Text of the speech while inaugurating the First Kolkata Literary Meet on 26 January 2012
Thank you very much for inviting me this Republic Day to inaugurate the first Kolkata Literary Meet—or KLM—or (most aptly of all) ‘Kolom’.
By the word ‘kolom’ I imagine we mean not only the pen but also the typewriter and the computer—in other words, any means of writing. The ‘kolom’ represents them all.
I am happy and honoured to be here—in this place, during this year, on this day, for this occasion.
In this place, because I am back where I was born.,
During this year, because it is a century and a half since the birth of Tagore.
On this day, because it was today, more than 60 years ago, that we put into effect the book of law by which we as a nation live.
For this occasion, because it celebrates the word not as law but as literature, the expression of ourselves as human beings.
I shall call these the four ‘ko’s, following the Bengali style: Kolkata, Kobi, Constitution, Kolom: the place Kolkata, the year of the Kobi, the day of the Constitution, the occasion of Kolom.
Let me say a few words about each of these.
Kolkata is where my life began.
Birth is easy enough. I have no memory of it. Any pain or inconvenience was borne by my mother. I was born in the Elgin Nursing Home—which doesn’t exist any more—at 1.48 in the afternoon. I was called Amit. That is the name that appears on my birth certificate. I have seen the document. It is green in colour.
I was called Amit because when my mother was pregnant with me, her friend Kolyani Bannerji read Tagore’s Shesher Kobita to her and, as you know, the rather wimpish hero of that novel was called Amit [Incidentally, author Amit Chaudhury was also present at the reading — Ed.] My mother, though from UP, speaks Bengali and loves Bengal. She decided that if I was a boy, I would be called Amit; if a girl, Ameeta.
But my father’s family, who live in Panipat, had different ideas. The first-born son of each brother in the family had to have a name beginning with the syllable ‘Vi’. It was a family tradition. My father’s eldest brother had named his first-born son Vijay. My father’s second brother had named his first-born son Vinod. What was all this Amit nonsense? They vetoed the name and told my parents to think again. The name Amit (written in ink) was crossed out on the green birth certificate and the name Vikram was pencilled in. And since Kolkata is possessive of its children, although I am not Bengali, I have once or twice seen myself referred to in newspapers here not as Vikram, but (I am proud to say) as ‘amader Bikrom’. And I for my part certainly consider this city to be ‘amar Kolkata’.
I am always happy to return here, in fact or in fiction. I spent formative years of my childhood here—on three separate occasions. The parts of A Suitable Boy that I most enjoyed writing were the scenes set in Calcutta, whether it was with the garrulous Chatterji family (I especially enjoyed writing about the shocking Meenakshi), or at the Eden Gardens, where Lata’s three suitors, Kabir, Haresh and—yes—Amit, meet at an India vs England cricket match. In fact, the Bengali translation of A Suitable Boy by Enakshi Chatterjee (I am told it is a very good translation) is called Sot Patro, which of course makes one think immediately of Abol Tabol and the immortal Sukumar Ray, the father of another immortal, Satyajit Ray, who was no mean writer himself.
The thought of authors past leads me back to the second ‘ko’ or ‘Kobi’, whose 150th anniversary we are celebrating and have been celebrating this past year.
One can say many things about him. I will say just three.
The first is this. I apologise to him for the fact that my parents renounced the name of Amit. But since he himself, when asked by parents to name their children for them, saddled so many children with impossible names, I am sure he will be tolerant of our sacrilege.
Secondly, today of all days, when our thoughts turn to where we are going as a country and as a people, it is right that we should think of him, because he was the creator of what—after his death—became our national anthem, an anthem that is intriguing because it is so ambiguous—not only with regard to who exactly is being addressed, but also because it must be the only anthem in the world to end not on a shadaj but on a madhyam—not on certainty and finality but on ambiguity and continuity. Of course the national anthem is only the first of five stanzas of a song. But still, this ambiguity and continuity seem to reflect, at least to me, some aspects of the openness and open-mindedness of the poet himself—who was writing at a time when many people’s views were becoming closed and rigid.
The third point about Tagore has to do with the limits of reverence. I am not now talking about the tendency to revere Tagore himself, which is a mild malady in these parts. No, I’m talking about Tagore’s attitude to someone he himself admired: Gandhi. Tagore may have venerated him and called him the Mahatma, but he disagreed with a lot of what he said—on non-cooperation, for instance; or on modern science; or even on nationalism. He did not let his admiration gag his criticism, sometimes quite strong criticism. Other people disagreed with Gandhi too, some less reverently, some indeed very bitterly. Nehru and Patel disagreed with Gandhi on the question of accepting the inevitability of Partition. Bose disagreed with Gandhi about reserving the option of violence when used against the violence of foreign occupation. Ambedkar disagreed with Gandhi on the question of rights for Dalits, as opposed to pity and accommodation. In some cases, Gandhi used what some would consider unjustified tactics to get his way: a fast against Ambedkar, a boycott of Bose.
I say this because, though most of us may well think of Gandhi as one of the greatest Indians who has ever lived, we can and do criticise him. This highlights a general principle. There is no human being born since our species first came into existence whom we should consider immune from criticism. Let me repeat that. There is no human being born since our species first came into existence whom we should consider immune from criticism. No one. Whether from the 5th century BC or the 1st century AD or the 7th century AD or the 20th century AD.
This leads straight to the third ‘ko’ of what I wanted to talk about: the Constitution. ‘We the People of India’, in the famous phrase, gave it to ourselves on the 26th of November, but it came into effect two months later on the 26th of January, sixty-two years ago. The day was chosen because twenty years before that, Nehru, on behalf of the Indian National Congress, had declared Complete Independence or Purna Swaraj.
But was this self-rule or independence intended to be limited to independence from foreign occupation? The writers of our Constitution, from Ambedkar on, most assuredly did not think so. It was to be independence from tyranny of all kinds, including tyranny of thought and expression and belief, the tyranny of those who think one should not speak one’s mind. These and other aspirations are embodied in the Preamble, the words that precede the actual Articles of law.
Among its succinct and inspiring words are these:
‘LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.’
Liberty is one of four words—the others being Justice, Equality and Fraternity—which are the keys to the Preamble and, indeed, to understanding the Constitution as a whole. So here it is once more: ‘LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.’
But let me ask you—not as writers or readers but as plain citizens, as ordinary Indians—Where is this liberty today? Yes, the liberty of faith and worship are alive and kicking, but what about the liberty of thought, expression and belief, those liberties that equally make us what we are and give expression, insight and dignity to our lives? We are opening our gathering here on Republic Day a mere two days after another gathering—based like ours on the word and the freedom of the word, on the mind and the freedom of the mind, on the heart and the freedom of the heart—ended with a disgraceful exhibition of the suppression of the word, the suppression of the mind, the suppression of the heart.
To avoid a gut reaction to particular names, let me present the situation to you without names—as a case study, if you like—so that you can see it in its full absurdity.
One of the most prominent and admired authors of our times was not permitted to appear and address an audience in person—and then, in the strangest twist to the tale—was not permitted even to appear on a screen to address them. No one was going to be compelled to hear him. As it happens, he was not even going to talk about a book of his which had proved controversial, and which had been published more than 20 years ago. Indeed, he had even appeared in person at the very same venue five years ago, and there had been no protest. And yet he could not speak to those who wanted to hear him.
People are not fools. It is election time. Everyone knows the truth. The whole affair was started because of power and politics and the misuse of religion; it was whipped up because of power and politics and the misuse of religion; and the government knuckled under and enforced this disgrace because of power and politics and the misuse of religion.
Frankly, this is madness.
God and the prophets do not need bullies to defend themselves. God and the prophets do not need bullies to defend themselves. Neither the bullies who shout nor the bullies who enforce.
We are a constitutional nation, not a religious dictatorship. Unless he or she threatens violence, you do not have the right to gag or bully or dictate to your neighbour—or decide what he or she can say or see or hear.
You do not have the right to go up to the three monkeys and with your own hands cover up their mouths and eyes and ears.
You cannot use the argument of ‘religious morality’ to do this. As Dr Ambedkar said, there is something more important in a republic, and it is known as ‘constitutional morality’.
I will now go to—or, rather, return to—the fourth ‘ko’ or Kolom. I have touched upon the word in law and literature. But especially when one thinks of Tagore, one also thinks of the word as a graphic form, a form of art. I am very happy that Sunil Gangopadhyay and I—as part of this inauguration—were asked to write the word ‘kolom’ in black paint on those white boards there. As you can see, Sunil Da has written it in Bengali and I have written it in English and Urdu. It is interesting that three of the world’s great civilisations, the Hindu, the Islamic and the Judaeo-Christian, are thus incorporated on those boards, just as they are part of our common discourse. This is the richness of our country; we cannot allow it to be filtered and thinned. This is the strength of our country; we cannot allow it to be contorted or distorted.
Let me end with the two opening lines of a poem by Tagore that I have known—in his own English translation—since I was eleven years old. It was one of our school prayers and it expresses his aspirations for India.
‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free.’
Let me repeat that: ‘Where knowledge is free.’
Those who try to cloud our minds with fear are the enemies of both knowledge and freedom.
We cannot let our republic, our beloved republic, our constitutional republic, our free and free-speaking republic, be hijacked by fear. It happened once in the Emergency. It must never happen again.
We cannot let them close our mouths and eyes and ears.
We cannot let them break the pen or ration the ink.
Kolome kali jeno na shokaye.
May the kolom flourish.
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