Is it possible to retain hope when charlatans dictate our terms of engagement with the world of the arts and ideas? This was the question I had to encounter during a documentary film festival in Chennai where I paraphrased the Welsh writer and academic Raymond Williams and said that the mission of journalism and documentaries “is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing”.
The participants of the film festival were concerned about many things, but they were particularly agitated about the Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur’s decision to form a panel to examine whether the poem, “Hum Dekhenge”, by the celebrated poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz was indeed communal and hurt sentiments. This panel was formed after a temporary faculty member, Vashimant Sharma, and 16 others complained against the students for reciting the poem in support of the students of Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. If an exemplary artist of the stature of Faiz can be shoehorned into a narrow communal jacket, many tend to believe that despair is the reality of the moment.
However, when the media highlighted the absurdity of the complaint, the management was forced to retract its original position. Talking to this newspaper, the IIT’s Deputy Director, Manindra Agrawal, said that the panel is not going to determine whether sentiments were hurt or not, but would only investigate if there was any “deliberate mischief”. This climbdown in the present environment of impunity is a testimony to the power of journalism as a site of hope rather than as a megaphone of despair.
The power of Urdu
My linguistic skills are restricted to just two languages, English and Tamil. I have no knowledge of Urdu. But I was moved by the power of Urdu verses not once but twice in 2005. I was based in Kathmandu when Nepal was going through its worst political crisis, the royal coup. I watched as King Gyanendra dismissed the government and restored an absolute monarchy. He suspended the fundamental rights of Nepali citizens, including the freedom of opinion and expression, the freedom of the press and publications, the right to information, the right to constitutional remedy, and the right to property. Similar to what is happening in Kashmir now, a communication blackout was imposed across the country.
This did not deter senior journalists in Nepal from assembling at the Yalamaya Kendra in Patan to formulate ways and means to keep the public informed of what was happening despite the draconian measures taken by the royalty. I was invited to join the deliberation and, unlike what is happening in India today, not seen as an alien poking his nose in the domestic affairs of a foreign country. Kanak Mani Dixit, a senior editor and regular contributor to this newspaper, invoked Faiz Ahmed Faiz in a moving manner. Armed with the brilliant multimedia production of Faiz’s major poems by the Dawn group of publications, Mr. Dixit rendered the poem “Bol (Speak)” and explained how Faiz made the blazing smithy a symbol of the freedom movement during colonial rule. Here is the English translation of the lines that moved me:
“Speak — your lips are free,
Speak — your tongue is still yours
Speak — your life is still yours
Look inside the smithy —
Leaping flames, red-hot iron.
Padlocks open their jaws.
Speak — there is little time
But it is enough
Before the body perishes
Before the tongue atrophies.
Speak — truth still lives.
Say what you have to say.”
In a year when the resistance cascaded into what Nepalese political historians call the Jan Andolan-II, another brilliant poem of Faiz ,“Soldier’s elegy”, was used to create a space for reconciliation after a decade of civil war. If Faiz can help restore democracy in our neighbourhood, he can do so here too.