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WRITERS, WARS, WORDS

Writers, not just spies, also come in from the cold. John le Carré and Salman Rushdie decided that the Berlin Wall that they had created between themselves was no longer relevant. They pulled the barrier down. Thus ended a long war fought fortunately only with words. No war ever provides any enjoyment for anyone — neither the participants nor the observers. But a war of words is different. Observers, or more aptly, readers, of the war derive immense pleasure from the show of arms. Writers, when they go into battle, do so in chiselled prose. There is no greater joy than to see a Mr le Carré or a Mr Rushdie or an Evelyn Waugh (remember his celebrated passage of arms with the historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper) in full gladiatorial combat, smiting his opponent in hip and thigh, or fighting a duel, like Hamlet and Laertes, and scoring with their rapiers palpable hits. Thus the declaration of peace between Mr le Carré and Mr Rushdie might bring relief to the combatants but the peace brings in its train a joyless world. The wit and the choice of the perfect repartee will be missed.

Politicians are another group of people who also engage in a vendetta of words. But they seldom, if ever, kiss and make up. Think of Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill. The former was at the receiving end of some of Churchill’s most memorable barbs. (“Clement Attlee is a modest man. He has much to be modest about.”) There is no record that they were reconciled even in old age. They took their loathing of each other to their respective graves. In India, immediately after Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru and Shyama Prosad Mookerjea harboured a mutual dislike, with the latter often getting the better of Nehru in their parliamentary duels. And neither had a good word about the other even in private. One reason why politicians never get reconciled is because their differences are most often on issues ideological and therefore a middle ground becomes difficult, if not impossible, to locate. Writers, on the other hand, cross swords on intellectual matters. Mr le Carré and Mr Rushdie fell out over the exercise of freedom of speech and its consequences.

One crucial factor in the thaw between Mr le Carré and Mr Rushdie must be the terrible time that the latter went through when he was under the shadow of death. No one can wish such a plight even on his worst enemies. Mr Rushdie’s courage and his extraordinary gifts as a writer must have mellowed Mr le Carré. On his part, after his ordeal, Mr Rushdie must have realized that he needs friends, especially among his own peers. The mutual recognition of literary talents has helped transcend a difference of opinion and the subsequent exchange of strong language. That exchange, for a brief while, was the joy of a joyless world. That enjoyment of language, alas, will now only be confined to the books the two authors write.