It is literature and the arts -- more than politics or religion -- that hold the possibility of peace, because they allow open spaces for imagination, dialogue, dissent, and plurality. Even for questioning the Truth. This is why we must guard against the enclosure of these spaces, says Ashok Vajpeyi
Open spaces are open not only physically, but also metaphysically; they are spaces that allow imagination and invention, dialogue and dissent, and above all, plurality.
Constitutionally and theoretically, our Parliament is supposed to be an open space. But Parliament is in fact at the moment closed, enclosed by forces which are unparliamentary -- forces of the market, forces of ‘free’ society.
The media is supposed to be the custodian of our liberties. In many ways it is open, but look at the phenomenon of paid news, their utter indifference to music, dance, theatre, visual arts. The media has almost systematically closed the space which spiritually and intellectually was supposed to be open space.
Our economy is a ‘free’ economy. And yet it is completely bypassing the poor, the exploited, the suppressed. We claim to have a rate of growth of 8.5%, which is one of the highest rates of economic growth in the world. But it is an economy which is growing at the cost of millions of people.
All religions in the world today are regressive and violent: far from open. They are not only intolerant of other religions, they are intolerant of their own plurality.
So this is the story of the open spaces that exist in India. Actually, this is the story of the absence or the shrinking of open spaces. The arts and literature in this country have at least retained some of the aspects of open spaces. I wouldn’t go to the extent of saying that they are the only open spaces, but they are at least some of the more open spaces in our situation. But they cannot remain open for long if politics, economy, spirituality do not allow or sustain openness. Their openness is contingent on openness elsewhere. And at the moment I have a feeling that they have an adversarial relationship with our own society which has turned so violent, so non-pluralistic, that it is increasingly being pushed to close spaces.
My contention is that today the real opposition, if you like, the real political opposition, exists in literature and the arts and not in politics. Because it is there that plurality has been embodied, sustained and followed with vigour and with dedication. The arts allow a plurality of visions, styles, approaches, idioms.
Indian plurality cannot be enclosed in a generality. Plurality is also a generalisation, I am aware, but plurality is at least a generalisation that allows for this openness which other generalisations don’t. So in literature we have any number of Marxists and we have people who are not Marxists. And both exist, furiously fight, but survive merrily in the literary arena. Literature is that space where either/or co-exist. Oscar Wilde famously said: “Artistic truth is one whose contradiction is also true.” You can’t claim this in religion -- either you believe or you don’t believe. In politics, either you are with me or you are with my enemy. The arts make you ponder. Literature and the arts are not concerned with Truth. Actually, truth itself, according to me, is a dictatorial concept. It demands perfection. Literature and the arts are concerned with reality, which is much more chaotic, admitting of contradictions, and ultimately questioning the dictatorship of truth. And everyone who has destroyed the world, either through ideas or through armies, has claimed to know the truth. The moment someone says “I know the truth,” he becomes a danger to humanity because humanity has not given unto any one of us to know the truth -- we are imperfect beings, dreaming of perfection and knowing full well that we shall never reach the threshold of perfection. That is the essence of being human. That is the human truth.
The arts have a way of opening all enclosures and bursting out sooner or later. Nazim Hikmet was jailed in Turkey because he was a communist. He started composing poetry in his head, and remembering it. Here was a man put into an absolutely closed and guarded space, but he finds a manner in which to free himself. The Jews in concentration camps -- I have been to Auschwitz in Poland -- had no writing instruments, but some of them wrote with their nails, some of them made pictures.
The arts break out into the open because the truths -- I am using this term in a more general sense having earlier attacked the idea of truth altogether -- that literature and the arts propose, or embody or enact, are half-truths. Which means you have to add a bit of your own truth to it to make it complete. And this is the radically democratic nature of the enjoyment of all arts and literature. You cannot respond to, read, witness or enjoy art unless you participate in it in some way. This nature of making you a participant in the creative act itself is the permanent guarantee, in a manner of speaking, that this space will remain open and vulnerable.
Now let us look at spaces which are open, but which are not vulnerable, and so they are to that extent a little less human, a little less for our purposes. We need spaces which are both open and vulnerable. And these spaces created by the arts and literature have some very strong lessons embedded in them -- whether you learn them or not is besides the point -- and one of them is that we have a human responsibility towards others, that we cannot exist without others. And these ‘others’ do not mean only other human beings -- we are responsible to other beings, other forms of life, to nature, to the environment, and we are also responsible for what has gone before us and what will come in future.
Nowadays you are being made to live in an eternal present. As if, in a civilisation which is 5,000 years old, public memory has become so short that we do not even remember what happened 25 years ago. A cat doesn’t recall that there were cats in the 17th century; a dog doesn’t recall that there must have been dogs in the 10th century. But we, Homo sapiens, do recall, given an opportunity, that there were human beings 5,000 or 7,000 years ago. Part of the riches that we have are language and memory. And there is a global conspiracy to make us forget. Forget about Partition, forget about Babri Masjid, forget about Gujarat! Let us go ahead. But one of the functions of literature and the arts is to remind you that you should not forget, to remind you that you are responsible, that you cannot get away just by saying “let’s go ahead, you know we didn’t do it”. Yes of course we didn’t do it: given an opportunity we would have done it.
This is what the arts tell you -- that ultimately, we are them, and they are us. This is the big lesson: that there is no difference. Well, yes, there are differences but why do we read novels that are completely out of our experience and yet are moved by them? Because ultimately, they are us and we are them. This is the ultimate opening of all spaces. And as long as we realise that we are them and they are us, these spaces shall remain open.
But look at what’s happening today. Look at what happened to M F Husain, to Salman Rushdie, and so many others. All the open spaces are being systematically enclosed.
Indian modernism was defined by two spokesmen: Vivekananda who said a Christian should not become a Hindu, a Hindu should not become a Christian, a Muslim should not become a Hindu, etc; they can remain what they are, yet reach whatever it is that they want to reach through religion. And Gandhiji who was asked a question: If all religions lead to the same god, why should there be so many religions? He answered that all religions are true but they are all imperfect and that’s why we need a plurality of religions. The Hanuman Gadhi in Ayodhya is opened every morning by a Muslim chowkidar. We have had a long tradition of living together. Equally, we have had a long tradition of fighting -- but we did not close the space. We kept these spaces open in terms of conventions, rituals. But once the identity bug comes then one has to assert that I am more Hindu than others, I am more Muslim than others, I am more Christian than others, and whatever. That creates a problem.
Let me finish with this very interesting thought: everything that exists can also not exist. Thought, music, nations… Let us remember, that which exists may not exist. If today open spaces exist, tomorrow they may not unless we are alert, unless we see that these open spaces don’t close, are not allowed to be closed, that they remain vulnerable and therefore open, and therefore human.
(Ashok Vajpeyi is a poet, translator and cultural commentator. This article is drawn from his talk on ‘Open Spaces’ in Pune, as part of the CCDS-Open Space ‘Keeping the Peace’ lecture series)
Infochange News & Features, October 2011