A spat that adds spice, but does not topple carts
New Delhi, Nov 11 (IANS) The interpretation of Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" changed with the fatwa against the author, Man Booker Prize-winning writer Ben Okri had famously said in India earlier this year.
Will leading Kannada playwright-film personality Girish Karnad's tirade against Nobel laureates V.S. Naipaul's non-fiction works and Rabindranath Tagore's plays change the way readers interpret them as writers?
Karnad stoked a fresh controversy Friday when he said Tagore was "a great poet but as a playwright he was mediocre and second rate".
"People have the tendency to be reverential about people and think that they are marvellous because they got Nobel Prize or something like that," said Karnad, recipient of the country's highest literary honour Jnanpith.
Earlier, at the Tata Literature Live in Mumbai, Karnad had criticised V.S Naipaul's non-fiction about India saying "Naipaul has no idea of how Muslims contributed to Indian history".
"Tagore, Naipaul and Karnad will retain their pride of place in world literature. The history of world literature is full of spicy battles that make news," a leading literary critic here told IANS, not wanting to be named.
Feuds between Nobel Laureates Mario Vargas Lhosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, spats between Henry James and H.G. Wells and wars between Ivan Turgenev and Fyodor Dostoevsky are the stuff literary legends are made of, he said.
The reasons stem from literary to personal, driven primarily by insecurity and humiliation, the critic added.
"It does not really change our perceptions of either Karnad or Tagore... But one can be swayed. That's what this whole game is all about. Naipaul does not write to please. No literary writer writes to please... It is a stream of consciousness," Sanjoy Roy, producer of the Jaipur Literature Festival, told IANS.
"Does somebody of the stature of Girish Karnad have an opinion? He can. Can someone like Girish Karnad express an opinion? He can. Can someone like Girish Karnad debate an issue? He can. But he has no right to question Anil Dharker's decision to give an award to someone (V.S. Naipaul)," Roy said.
National School of Drama chairperson Amal Allana too rose to Tagore's defence. "Tagore has been a mysterious and deep writer, not easily accessible. His plays are like looking at a difficult painting. He talked in symbols... his writings are like looking at dreamscapes," Allana told IANS.
Karnad is a person who has struggled as a playwright to come to terms with the Indian tradition and "entwine it with modern theatre in plays like Nagamandala," she said.
People immediately connect to Karnad's plays because they are relevant. It is not right to compare the two, said director Bhanu Bharti, who staged Karnad's "Tughlaq" at an open air venue in Ferozshah Kotla last month 40 years after it was staged at an open air venue at Purana Qila by Ebrahim Alkazi.
"Karnad's contribution to the national stage has been of great merit. But Tagore too wrote fantastic plays. He may not have been a Badal Sircar or a Vijay Tendulkar, but his plays are not dated... Though at times they may not seem realistic," Bharti, who adapted Tagore's "Muktadhara" in Hindi a couple of years ago, told IANS.
Literary fights rage in three categories, eminent literary writer-critic Robert McCrum said in The Guardian.
"The 'row-literary' is usually inspired by a bad review... The 'feud-personal' is really a turf war between rival gang leaders. British critics have a reputation for vicious, close quarters knife work, but in the feud-personal, Americans are the masters...," McCrum wrote.
"Visceral-vendetta" is motivated by animosities of a deeper kind, McCrum explained.
"One world-class vendetta is Mario Vargas Lhosa's feud with Gabriel Garcia Marquez in which Lhosa actually landed a punch. It is true that both these Nobel-winning giants have deeply competitive roots. What made the fight personal was Marquez's interest in Lhosa's wife," McCrum wrote.
In 1999, leading novelist John Irving ripped Tome Wolfe's novels apart, saying they were "journalistic hyperbole described as fiction".
"He cannot create a character. He can't create a situation," Irving said.
A recent battle over a bad review of Niall Ferguson's "Civilisation" in the London Review of Books has taken on a legal and racial colour with the author threatening to sue Indian writer-reviewer Pankaj Mishra for describing Ferguson as "an European who wanted gold and slaves" for his knack of writing white people's histories.
A book, "Public Enemies", published in January 2012, is an account of a prolonged spat between best-selling novelist Michel Houellebecq and best-selling philosopher Bernard-Henri-Levy, two of the most controversial figures in France.
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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