When Shashi Tharoor runs out of ideas, he gets down to writer bashing. I don’t read his column regularly, but on two occasions, I have seen him get rather critical of a couple of the finest writers the world has known.
Yesterday’s (April 13) Hindu Sunday Magazine carried a column by Tharoor, in which he has denounced the importance given to Rudyard Kipling. He describes how his teenage fascination for the much-celebrated poem If wore off as he came to realise the true story behind it. Kipling, in short, was allegedly racist. Which is why, Tharoor says, we should ‘relegate Kipling to the darkest recesses of our history’, and get rid of the poem If from school curriculums. In the past, Tharoor has also criticised RK Narayan, and though I don’t remember the exact language that was used, I believe it was something to the effect of Narayan not being skilled enough. Narayan, a people’s writer who contributed much to the growth of Indian literature in English and gave us what we could understand and relate to.
This yardstick should then be applied to every author or poet whose morals and values go against what is part of our society and culture, and who are not talented enough to match up to the exacting standards of self-appointed critics. We should stop reading Frances Hodgson Burnett because of her denigrating depiction of the ‘lascars’. Enid Blyton was often denounced because the children in her books represented the white, well-to-do families; critics also said she had a limited vocabulary. So maybe we should clear our bookshelves of all those adventures that we read with much enthusiasm while at school. George Eliot lived with a man she was not married to, because she didn’t believe in the sanctity of a relationship that could be easily dissolved. Isn’t that opposed to what the traditions of our country say? Off goes Eliot. And so do all the other writers of the British era in India, who were guilty of racist mindsets. Continue with the list, and it is doubtful we will be left with anybody at all who has managed to please absolutely every section of society without drawing a single word of criticism.
Racism is unforgiveable. But a person’s beliefs and ideals should not be used to judge his/her literary skill. A piece of work should first be admired for its literary merit. The questions will automatically follow. If might have been racially motivated, and such ideas definitely need to be denounced, but that cannot be done by ignoring its writer altogether. I don’t know much of Kipling; I have read only two of his books- Puck of Pook’s Hill, a fantastic tale of adventure and war, and Stalky & Co., a delightful schoolboy story. But the insular idea of ostracising a writer for the beliefs he holds would not exactly help the cause of literature. Why, then, the hue and cry over Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen? They could simply be asked not to write, and that would solve all problems without violence and unrest. After all, in today’s volatile world, it doesn’t take much to create controversy, even though the implied crimes may in no way be as heinous as racism. Mein Kampf will continue to be read, and if I read it, I don’t become a dictator or a Nazi. I read because I like to, and because I want to learn. If I don’t agree with a particular blasphemous idea, I ignore it.
Teach people the history behind If by all means, but don’t ask them not to read Kipling, or any other writer, for that matter.