Like a caged bird in captivity…
These were the words ringing in my ears while the whole atmosphere of Jaipur Literary Festival was reverberating with one name-Salman Rushdie.
Will he come or won't he?
What is the government doing?
Why are not the organizers doing something to get him here?
What will happen to the writer's freedom of expression?
Such were the questions that filled the air. Though there were so many sessions in the festival in which a lot of intriguing issues were being debated animatedly, the name of one author appeared to be much more preponderant. The media was doing everything to exaggerate the importance of Rushdie's participation. Said the famous Srilankan Tamil poet Cheran, an exile from his motherland living in Canada for several decades: 'There are so many of us thrown out of our homelands after a close encounter with death. Why should this man's problem figuring so prominently? What is the politics behind it?'
When there are so many greater writers like Nguigi and Wole Soyinka in the contemporary world, and so many others hounded, persecuted, exiled, silenced, murdered or forced to commit suicide in the past, the way media and certain members of English-speaking literary intellegensia were chanting Rushdie's name seemed symptomatic of our eagerness to reduce wisdom and experience of ages to the purely contemporary.
Neither is freedom of expression threatened for the first time in history. It was never given. It was often wrested from the hostile world after great struggles. 'These are the pearls that I have gathered from the mouth of every tiger,' said the Peruvian poet Vajjio. Those who oppose the given cannot help being opposed. They just have two choices-to fight on or give in. It is therefore not a question of freedom but of responsibility to swear by what one has said.
I recollected all those I had known who in the past had taken consequences and then became rid of the fear of the given at the cost of everything. There were so many of them, both men and women. As Hafiz said:
Inside the prison of sorrow, though I am bound,
The last souls friends of fading light
Let me always remember....
I remembered Sant Jnaneshwar the great Marathi poet who passed away at a young age after writing his voluminous and invaluable poetry as he had always been hounded and humiliated by blindness and bigotry. Still he prayed, freed from rancor : Sada varshatu sarvamangali/ Anavarata bhoomandali
Let timely rain all the time bring auspisciousness
All over this vast earth
I remembered his contemporary and disciple Namdev, his heart devastated with the premature passing away of his master, exiled himself to Punjab, there to continue the mission of spreading his universal religion. The image of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu came to my mind. This highly revered saint now glorified by his sect wanted to rewrite the dhrmashastras to expunge it of caste and gender biases. But he disappeared mysteriously in Jagannath temple, now a bastion of orthodoxy. And of Meera who drank up the cup of poison Rana sent to her as if it were nectar.
Yes, I thought specially of those woman saints, past and present, who had neither home nor the world. Expelled from homes of conventions, they walked all their lives on the thorny path of the world beleaguered by greed but strewing their paths with rose petals of beautiful poetry. They haunted me particularly because both the sessions I was in centred around woman saint poets like Akka Mahadevi, Meera and Lalleshwari. Their message seemed to befriend me more in this world than the half-hearted struggles of the likes of Rushdie. There was no omnivorous media to hype their image in their times. Still, they became legends during their own times without intending or plotting to be so.
Centuries after their passing why do we still remember and celebrate the words they sang and spoke? This question was upper most in my mind as a saying of Akka was ringing in my ears:
Like an elephant cut off from his herd
Remembers his home in the Vindhyas
I always remember you
Like a parrot in captivity
Remembers her mate
I always remember you
'Come my little baby'
Show me your beauty O Father
Like the greatest Indian woman poets, Karaikkal Ammayar, Andal, Meera and Lalleshwari , Akka , the great 12th century woman saint poet from Karnataka, felt the home and the world to be captivity. After being thrown out of home and marriage, which is, alas, a recurrent theme in the lives of woman saints, past and present, she became a wanderer on the face of earth. She even shed her garments, the last symbols of protected womanhood, saying, 'Nakedness has become my divine garment'. She lived like someone sleeping on the swords edge, lusting and longing for her Beloved Channamallikarjuna, who is deathless because he was never born. He was her home and destiny. She lived, feeding herself on alms, drinking from wells and ponds, covering herself at times with abandoned clothes and sleeping in dilapidated buildings. It was not just common men who waylaid her. Even great saints found her charms irresistible. But her heart was set on 'the one far, far away' She had no place for rest. She flowed like a purifying river through the hills and vales of our world.
What did the world give her? She did not even ask this question. She could not get any award, reward or citation. All she got were some intermittent praises from a handful of the truly perceptive of contemporary saints.
Such saint poets still fascinate and bewitch us, both men and women, because of a reason valid but beyond our ken. We have been using our own limited frames to understand them, we have been using our own limited frames: theologies, ideologies like progressivism, socialism, liberalism, gender-ism and so on. But they elude us as they eluded their own times. What I think makes them still relevant to us and our posterity is their unbridled passion for love and freedom which no system can contain. They found their homes in their exiled existence in their own worlds. They found fulfillment in failure, freedom in captivity, peace in storm. As Lalleshwari said, 'I went looking for Him far and wide. But when I returned home I found Him.'
After being betrayed by utopias of both left, right and centre, we are still looking for spaces of unbridled freedom in our world. We are imagining the freeplay of difference in a milieu which is a battleground of many kinds of fundamentalism.
This is what creates Rushdie-like situations while trying to tame the untamable world without having the courage to throw our world as Akka threw away her clothes, we will continue to escape from one no-exit state to another.
More about H S Shivaprakash
Prof H S Shivaprakash is an acclaimed English professor and writer. He is currently working as the Director, Tagore Centre, Berlin at Indian Embassy in Germany. He is also heading India's cultural mission in Germany. He was the Dean, Department of Arts and Aesthetics Studies at the JNU, Delhi. He was also the Editor of Kendra Sahithya Academy journal ' Indian Literature'. He Authored eight books of poems, nine plays, two books of criticism in Kannada and English. He is a recipient of Central Sangeet, Natak Academy Award and MHRD Fellowship for Literature.
- + The evolution of modern Indian theatre
- + Contemporary Indian literatures
- + Shifting current
- + Loss of home
- + When seasons slow down
- + Language, the basis of unity and conflict
- + The streams of South Indian cinema
- + Dynamics of pre-modern South Indian cultures
- + Currents and cross-currents of South Indian cultures