| Strong in humour
Some years ago the novelist, Ruchir Joshi, began his writing career with a short story called “My Father’s Tongue”. One of the central ideas in this story is the schoolboy protagonist’s rebellious distaste for the piously nationalistic image of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose with which — like many “good” boys growing up in Bengal — he is force-fed all through his schooldays. Like Walter Mitty in the James Thurber story, Ruchir Joshi’s protagonist gets even with Netaji in the only way he can, within his own mind. Joshi’s adolescent hero deploys “the weapons of the weak” and, in an imaginative act of demolition, “endows” Netaji with an inglorious death at the hands of the Japs, the very people whom Netaji thought were his supporters. The story works as a well-wrought cultural spoof: it parodies the myth of an undying Netaji, it ridicules the absurdities of the Forward Bloc, it exposes the stupidity of political idolatry.
In Joshi’s novel, The Last Jet-Engine Laugh, this same imaginative iconoclasm in relation to Bengal’s ultimate political hero expands — some might say shrinks — into a considerably more theatrically absurd manner of disposing of Netaji. Now, Netaji’s nationalist dream ends abysmally in Gulag Russia. He has been betrayed by the Japs and handed over to Stalin’s cohorts. Babbling incoherently and craving a meal that includes his favourite fish preparation, Netaji is shown thoroughly “pissed off” with life as well as out of it — there is no other way of phrasing this, for Netaji is shown rather literally as dying of shock to a certain area in his lower-middle anatomy. Before Joshi’s novel appeared, one of the publishers who had bid hard for it asked me to take a close look at its image-bashing. He wanted to know if the novel’s iconoclasm was phrased in a manner that injured the overall strength of its narrative, including the lampooning of Netaji. When I read the manuscript, my publishing antennae cocked up in alarm at its potential volatility. It seemed to me that Joshi was an artistically and linguistically inspired anarchist, a version of Rushdie, who had set about clearing out some of the settled pieties of Hinduism and cultural nationalism.
Unlike his short story, in which Netaji was the object of some good fun, nothing more, Joshi was now burying an ice-pick into Bengal’s holiest cow — not to mention swinging scurrilously out against a variety of Hindu “bhagwans and bhagwanesses” (Joshi’s phrase). What would happen in Bengal and elsewhere in Hindu-dominant India when the novel appeared' Would the Forward Bloc take to the streets and burn copies' They had burnt copies of the volume of Netaji’s Collected Works containing letters to his Austrian wife, Emilie Schenkl, merely because the letters showed a normal man, a lover and a father who was no god. What might Mamatadi do' What if Bal Thackeray lit up, in a manner of speaking, seeing the book as a political opportunity'
I’m not sure if some of these worries were passed on to Joshi, but I do know that he stuck firmly to his guns, my publisher friend did not get to publish the book, HarperCollins picked it up and came into some decent pickings — which might have been handsomer if a Togadia clone had issued a fatwa or if someone equally daft had burnt the book. There must be very many reasons why Joshi’s book never made the fatwa-bestseller list, since lack of provocation was not one of them.
Certainly, the completely sensible attitude of the people who run Calcutta’s Netaji Bureau, Krishna Bose of the Trinamool Congress and Sugata Bose of Harvard, had something to do with the amazingly quiet reception of Joshi’s novel in Bengal. Their view of the matter was wholly Voltairean: they thought the book vile, but they did not dispute the author’s liberty to satirize their ancestor. Protest against publication and the censorship of ideas — however over-the-top the ideas might seem — also look inopportune to the politically sane, for publicly enforced disapproval only publicizes what might otherwise die a natural death. More mundane reasons — such as the book’s excessive linguistic fertility, it’s large size and therefore relatively high price, its pyrotechnical gyrations entailing futurist settings alongside prolonged flashbacks — perhaps also contributed to the quietly commendatory and pleasantly bhadra tenor of its reception.
I must confess to being disappointed by the lack of fireworks. I was hoping that my favourite hypothesis about Hindus, which sensibly ridicules the notion of their timeless tolerance — that is, the hypothesis which says that Hindus are no less intolerant and no less violent than Muslims and Christians, they’ve just had fewer opportunities because they’ve always been at the receiving end — would be proved when Joshi’s novel was published.
The book came attached with a mile-long fuse and the lack of combustion around bookshops does not suggest to me that Hindus in Bengal or anywhere else are unprejudiced as a people. It only suggests other things: (1) that few Indians read books, fewer read difficult ones, and most buy books if sleaze, scandal or Shobhaa Dé are assured by the blurb, (2) that Hindu lumpens were otherwise engaged when this book appeared, else it would have burnt and sold, (3) that perhaps Bengalis have got used to the idea that Netaji is dead and don’t want his death resurrected in fiction, (4) that the book remains intrinsically inflammatory and, some day, if Hindu fascism takes over Marxism’s last political stronghold, not even Joshi’s fine essay eulogizing Sat- yajit Ray will do him much good.
Meanwhile, another icon has suffered the same fate more recently. Gandhi has been lampooned by the wicked West. A magazine called Maxim has dared to show an image of the Father of the Indian nation, our nation, being demolished. This has got some of our disgruntled politicos very worked up. They want the Indian government to protest to the Americans against this desecration of what is supposedly India’s intellectual property — Gandhi’s heritage. Our aggrieved rabble-rousers have not exactly thought through the implications of such a complaint: they would have precious little to say if the West wrote right back and asked what Indians have been doing in the recent past except demolishing every vestige of Gandhi’s legacy — most pointedly in his home state. Could it be true that Maxim’s fault lies in showing us an image of ourselves uncomfortably close to the bone'
The Indians whose sentiments are supposedly hurt by the West’s profanation of Gandhi are the sort who would rejoice at similar profanities against the Prophet Muhammad. The fact is that, 55 years after Gandhi’s death, our precious Hindu India is, in many of its fastest growing political and cultural manifestations, as intolerant, xenophobic and insular as imperial Britain or fascist Germany was 60 years ago.
It is, in short, a country within which Gandhi — not just Sonia, but also the Mahatma — could quite naturally be thought of as “foreign”. What precisely does the word “foreign” mean in our context' Have Hindus been exploited any less by other Hindus than by foreigners' George Orwell put it well in “The Lion and the Unicorn” (1940): “It is a commonplace that the average Indian suffers far more from his own countrymen than from the British. The petty Indian capitalist exploits the town worker with the utmost ruthlessness, the peasant lives from birth to death in the grip of the money-lender.” Orwell might well have added that the average low-caste Hindu, who makes up the bulk of the Indian population, is persecuted day in and day out not by any foreigner but by his fellow Hindu of the upper caste. Even when he was alive, it was clear that though Mahatma Gandhi was native to India in certain essential ways, he was completely foreign in other ways: mainly in his acceptance of many things “foreign”, such as Muslims and Christians; his punctuality and punctiliousness; his use of the English language and his English companions (Andrews, Mirabehn).
The Mahatma’s acceptance of what bigoted Hindus are now defining as “foreign” actually makes Gandhi completely foreign to India. Gandhi was an amalgam of East and West, nearly as completely as Nehru. Both leaders — one religiously tolerant and the other agnostically secular — no longer really belong to the India that is fast being fashioned by fundamentalism, and the sooner we accept that these icons are as foreign in majoritarian Hindu India as Lenin in capitalist Russia, the less peeved we’re likely to feel with the West’s rampant, indiscriminate — and in many ways intellectually healthy — iconoclasm.
I don’t know about Netaji, humour was not one of his stronger points, but if Gandhi and Nehru were alive today, they would have been British enough to have joined in laughter at their own expense. Both would have been foreign enough to recognize that satire, parody and caricature are necessary to keep at bay the excesses of religious piety and cultural fascism that are killing us into becoming nationalists of the narrowest kind.