Keki Daruwalla returns his Akademi Award

Dear Dr. Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari,

This is in continuation of my letter of October 10, 2015, and it is with a heavy heart that I write this. The Sahitya Akademi has indeed done laudable work in the past, possibly in the present under your guidance as well, in nurturing the literatures, especially of our Indian languages. The institution and its office bearers deserve credit for this.

But sadly in recent months it has not stood up as boldly as it should for values that any literature stands for, namely freedom of expression against threat, upholding the rights of the marginalised, speaking up against superstitions and intolerance of any kind. The Akademi has also not distinguished itself in standing by authors who are under political duress. Nor has the Akademi, under your dispensation, spoken out against organizations / ideological collectives that have used physical violence of the worst sort against authors. That Dr. MM Kalburgi, a Sahitya Akademi prize winner should be killed for no other reason except his rationalist views is something that cannot pass muster without some protest from brother authors. A goon rings a door bell at dawn; he opens the door and gets shot. This could happen to you and me Tiwariji.

At the same time I realise the limitations of the Akademi. It is not the state or the CID, it can’t prevent crimes or hasten investigation. But it has a voice and that could have been used for attacking the mindset which is behind such murders.

I wish to make it clear that I have no party leanings. I was no lover of the corrupt UPA 2. People like the late Dhabolkar were murdered during the previous dispensation. The landscape that confronts the writer today is bleak. People will die in our country for eating beef, or pork, perhaps one sad day for eating muttar paneer—a dish invented by us home-grown Aryans who never came across the mountains. People in the south could take umbrage at the concoction, you never know. Faces will continue to be blackened with paint and painters like M.F. Hussein will be forced into exile. A writer like Taslima Nasreen will have to leave Kolkota under a leftist regime. Statesmen will continue to be praised for their nationalism ‘despite’ the fact they are Muslims. Mob murders will continue to be described as accidents.

The Hon’ble Culture Minister has been quoted in the press as saying that let writers not write. It was up to you to put across to him that it would be a sad day for literature and the arts, if this were to happen. He has also been quoted as stating, “There have been many riots earlier. When did they (authors) last return their awards?” (Indian Express, October 13, 2015). The Minister, who I am certain means well, needed to be informed that all authors are not protesting against riots alone. Some like me are protesting more for the fact that the Akademi kept silent, and lacked the boldness to stand up for a murdered author. That is also a major reason behind this ferment.

Lastly, respected novelists like Nayantara Sahgal, poets like Ashok Vajpeyi and others have been attacked in certain quarters in the vilest possible terms. I would have expected the Akademi to intervene. It did not.

I admit this award I got is prestigious and I must have gained in reputation from it. It still is almost the only award open to a poet writing in English. But there are times when one must stand up to be counted, as the cliché goes. The rising tide of intolerance being what it is, I am constrained to return the Sahitya Akademi Award (1984). My signed letter and cheque will be in your office tomorrow.

With best wishes,

Yours Sincerely,

Keki N. Daruwalla

October 14, 2015

Meena Alexander writes from New York in Solidarity

Silenced writer. I start with that. Without silence the words we treasure, the words we measure our lives by, could not appear. But silenced is different.

I see a child who has no books, no pens, and scribbles words in the dirt, words that threaten to fly off and join the stick insects on the bark of a nearby tree. I see a grandmother dressed in a wrinkled white sari, her hand on the cloth that covers her thigh; over and over again she marks the jut and whorl of a classical script she has taught herself with difficulty. She writes lines that can never appear, skid of invisible script.

I see bodies in public places, bodies threatened, beaten, banned. Barbed wire, coils of it glinting in sunlight. Bars of a prison cage, the writer crouched inside, parrots above the cage chattering in heat. In the market place fear so palpable, people wrinkle up their noses and cover their faces with their handkerchiefs.

Fear stinks, no one can breathe properly. Who will have the courage to write?

I see tunnels of smoke, gushing flame where once the great libraries stood. Barbarians, their faces covered with ski masks, looting, burning. Brick, mortar, marble melting, together with the precious imprints of hundreds and thousands of human souls. The barbarians are scared of these traces.

And the barbarians, who are they?

Where are they? Are they outside our gates? Or are they within?

Meena Alexander,

New York City, October 12, 2015

Nayantara Sehgal responds to Akademi President’s remarks:

To: Shri Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari

President, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi

Dear Tiwariji,

I am writing to you in response to your comments about me to the Indian Express of October 7th: “Her Award-winning book has been translated into several Indian languages. She earned all the profits. She can now return all the Award money, but what of the credibility and goodwill she earned through the Award?”

I have considered the Award a high honour, but my “credibility” had been established decades before 1986 through my long career as a writer, as had the “goodwill” and recognition I have received over many years in India and abroad. You have mentioned “profits”. The Award in 1986 would perhaps have been Rs. 25,000, but not more than Rs. 50,000. In consultation with Ashok Vajpeyi, who has also returned his Award, I am enclosing a cheque for one lakh rupees.

The fact that so many writers are returning their Awards or resigning from Akademi posts makes it clear how anguished we are that you have remained silent over the murder and intimidation of writers and the threat that hangs over dissent and debate. Has the Sahitya Akademi, like Pontius Pilate, washed its hands of its responsibility to safeguard our Constitutional right to freedom of speech?

Yours sincerely,

October 12, 2015