The writer and the riot

Palash Krishna Mehrotra | Updated on March 06, 2020

Darkening days: Does fiction become meaningless in fascist times?   -  SANDEEP SAXENA

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  BLink

In an imaginary watering hole for authors, violence is a hot topic of conversation

In my very first BLink column, I’d written about an imaginary watering hole for authors, the Writer’s Bar & Café (WBC). In these fraught times, it’s worth returning to the fictitious WBC, just to eavesdrop on the conversations that writers are having nowadays.

On the table nearest to the cash counter, two writers sit moaning the typos that afflict Twitter hashtags. “Did you notice that first #DelhiVoilence trended, followed by #DelhiViolance?”

“Isn’t that a trivial thing to discuss when there is murder, mayhem and carnage outside?”

“Words are all a writer has. Next you’ll say it’s trivial to discuss the difference between pogrom and riot.”

I move to the next table, the only one with a window seat.

“Have you attended even one march or protest?”

“No. I have a novel to finish. I will admit though that it’s difficult to sustain the tunnel view when news constantly intrudes and imposes. But I prefer to live in my personal Malgudi. That’s the job I signed up for.”

The third table is discussing the crippling effects of despair.

“No one feels empathy anymore. Is this the reader that I’m writing for? Fiction becomes meaningless in fascist times. There is no point.”

“No, no, you can’t go down that road. This is not the time to despair. This is the time to resist.”

“What do you mean resist? Such an abstract term. Anyway, I’m a fiction writer, not a reporter. I might respond to this period in history but at a later stage.”

“There won’t be a later stage.”

On the fourth table sit two of the oldest patrons of WBC, both 93, veterans of the Partition and multiple conflagrations. The tenor of the conversation here is that literature has seen everything. They talk about Primo Levi and Osip Mandelstam.

“What irritates the fascist more? I’d say the writer who writes about the ordinary in extraordinary times”

“But that suits the fascist.”

“Perhaps it doesn’t. The fascist wants you to be affected by politics. Each citizen, including the writer, should be seen to be involved in ‘the struggle’. Your steadfast resolve and refusal to do so can only provoke him.”

“Why are fascists so scared of writers?”

“The writer never stops thinking and writing, even if you throw her in the Gulag.”

At the fifth table sit two young activist poets, connected by craft to those around, but also slightly disconnected from them by the age difference.

“These guys just sit and talk. How’s your new poem coming along?”

“Coming along great. How many views did your last one get on YouTube?”

“Not as many as the one before that. Constantly going viral has spoilt me.”

“Such a good time to be a poet. Who would have thought?! I clocked six viral poems in Jan-Feb alone. And then this publisher got in touch...”

On the table next to the poets sit a bunch of aspiring scriptwriters. They’ve been coming here for months and, every time I pass their table, I only hear the words pitch, showrunner, Amazon, Netflix, OTT.

“Man, both markets are there for the taking: Bhakt and liberal. What difference does it make to us? We can write for both.”

“Bro, but what about principles, integrity, standing up for what you believe in?”

“Bhai, do you want to be rich or not. We know what the bhakts want, we know what the liberals want. As bilingual Indians why are we not exploiting this strength?”

By now, the reader must be thinking: Where are the bhakt writers in WBC? I’ve often wondered the same. After much thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that there just aren’t enough of them around. And yet, two bhakt writers visit regularly. They always sit at table number seven. They hardly converse among themselves. They are absorbed in reading and writing. I steal a glance at what they are up to.

One sits with a rubber stamp and purple pad, stamping each page of a lined register with ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. The other has run through several registers with verses copied from the Hanuman Chalisa. They don’t bother me and I them. Though every once in a while, one of them looks up and around; his face contorts to a grimace and a snarl: “These traitors...,” he says, and goes back to his punishment copying lines.

And now, to the last table, the only one that looks out on to the sidewalk. From here one can watch life go by, and, if one is not careful, life does pass one by. This table is usually occupied by what I call ‘the dialogue types.’ Good-hearted liberal authors sit with their good-hearted bhakt readers and try and convert them to reason and rationality. The discussions are raucous and never-ending. Voices rise, teapots are thumped down and the twain never meets. The next day they are back and the arguments begin all over again. This table, dear reader, is also my favourite, and that’s because it’s also my most lucrative one. Come hail or snow, it never empties; the orders never stop coming. I don’t mind a couple of smashed saucers.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra   -  BLink


Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of ‘Eunuch Park’ and the editor of ‘House Spirit: Drinking in India’

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Published on March 06, 2020
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