similar abuse in another might raise calls for international intervention.

Harold Pinter put it frontally and somewhat bluntly when he, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, alluded to the one-sided shape of violence and terror. He asked why “the systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities, the ruthless suppression of independent thought in Stalinist Russia were well known in the West, while American state crimes were merely superficially recorded, left alone, documented”.

“But, you wouldn’t know it,” Pinter pointed out. “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.”

The death and suffering of countless human beings across the world as a direct consequence of American power, to Pinter’s regret, had not been subjected to international scrutiny like it should have been. Consequently, the phrase “war on terror” itself has been used as if it were a weapon of war. In many countries, it has been used as justification for violation of the rights of individuals. In this war, civilian casualties are somehow made acceptable by using the term “collateral damage”.

The fact is that there is no universally acceptable definition of who is a terrorist. The United States, in any case, uses its own yardstick and its own definition. Even if there is ambiguity on definition, it is the writer who should be using these ambiguities in a creative way. Instead, such ambiguities are often used to confuse the victims.

The moral high ground, if that can belong to anybody, should belong to the writer. By his empathies, the writer is capable of taking a position that is critical and objective and humane at the same time. But before being able to reclaim the moral high ground the writer has to reclaim a good deal of the space that he has already ceded to the religious fundamentalists. Alavi’s episode above is a good example. The writer must reclaim the space to disagree and dissent, and be able to do so to the point of sounding irreverent. If the writer or intellectual could be irreverential to religious dogma in Renaissance Europe, or in eighth century Arabia, why should the twentyfirst century writer be asked to shut up?

It is by that route alone that the writer can return to the centre-stage. And it is in that manner alone that he can face the terrorist. Not by proving that the pen is more powerful than the gun, but by showing that it is necessary to pick up the gun. The way ahead is not to sweep the so-called sensitive subjects under the carpet, but by facing them upfront.

These are post-modern times. And the asymmetrical fight against terror itself is a post-modern phenomenon that the twentyfirst century must cope with—and the writer is situated right in the middle of it.

[An abridged version of a paper presented at the SAARC Writers’ Conference held in Agra, March 13-16, 2009]

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