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Monday, March 22, 2010

(Published on 20th March, 2010, in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express)

Having spent five years begging anyone who visits London to bring him Madras Filter Coffee powder, sneaking free rides between the Kenton and Wembley Central tube stations (where the ticket machines are broken) and moonlighting at half a dozen places outside his day job, a friend of mine is now ready to take the British citizenship test. Speaking to him after his “permanent residence”, or the more official but less welcoming “indefinite leave to remain” was granted, I told him he really needn’t have gone to all the trouble – all he had to do was offend religious sentiments back home.

“Really, how difficult is it to paint a couple of nude Goddesses? Or bestiality in unlikely positions?” I asked.

“But see, I don’t want citizenship in Qatar. I’d have to offend minority religious sentiments to get British citizenship, and then I’d have a fatwa on my head!” he protested, “God knows I don’t want Salman Rushdie’s life!”

“Hmm…or Taslima Nasrin’s,” I had to concede he had a point. “But is Qatar out of the question? You know, you could cheat on tax in India for years and they probably won’t be able to try you at all!”

“Maybe I should visit and see how I like life in the Emirates,” he said, thoughtfully, “and, of course, the media would be speaking up for me and defending secularism and all…”

“Tempting, isn’t it?”

After I hung up, I conjured up visions of people asking me to comment on my friend’s self-imposed exile, were he to turn out a semi-Cubist work that was offensive enough for him to win citizenship in an absolute monarchy, if not in an obsolete one. I’ve always wanted to know someone who got away with criminal cases by coolly renouncing his Indian citizenship.

I could cite the “Picasso of India”, Mr. Husain, as a precedent for my friend, and wax poetic about how we should hang our heads in shame for having lost such a great talent – I’m reasonably sure my friend can make good cartoons of nudity and bestiality. But, of course, in his secular drive, he must make sure he doesn’t offend religions that don’t have a Pantheon. I wouldn’t want his works to get banned/ semi-banned like those of Dan Brown, Rushdie and Nasrin.

It’s a pity the other Polytheistic religions – the Greek, Roman and Egyptian ones – have been wiped out, or he could have been more innovative and chosen to target those. I wonder if desecration of the Aboriginal, Maori or Native American religions would evoke the same call for a defence of the poor, dear, innocent artist. Do the big, bad Hindu Fundamentalists have counterparts in those cultures? Unfortunately, I don’t think so – I’ve read too many reports on ‘ethnic’ families being separated and the pieces assimilated into the dominant culture for me to hope there are baddie organisations there. So it looks like my friend will have to stick to drawing Goddesses mating with their vahanas, or cheating on their husbands with asuras, and of freedom fighters at nudist parties with Nazi dictators. Of course, he will have to check on plagiarism laws in Qatar.

It’s only natural, then, that the freethinking individuals of our country will pen or emote vehement defences of my friend’s right to freedom of expression. There might be the minor inconvenience of having his bachelor pad vandalised, but his mother will be a relieved woman if someone were to get rid of his junk for him.

I do hope the idea of hurting Hindu sentiments for the greater good strikes Mr. Rushdie (of whom I’m a big fan), so the ‘secularists’ can ensure a safe passage for him throughout the world. But our writers seem rather slow on the uptake – the brainwave hasn’t yet hit Mr. Tharoor (though he came close, with ‘holy cows’). He’s only offended linguistic sentiments so far – what say, oh interlocutor?


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