Mumbai Expressions – Anju Makhija

In past few months, creative people have been in the news for the wrong reasons. Till Charlie Hebdo was killed, few around the world had heard of his talent. Now, the ‘I am Charlie’ slogan has almost become part of our Untitled-1 copydaily vocabulary. Many columnists here continue to use the catch-phrase. For instance,‘I am Sunanda’ has found its way everywhere as the trial of SunandaPushkar, wife of author/politician, Shashi Tharoor, continues.  Over a year ago, she was found dead in a hotel room under unexplained circumstances. Now, the Delhi police haveregistered it as a murder case. The marriage had turned sour and a twitter spat of Sunandawith Pakistani journalist, MehrTarar, exposed the strained relationship.  Full-fledged investigations are on and many writers, like Shobha De, are requesting an impartial probe to the murder. Tharooris active in his literary life and justreleased the book, India Shashtraamong all the chaos and accusations.



Yet another political writer who was trouble here is Italian author, Javier Moro.  Some people have demanded a ban on his book, The Red Sari, an unauthorized biography of Congress party chief, Sonia Gandhi. The protesters claim the book is a fictional account of reality.  This has rekindled the age-old debate of how far a creative artist should go.  Does he need to be sensitive to othersor enjoy full liberty? In an interesting development, a major publishing house has asked its authors to avoid any mention of pork and pork-related products in their books so as not to unintentionally offend religious sensibilities.  A spokesperson for the publisher said that as their educational books were sold in over two hundred countries, cultural differences and sensitivities between different ‘geographies’ had to be borne in mind.   In another interesting development, beef has been banned  here and this has not only created a furore among hoteliers but many see it as going against their rights; some see it as being religiously motivated(we must remember that Hindus, in India hold the cow in reverence).



Tamil writer PerumalMurugan’s novel, One Part Woman, has also been hurting some sentiments. There were objections to certain portions which were derogatory to women and Hindu culture.  The original Tamil version was published four years ago but protests were triggered by the new English translation. The novel revolves around the futile efforts of a childless couple to conceive, till the night of the car festival in the village temple, when rules are relaxed and consensual union between any man and woman is sanctioned.  Tired of the controversy, the author announced in a Facebook post:   ‘PerumalMurugan, the writer, is dead.  He will not resurrect himself as he is not god.   He also has no faith in rebirth.  He will live as an ordinary teacher.’   He also announced the withdrawal of his works and vowed not to write anymore! Publisher Urvashi Bhataliareacted strongly, she wrote:  writers aren’t warriors, they need support from the intellectual elite, the media and the secular state to stand up for them and protect them…if we don’t unite on this, there is a real danger of losing all forms of freedom of expression.



A few cartoonisthave reacted to all this.   The joke going around is:  yes, I know the writer is dead, just make sure he hasn’t become a ghost writer now!  Stand-up comedians havealso picked up on the increasing censorship.  A documentary, I am Offended, aboutstand-up comedy in India has just been produced.  The film features top comedians like Vir Das, Cyrus Broacha, Johnny Lever and legendary humorist, Pu.La. Deshpande.  It focuses on the rising level of intolerance among people, as well as on the freedom of expression and emphasizes the role of humour in this rather grim world we seem to have created for ourselves.



Some time ago activists too raised their voices against the murder of Avijit Roy, a prominent Bangladeshi-American blogger known for speaking out against religious extremism.  Roy had founded a popular Bangali-language blog, Muktomona(free mind) which featured articles on scientific reasoning and religion.



This continues to be the season of censorship.  Indians have always been sensitive to those who present their culture in a very sensational way.  The documentary film made by British filmmaker LesleeUdwin, India’sDaughter, based on the Nirbhayarape case was supposed to be released on International Women’s Day but was barred by the Indian government. Reacting to the strong reactions, Udwin stated that she had followed all the necessary protocols including seeking prior permission from authorities before interviewing the rapist in jail.She emphasized that many creative people had supported her. However, one must remember that most developing countries would like to project themselves in a positive light and certain events are often highlighted for commercial purposes.



Saari Raat 2The big news in Mumbai is that now Marathi has been declared a classical language. There are several eligibility criteria to declare a language as classical.  Its earliest recorded texts or history should be 1,500 to 2,000 years old and its literary tradition must be original and not borrowed from another tongue or community.  The provision to confer classical status to languages was made by a constitutional decree in 2004.  Tamil was the first to be designated (2004).  It was followed by Sanskrit (2005), Kannada (2008) Telugu (2008), Malayalam (2013) and Odiya (2014).



For those who enjoy the festival circuit, the latest addition to the Mumbai scene is Stage-42.  It showcases Indian and international artists in comedy, music and theatre. The other new festival is Lit-O-Festwhich promises to give equal importance to English, Hindi and all the regional languages.  Most festivals are in English and tend to ignore our regional richness.



The Hindi theatre in India has some great figures like the late BadalSircar. He was an influential Indian dramatist and theatre director known for his anti-establishment plays during the Naxalite movement in the 1970s.  He wrote more than fifty plays of which EbongIndrajit, BasiKhabar, andSaariRaat are well known literary pieces.  He remains one of the most translated playwrights.  He was awarded the Padma Shri and theSangeetNatak Akademi prize.  A relatively new company, Dotted LineProductions,headed by Kanika Dang, a theatre, film stage and TV actor, recently stagedSaariRaat(directed by Riju Bajaj).The play has a multi-layered text that has withstood the test of time and deals with intricate man-woman relationships. Interestingly, an old man who lives in solitude, challenges them to open up to each other.  His character (played by S.M. Zaheer) is expertly renderedand is very philosophical and prophetic.



RK_LaxmanIndia’s most famous cartoonist, R.K. Laxman, passed away at 94 years.  The legendary figure was the creator of the mute spectator ‘common man’. Laxman was inspired by the work of British cartoonist, Sir David Low.  His sense of humourthough was purely Indian and he had an ability to spot the anomalies of any situation and convey them to the readers simply.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s message on the occasion was: we have lost a great cartoonist and also a morning smile forever. The government plans to build a memorial to inspire future generations.  When cartoonists are thus honored, it raises our hopes of living in a better world.



Sometimes,when institutions shut down, they are also mourned.  The closing down of Samovar at the Jehangir Art Gallery after 50 years was tragic.  More than a coffeehouse, it was a Mumbai symbol that occupied a verandah which overlooked the gardens of the Prince of Wales Museum.It was a meeting place for creative people like Mario Miranda, R. K. Laxman; even well-known actors like Amitabh and Jaya Bachchandropped in there in the earlier days. A senior editor, Vinod Mehta, too passed away.  His memoir, EditorUnplugged Media, Magnates, Netasand Me,has just been published.



The government has awoken to the need to preserve our past. Scanned archived documents have been put up online for public viewing. A new building named Maharashtra ArchiveDepartmenthas come up. The department has succeeded in scanning and microfilming 3 crore-odd precious documents including those of the Mughal era.  These includethe handprints of emperor Aurangzeb, a letter signed by warrior king Shivaji Maharaj and original documents from the British rule.



Anju Makhija is a Sahitya Akademi award-winning poet, translator and playwright based in Mumbai. She has written/edited books related to partition poetry, women’s verse and Indo-English plays. Her articles and columns have appeared in several publications including Indian Express, Pioneer, Independent and Mid-Day.