Taseer versus Dalrymple: Top recent Indian literary spats

Five plots, a few bad characters and a twist in the tale.

 |  5-minute read |   11-09-2015
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Last week, columnist Malavika Sangghvi wrote about a leaked email exchange (from a couple of months ago) between Aatish Taseer and William Dalrymple, two writers who have a little bit of history. Dalrymple, apparently, sought to end the needle by offering an olive branch: he invited Taseer to speak at the 2016 Jaipur Literature Festival, on a panel discussion about Manto and the Partition (Taseer has, in the past, translated Manto’s stories into English).

Unfortunately, Taseer did not take too kindly to Dalrymple’s mail, because it had no mention of The Way Things Were, his new novel. Taseer wrote: “Willy, even you must know that you don't write to a writer in the week that he has published his most important work yet, and not so much as mention it. Manto?! What is Manto compared with what I have achieved in The Way Things Were? Do you really believe I don't know the worth of my own work? Here is a review, published yesterday — the first in the US — that goes part of the way in capturing my own high opinion of what I have done in The Way Things Were. Let me make this simple for you: go away and read my book. Then sit down and put in words your own admiration of it. After that I will gladly take seriously your invitation.” Thankfully, things did not escalate further, largely because the older (and presumably, wiser) Dalrymple replied politely and hoped to “bury the hatchet” in Jaipur.

It’s worth noting here that in a fictionalised “self-interview” Taseer wrote in 2011, he had drawn a thinly-veiled sketch of Dalrymple that wasn’t quite polite, to put it mildly. “I saw him at one of his book launches, a grotesque figure, a man become obese on the affections of Indians! He lay on a stage, this great whale of a man, dressed in a mirrorwork kaftan, if you please, his dirty feet hanging off. And all about him, like little pixies, Baul singers skittered around...”

Taseer/Dalrymple Part II brought back memories of some of the most prominent Indian literary spats in recent times:

Ananya Vajpeyi vs Arundhati Roy

About 13 months ago, the blogger/photographer Mayank Austen Soofi leaked an email that author and academic Vajpeyi had written to writer Akshay Pathak. The point of conflict was simple: Roy had, not too long ago, written a novella-length introductory essay for a new Navayana edition of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, annotated by publisher S Anand. Vajpeyi, in her email, suggested that the edition was “illegal” because it did not take prior permission from a Mumbai-based committee. (“The writings of Phule and Ambedkar are controlled and managed by an especially constituted committee with an office in Mumbai.”) She then questioned the credentials of both author the (Roy) and the publisher (Anand) before quietly supplying Pathak with tips on how to go about banning Roy’s essay.

“Ambedkar is doubtless important for us all, but his works are not a free-for-all. A person who is a publisher not a scholar, and a writer who is an essayist and novelist not a scholar, arguably have little standing or authority to first of all take as their own, and then substantially meddle with, a text like annihilation of caste. Without the copyright-owning committee’s express permission, their claim to be putting forth ‘an annotated critical edition’ is further disqualified.”

VS Naipaul vs Girish Karnad

Naipaul is generally the writer dishing out the beatings, not receiving them: one remembers him trolling Salman Rushdie at the peak of the fatwa days; he said that the fatwa was “an extreme form of literary criticism”. In 2012, though, veteran playwright Girish Karnad executed a literary chokeslam on the Nobel Laureate. First, Karnad blasted Naipaul for his “irresponsible remarks about Muslims”, at the very festival that was giving him a lifetime achievement award. Next, he wrote a column in India Today that basically said that Naipaul won the Nobel right after 9/11 because he was a brown Islamophobe.

Hartosh Singh Bal vs William Dalrymple

This is perhaps the most old-fashioned feud in this list, conducted through a back-and-forth volley of letters, all published by Open magazine, where Bal was working at the time (2011).

The first salvo was fired by Bal when he criticised Dalrymple (he called him “pompous”) and the Jaipur Literature Festival; he saw JLF as symptomatic of India’s colonial hangover. Dalrymple responded aggressively, calling the piece “blatantly racist” and pointing out that JLF scored high on diversity and number of visiting writers who wrote in languages other than English. Bal then wrote a response to the response, which ended with a hypothesis: that in a drinking match between the two, Dalrymple would probably lose out to his “Punjabi appetite”. We are told that the two did, in fact, settle the score with a drink (or six).

Avirook Sen vs Ellen Barry

The last spat on this list is also the most recent one. Sen is the author of Aarushi, a “true crime” book based on the notorious Aarushi Talwar murder case. Ellen Barry, the South Asia bureau chief of The New York Times, had written a less-than-flattering review of the book for The Wire.

On August 27, they were both present at Delhi’s India International Centre, at a panel discussion moderated by Manu Joseph. To the surprise of everyone present there, Sen lost no time in ripping into Barry, saying that her “thoughtless” review was an example of “bad journalism” (simply because she had mixed up the name of Hemraj, the Talwar’s manservant, calling him “Hemant”) and asked, in a taunting manner, whether her review would have passed muster at The New York Times.

By all accounts (and there were two prominent ones: the indefatigable Mayank Austen Soofi and Nikita Saxena for The Caravan), Sen’s behaviour was unacceptable and patronising. May the Lord have mercy on the poor old literary critic: you can now be skewered publicly for a clerical error while loud, aggressive “crime writers” chest-thump after writing a book of reportage that makes no attempt at objectivity.


Aditya Mani Jha Aditya Mani Jha @aditya_mani_jha

Writer works at Penguin Random House India. The views expressed here are his own.

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