Bartleby in Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” must be one of the most radical activists in the history of modern literature. Bartleby’s definitive activism is the blanket refusal to act – to do his job, to give up his office space, and in the end, to eat, thus killing himself. While he says nothing to explain this refusal, political or otherwise, it evokes a stark political allegory, particularly in the context of the Wall Street law office where he works. As he stops work, he also stops speaking, barring that one sentence that has become a literary legend: “I would prefer not to.” Not to work, not to move, not to live.

Labour strike, occupy Wall Street, hunger strike unto death – there so much that stares in our face here, and yet it is unlikely that Bartleby had any of it in mind. Some critics have read clinical depression in his personality. Even so, he remains a key figure in this historical question: when does a refusal to act become activism? Alternatively, when does activism take the shape of the refusal to act? When does such an withdrawal become a most radical – and possibly the most effective – form of activism?

For Indians, Non-Cooperation and Satyagraha are not just history lessons but part of our collective memory. Likewise, a striking meaning of the term “literary activism” is not the identification of literature as a venue of political activism, but rather a disavowal of, and withdrawal from “market activism”, as described by writer and literary critic Amit Chaudhuri, who initiated these series of symposia that has now led to a new book series.

Disavowal of free-market capitalism in the creation and dissemination of good books and ideas was the point of the very question that came from the audience at the end of the discussion between Chaudhuri, poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, publisher Karthika VK, and myself that made up that pleasant but strangely exciting evening at the India International Centre.

Chaudhuri’s definition of market activism, however, has always been more complex. As university departments of literature, suspicious of historically entrenched privileges, began to abandon the traditional aesthetic vocabulary of liberal humanism – including such terms as “classic”, “great”, and “masterpiece”, trade publishers in the free market picked up those terms.

But a clever sleight-of-hand was practised. Titles that promised sales and sensationalism were marked but promoted with these traditional markers of aesthetic excellence. They were not called “best-selling” and “sensational” but rather “great” and “masterpieces”. They were even loaded with a pre-determined canonicity, so that they could be even published and promoted as “classics” – a term that common sense requires to be left only to the judgement of time.

This masking of capitalism under the language of a liberal aesthetic, for Chaudhuri, brought forward the need for Literary Activism. For all the talks, symposia, now even these books to be published in the book series co-produced by Westland Books and Ashoka University, literary activism is, first and foremost, an activism of refusal and withdrawal. It celebrates motifs such as “failure” and “deprofessionalisation”, subjects of its previous symposia, and carries out indictments of mainstream categories such as “storytelling”.

Funny anecdotes reveal more than they hide, hide more than they ironise. The publisher of Westland, Karthika VK, told us of this exchange she had with Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, whose slim collection of poems, translations, photographs and a couple of memoir-essays, made up Book of Rahim, the inaugural book of the series.

“Arvind,” she said, “It’s your first collection of poems in 25 years, we should publish a few thousand copies at least.” Vehemently opposing it, Mehrotra said that’s too large a number. Karthika subsequently wondered if he thought 1000, or at least 1500 copies would be appropriate. Still dissenting, Mehotra said, “My books don’t sell more than 400 copies.” Naturally, he didn’t want his publisher to take chances on a larger print run.

While for Karthika this was an unprecedented tussle (friendly as it was) between an author and a publisher with the former making a passionate case for his low salability, Chaudhuri invoked literary activism to point out, mischievously no doubt, that Mehrotra was in fact “bragging”. John Milton’s “fit audience...though few” comes to mind immediately, and I’m also reminded of an old interview of Sunil Gangopadhyay that I recently read, where the poet argues for poetry being better off as not widely read and understood, as the demands for popularity are sure to compromise its aesthetic integrity.

Mehrotra’s distance from the market, however, is not so much a function of difficulty – a charmingly honest simplicity is the hallmark of his poems as well as his essays – but a certain unpredictability of voice and tone and a certain careless, sometimes despondent immersion in throwaway, rejected objects: “Kept in a kitchen basket by the window / a few loose papers damaged by white ants...Undecided whether to bin the papers or keep them, / I leave them where they are – my mother’s ashes.”

The delightful unpredictability of tone springs as much from Mehrotra’s own wandering but stubborn sensibility as from the various voices he assumes in these poems, which flow freely between translation, adaptation, to more subtle forms of influence. Key here are the short, parable-like dohas of Rahim and the long-stretched historical memory in the voice of Mirza Ghalib. The characteristic self-immolating quality of Ghalib come alive in these poems; to me they brought back the experience of reading a recent translation of Ghalib’s Temple Lamp by Maaz Bin Bilal, which also evoked that sense of desolation and that unmistakable yearning for a distant, near-fictitious place.

What also stood out was the quick, indigenous wisdom of these lines: “The elderly / should forgive / Kids will be kids. / Does God / diminish, / asks Rahim, / if an ant /kicks it?” This is the kind of folk reason, derived from a deep religious consciousness that is available in India and has proved, Chaudhuri argues, the antidote to the unreason of fundamentalism that is sometimes invoked here, most notably during the anti-CAA protests. “Religion’s refinement and honing of rationality are incisive, and have been essential, historically, to dissent,” he writes in On Being Indian, the other book launched in the series.

That was my key question about both books, and in a different way, about the series on the whole. The attempt to create an alternative narrative can expand the archive, but much rarer is the creation of a radically new language that can reflect this expansion which in the truest sense, must also be a disruption. The celebration of the innate rationality resident in many of the religious traditions of India, and the songs and poems that draw from these traditions, nurtures the silent but ceaseless conversation between Book of Rahim and On Being Indian.

“All of this – Kabir, Lalon, Sufis, Bhakti, Buddhism, nyaya,” writes Chaudhuri, “create a history and context of rationality that begin to be accessed, I think, by the organic intellectual and expressed in statements like, “Food doesn’t have a religion. It is a religion.”

That lovely statement about food and religion was the quick riposte on the Zomato Twitter handle against the patron who’d posted: “Just cancelled an order on Zomato they allocated a non hindu rider for my food.” Whether or not the manager of the Zomato Twitter handle qualifies as an organic intellectual, they are clearly capable of tapping into the innate rationality embedded in the traditions of religion and religious art in India. Entering the ethos of literary activism, such rationality invokes the primal inseparability of aesthetics and politics.

Saikat Majumdar’s novels include The Firebird, The Scent of God, and The Middle Finger.