Saturday, March 03, 2012

Writers and Activism -- Why Don't We Shed the Mantle of Victims?

Reading this article by the venerable Indra Sinha in Guardian about bringing justice to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy victims my train of thoughts went into a different stream altogether. The question is: Are writers activists? Do they fit in as activists. 

A bit of background is required for those who don't know about the basics of the tragedy. More than 25,000 people were killed when poisonous gases escaped from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. The gas was methyl isocyanate, a cynide compound -- a powerful poison -- and deaths were instant. There's more. Some survived and are going through hell, with their bodies weakened by the deadly poison that has been insinuated into their system. The remnants of the chemical have poisoned the groundwater in Bhopal and still cause disabilities to new-born children. What's more horrendous is that the Union Carbide which has been merged to a giant multinational Dow Chemical disowns the tragedy and has failed to compensate the victims. This is the worst industrial catastrophe in history. Chernobyl on the contrary has resulted in the deaths of only 64 people.

Now, it so happens that author Indra Sinha (mentioned above) has written a moving novel "Animal's People" based on the tragedy for which he conducted original research in Bhopal. Since then he has been so overwhelmed that he has been actively seeking support for the Bhopal Gas Tragedy victims, both through the media and by establishing clinics for the affected people. In short he has become an activist for the cause.

I hate to think of writers as just people who create beautiful language and nothing else. Then writing can be termed as origami or Feng Shui (frankly, I don't know what Feng Shui is), ornamental fads. Here's another venerable writer Adil Jussawala on the curious and enigmatic being -- the Indian writer:

The resilience of individual [Indian] writers has helped them survive the worst shocks of history, and there's nothing so bad about the situation in India that will silence its writers permanently. But if Indians who write in English don't normally consider it important to produce novels of social history or write poetry that fully confronts the social and political realities of their time—despite their real admiration for such work from other countries—there must be a reason—perhaps several reasons—and I think it's important to examine them. Some of us, certainly, are going through a crisis which is making us question the validity of our work and our usefulness as agents of social change. Now, more than ever before, we are unsure of ourselves as witnesses. Far from helping to change the course of history, we are finding ourselves its bullied victims. It's as though History had become the Englishman in Victor Anant's novel The Revolving Man, telling the writer, as the Englishman tells the novel's protagonist, "Spin, you Hindu bastard. Spin!" And the bastard goes on spinning. 

So why do we IWE (Indian Writers in English) shy away from the term "agents of social change?" Books written by Valmiki and Vyasa have been adopted as holy books, Gitanjali has been an inspiration for generations of Indians. But why isn't the Indian writer adopting the mantle of activism, except of course Arundhati Roy? Even she hasn't much support. Activists consider her as a writer and writers consider her as an activist. Could there be a platform on which writers can come together and make meaningful dialogue possible? Something like Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA) in which all Malayalam actors co-operate despite their differences. Don't laugh at the comparison by I am just conjecturing, as is my wont. Why shouldn't we drop the mantle of victims and take on some activist role?

When the situation demands I have used my pen to bring about changes, more of a local nature. These may sound silly to mention here, but I have brought lighting to unlit streets, made the authorities build roads and paths where none existed, started a postal service in our area in Artist Village, corresponded with the then railway minister Lalloo Yadav to improve the seating arrangement in Bombay's first class compartments, removed an incipient slum in our area, had trenches that were open for four months closed, etc. I take pride in doing such everyday humdrum things because I know I have been given a talent by God to express the grievances of the people.

So why shouldn't I shed my role of victim (As Adil Jussawla says) and see myself as an "agent of social change"? 

I am @johnwriter on Twitter and John.Matthew on Facebook. I blog here.

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