And Kolkata shrugged

Everyone in authority is trying to shrug off the Rushdie incident, a cautionary precedent for a city which values free expression. After this, something about Kolkata is bound to change. Let me illustrate with a concrete example. When I was in college in Kolkata, my teachers brought Hanif Kureishi to the classroom one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945, according to the London Times. This was before we had access to literary festivals and book promos. My Beautiful Laundrette, which he had scripted, was a sensation in indie cinema, so it was a special privilege.

Kureishi wanted to talk about Prick Up Your Ears, a film about the homosexual playwright Joe Orton. It was the latest venture of Stephen Frears, who had made Laundrette and would soon hit the bigtime with Dangerous Liaisons. Everyone was intrigued by the title, and Kureishi let the curiosity build before announcing that "Ears" was an anagram of "A**e". "You asked, I told you," he smirked jubilantly. It could have fetched a few titters in central London but in late eighties Jadavpur, it felt flat. The audience had expected something more substantial than a silly anatomical pun.

Were the same scene to be replayed today, Hanif Kureishi would think twice before explaining the joke, and his audience would not think twice before attacking him. Because the centrality of art in life and its role as an arbiter in politics are lost. Only temporarily, it is hoped.

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