free speech

‘My gurus demand I make no calculations about what is acceptable and what is offensive when I write'

Jerry Pinto’s acceptance speech, read out in absentia, of the Sahitya Akademi award for Best Book in English.

These are trying times for all of us, but perhaps for writers most of all.

We have become the keepers of the flame, a task for which not all of us might be suited. Some of us might argue quite rightly that the truth is not of much concern for the fiction writer. Others might say with as much justification that the truth is one of the many shades that hangs around the birth of each new novel and it is not always a pleasant spirit.

So what is it we are supposed to be doing here? Are we to hold up a mirror to society? Can we say our mirrors are without flaws, that we offer a true reflection or do our political beliefs bend the light just that much, so that what is offered is a refraction?

In Baluta, which I had the good fortune to translate, the late Marathi writer Daya Pawar says that the books he read did not reflect his life at all but he suggests that this might have been why he enjoyed them.

The new criticism tells us that every writer only writes about himself or herself. If this is true, we run the twin risks of solipsism and narcissism. There are other critics who warn against cultural appropriation: that we may not write about that which we have not lived. What then is the role of the imagination in this space?

Each time I open a file on my computer, or pick up my pen, I run the risk of offending someone.

Is this risk implicit in reflection or is the problem refraction? Is it because I cut too close to the bone or is it because I allow my imagination to run wild?

And what is the role of the state in my life? I might have some rights, as a citizen of India, to the protection of my freedom of speech but since this is a right limited and hedged about, the protection extends only so far as the law will allow it. I do not know what the law will allow and will not allow because I do not know what a reasonable man will think and this legal fiction, the reasonable man, must now try to understand the unreasonable man of letters.

When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, he was not being reasonable for he demanded that we give up the notion of “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and to turn the other cheek. When Rabindranath Tagore wrote Char Adhyay, a novel that interrogated the notion of nationalism, he was being an unreasonable man. When Ismat Chugtai tore the veils of feudalism and child abuse in Lihaaf, she was being an unreasonable woman. When Gandhi wrote polemics against the British rule, he was not being a reasonable man.

I return often to these men and women as my guides and my preceptors.

I think of Jesus using deceptively simple stories to drive home complex messages about justice and forgiveness; I think of Tagore’s Where the mind is without fear; I relish the elegance of the image of Chugtai eating oranges in the British court, refusing to be cowed by the law and its demands; I think of Gandhi retreating every week into silence and reaching out, connecting, talking to his correspondents about everything from their dietary problems to their spiritual quests to their political opinions.

These are my gurus. They teach me reason and they urge me to the unreasonable space of creation; they teach me to dream but they remind me that the dream is paid for in work; they teach me to think but they ask of me that I leaven reason with intuition; they demand that I write from a place deep within, a place where I make no calculations about what is acceptable and what is offensive.

I have not always kept the faith. I am human, after all. Most writers are. That’s why we surprise ourselves when we create beauty for we know what kind of place it is made in.

But somehow, we have been handed the flaming torch of truth and we have been told, it is now yours to protect.

I am terrified.

But I am going to try. My gurus did.

Mumbai-based Jerry Pinto is one of the 24 award winners for 2016 by the Sahitya Akademi for his novel Em and the Big Hoom.

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