Karnadís civilising mission
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His charges against Naipaul smack of a new, post-9/11 orthodoxy that denies the complexity of identities and conflicts
The only good thing about our frequent literary brouhahas, it sometimes seems to me, might be nothing more than the excuse to use lively words like "brouhaha." Unless we are willing to confront a deeper truth than what Girish Karnad has supposedly called out in his celebrated denunciation of V.S. Naipaul, our frequent lit-fest spats may amount to nothing more than routine spectacles in which we merely show up to rehearse our parts and reassert our credentials.
It is interesting that Karnad talked about Orientalism in the context of his criticism of Naipaul. Edward Said's critique of colonial discourse remains as relevant as it has been influential, and one needn't be hard-put to hang that placard on a writer whose works (and words in daily life, reportedly) seem so strongly rooted in a worldview from that era. It no longer takes a doctorate to recognise sexism, racism, and apologies for imperialism; at least that is how it seems to me when I talk to students in the US and in India these days. There is, it would seem, a much more widespread liberal sensibility among students and younger readers today. Simply put, Naipaul's views on civilisation and the people who have failed to get it (according to him) are no surprise to anyone. We see them clearly for what they are.
But the charge that Karnad has led (and I say led, because it is obviously not without followers and fans), and how he has done it, have done less to condemn the presumptions in Naipaul's writings than to perpetuate some more recent Orientalist myths that have been in global circulation since 9/11 and the American War on Terror. These are not the usual myths and fears of the right, those that can be easily seen as Islamophobic. These are myths that come from the left, supposedly as a response to Islamophobia, and have a peculiar way of reducing the complexity of identities and conflicts in India to an equally simplistic good guys and bad guys framework. Post 9/11, Western South Asian experts (including occasional South Asians themselves), sought to argue that the notion of Islamic terrorism was not only highly exaggerated, but perhaps even paled before the dangers of Hindu terror, so fresh in their minds after Ayodhya and Gujarat. Pop culture too seemed to reflect the liberal, anti-Islamophobic Western worldview of South Asia. The Oscar-sweeping Slumdog Millionaire, after all, infamously replaced the everyman persona of the hero in the novel with a clear religious identity for him in the film. As if that wasn't enough of a statement, the film also spewed some overt Hindu mumbo-jumbo and imagery to accompany scenes depicting their savagery.