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Sunil Sethi: The world of literary exiles


Sunil Sethi  |  New Delhi 

Dominique Lapierre, the French writer and old India hand, author of bestsellers like City of Joy, has been in Delhi this week to promote a new book, and he is shocked by the eruption of violence in Nandigram and Kolkata. Every year Lapierre's City of Joy Foundation raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for a large number of charitable projects in the state, from financing facilities for lepers' and handicapped children, running dispensary boats in the Sundarbans, sinking tubewells and building latrines in the Ganges delta. "I completely deplore the state government's expulsion of Taslima Nasrin. And on principle I am against the construction of chemical plants in populated areas," he said. (One of his recent books, It Was Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, is a graphic retelling of the industrial disaster of 1984.)
Like Taslima, writers like Lapierre regard India as their second home. In the case of the 45-year-old Bangladeshi writer, who has been on the run since 1994, when she was hounded out of her country for her writings, the need is not merely for a homeland, real or imagined, but for sanctuary. Ever since she came to settle in Kolkata she has sought permission for residence in India. Now that she has been put to flight again, being shunted from one city to another, that request has become a desperate plea for political asylum. Yet it's a reflection of the cynical expediency of the Communist government in Bengal "" a state that wants to industrialise and be seen as part of the globalised world "" that it is unable to protect a foreign intellectual in a city that revels in its portrayal as the intellectual hub of India.
Rootlessness and exile, Salman Rushdie once said, remain the lot of writers in our time. How much really changed since the Jewish diaspora of the 20th century began, with intellectuals fleeing the horrors of Nazi Germany, followed by Russians and east Europeans defecting to the safe houses of the West or Africans driven from the apartheid regime?
On her official website, Taslima does not see the unchanging order of the world as a conflict between East and West but as a "conflict between modern, rational, logical thinking and irrational, blind faith ... a conflict between the future and the past ... between those who value freedom and those who do not".
Shortly after Salman Rushdie's famous novel Midnight's Children became a success in 1981 and made him rich, he was asked what he most wanted to do with the money. "Buy a flat in Bombay" was the prompt reply. And even though he has spent much of his life eluding fatwas since then, the dream hasn't quite left him. At a literary festival in Jaipur earlier this year, he spoke of his brief stay in Pakistan (the Rushdie family left India several years after Partition) with distaste. India was where his mind "" like his fiction "" remained rooted. Or why else would he undertake long-drawn-out and expensive legal battles to reclaim his family properties in Solan and Delhi?
In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a character, echoing the author's deepest desire, speaks of "India, my terra firma, my maelstrom, my cornucopia, my crowd ... my mother, my father and my first great truth". And Taslima in a poem writes: "India was not a waste paper that it should have been torn apart ... I want to rub out the word forty seven ... I want to recover the undivided land of my forebears."
There are some who consider writers like Taslima and Rushdie, in their words and actions, to be provocateurs and sensationalists. But, surely, it was the provocations of history that created them and their challenging literature of exile. The idea of India is larger and more powerful than the sum of its parts. The trouble is that some of its leaders find that hard to believe.

First Published: Sat, December 01 2007. 00:00 IST