Sunday, Jun 04, 2023

Shadow Of Silence

Shadow Of Silence

Outlook's Senior Special Correspondent was recently awarded Karnataka Sahitya Academy's prize for literary translation. The translator's note to the award-winning book and two short plays.

Outlook's Senior Special Correspondent in Bangalore, Sugata Srinivasaraju, recently won the Karnataka Sahitya Academy's prize for literary translation for his rendering of mime plays, written during the Emergency years, from the Kannada to English. The book of translations is titled Phoenix and Four Other Mime Plays and has been published by Navakarnataka Publications. The original Kannada plays were written by eminent Kannada litterateur Chi. Srinivasaraju

Here we reproduce the translator's note to the book and two short plays that are available as links from under this introduction.

These mime plays were written and staged during the years of the infamous Emergency, but were published in 1977, just after it was lifted. Nothing more needs to be said as to why these plays shun the use of language. Mime, besides being a novel technique of playwriting and a thrilling experiment with form, is also here a huge metaphor to depict the unfortunate years of Indian democracy. There may be many characters walking in and out of the stage, but the unseen and unheard: silence, emerges as the protagonist of these plays.

But why did I want to translate these mime plays now? There is both a political and a personal context to it.

First the political aspect: When I re-read these plays in early 2002 I was moving away from my family to spend time in Jaipur and there was some sort of a "commemoration" taking place of the 25 years of the Emergency. It was a political necessity for the then Right-wing ruling alliance to highlight and emphasise the "evilness" of the Congress party. With self-righteousness and enthusiastic support from the media, they stoked public memory about the Emergency and justified their current position in power. They painted themselves as virtuous angels who had fought the Emergency, served terms in obscure prisons to protect the fabric of this nation. But suddenly, the Gujarat riots happened. The moral ground they claimed was wiped out completely. It had a numbing effect, as if vacuum had taken the place of blood in the nerves. But they were still defiant; they spiked shame to demonic depths. Speaking of the excesses of Emergency on the one hand and allowing the elimination of fellow human beings on the other was too much of a contradiction to escape anybody's notice. It seemed that morality had reached a dead-end, there could only be conversation with the wall or silence. It is at this time that I felt like invoking the absurdity and raw idealism of the Emergency plays that my father had written.

Also, when I surveyed the Emergency experience in Karnataka and Kannada, it seemed that the intellectual and political climate then, in Bangalore and the rest of the state, had played a significant role in shaping Opposition, Right-wing, as well as Third front politics in the country. It was in Bangalore's Central Jail that some of the country's top Right-wing politicians befriended fiery Socialists and non-Congressmen. Arguably, one could view that moment of their accidental coming together as a large step forward in the creation of an alternate or non-Congress power politics in the country. That was the first time that ideologically diverse groups established communication, shared each other's information networks, understood each others capabilities and allowed the seeds of mutual trust to be sown. Eminent writer and former Information Advisor to Indira Gandhi, H Y Sharada Prasad, profiling Jayaprakash Narayan (The Book I Won't Be Writing and Other Essays) says: "When she (Indira Gandhi) was defeated in the general election in 1977 it was largely his [JP's] earnest pleading and moral authority that resulted in several opposition parties shedding their separate identities and forming a Janata Party.A man who had deep reservations about communal politics had become instrumental in sanitizing the Jan Sangh and giving it a share of power."

The finest hour of this chance historical acquaintance that took place 30 years ago was when George Fernandes and other Lohia-Socialists shared power with the BJP in Vajpayee's NDA government for an uninterrupted six years. It has been, to date, the most successful experimentation of sharing power. Miles ahead of the experiment that one saw immediately after Emergency was lifted and Indira Gandhi ousted. The NDA experiment gave an impression that the relationship between the two had 'matured' and ideological conflict had been conveniently erased. The former Socialists had conceded political space to the BJP. Ironically, sheer political power was the inspiring factor for their alliance, like it was for Indira Gandhi when the Emergency was clamped. History had come a full circle.

In the recounting of Emergency history, Karnataka's importance is further bolstered by the fact that Indira Gandhi, with the help of Devaraj Urs, won a Parliamentary seat for the first time after the dark years, from Chikmagalur in Karnataka.

Looking back, the milieu that shaped these mime plays was a strikingly vibrant and creative phase in the intellectual history of the state: Literary stalwart and liberal humanist, Shivaram Karanth, returned his Padma award and with his keynote speech at a Kerala conference of writers and artistes opposed to the Emergency, nourished the fighting spirits of the likes of EMS Namboodiripad. Another important writer Gopalakrishna Adiga, openly identified with the Jansangh and though his acerbic poetry kept the conscience of fellow writers. Poet and professor, G S Shivarudrappa, actually led a long silent protest march and his poem In this country… had a magical and infectious effect on the young writers. He wrote:

"In this country
Everything should change completely
But the chair on which I sit
And the ground beneath it
Should remain intact…

In this country
Everybody should shut their mouth
And remain quiet
But they better keep their ears open
For my words…"

K V Subanna, sitting in Heggodu, is said to have published regular 'underground' bulletins on the Emergency. Srinivas Reddy's little magazine Shudra gained prominence at this time and it almost became the voice of the writers protesting the Emergency in Karnataka. Playwright Chandrashekar Patil, who was imprisoned, was the newest rebel-star with Snehalata Reddy, the wife of filmmaker Pattabhiram Reddy, who too was imprisoned. Snehalata died as a consequence of her developing a medical complication while in prison. In fact, the prison diaries of the two, Patil and Snehalata, published later, were celebrated pieces of literature. A slim volume of protest poems, edited during the time by K R Nagaraj and titled Apathkalina Kavithegalu was also in the same league. One should mention the three classic short stories written at the time – Meeseyavaru and Ondu Dantakathe by G S Sadashiva and Bigala Sidappa by K N Nagaraju. They all took a close look at the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) and individual freedom.

The Emergency years also gave a fillip to amateur theatre in Karnataka. Prasanna launched the theatre group 'Samudaya' with the play Huthava Badidare. Street theatre became popular with Vijayamma and A S Murthy. M S K Prabhu's Baka was a hit and then there were these five mime plays.

Protest against the brute Emergency was one thing, but protest as a literary genre in Kannada chose this precise moment to breach the conventional modes of writing.Dalit poet Siddalingiah's poem Nanna Janagalu written in 1976 perhaps opened the floodgates of a whole new sensibility in Kannada.

But the most significant aspect about the Emergency was that it was a period of historical unshackling and progressive reforms in Karnataka. Devaraj Urs used Emergency powers in a rather benign way to initiate backward class reservations and major land reforms. It was practically a bloodless revolution that transformed the social and political landscape of Karnataka forever. While on the one hand we were witness to large-scale protests against the suppression of individual freedom and democratic rights, on the other hand, silently, crores of people, bonded by the cruel knots of history were permanently unshackled. This dichotomy about the Emergency has never been highlighted.

Now to the personal aspect of why I translated the mime plays. There are two layers in this. One relates to my professional life as a journalist, and second, about a father and son. The mime plays have had a special resonance at both the levels:

The general perception is that journalists live amidst action and words all the time. But this perception needs correction. More than words and action, protest and pandemonium, arson and rioting, journalists quite often live amidst silences. Sometimes these silences are imposed from outside, through institutional mechanisms and sometimes silence is inevitable as they are subjected to ideological self-censorship. If at times, there is an external signal to remain quiet about the greed of a big corporate or the rampant corruption of a government, there are times when we ourselves would not want to pull down the icons we have created and disturb the equilibrium of cozy, comfortable relationships. This is not the place to point out specific cases, but the time has come when journalists have to become conscious of the silences they keep.

This piece of caution, self-warning, is more relevant today than 30 years ago when the Emergency was imposed, basically because we are seeing big players enter our economic space; we are seeing a complex matrix of investments develop and they are being explained in a jargon that is opaque and misleading; and worst, we see our elected representatives develop notorious nexuses. We journalists should remain awake to the fact that corporate charity is often explained in terms of "social investment" in boardrooms. Thirty years ago we probably were 'manufacturing consent,' but today we seem to be unabashedly manufacturing truth through silences.

Legendary journalist John Pilger, in his foreword to an edited anthology of investigative journalism titled Tell Me No Lies, quotes the Russian poet and dissident Yevgeni Yevtushenko, who says: "When truth is replaced by silence, then that silence is a lie."

It is relevant to bring up this issue of journalists and silence today, essentially because when we speak of the Emergency we end up speaking about the media censorship that was imposed by Mrs. Gandhi's regime. But then the censorship that we experience today in the media is much bigger, invisible, complex and of a far greater consequence.

Besides this professional concern, there was also the vulgar dance of the mammon everywhere and I needed to decipher it. These plays offered some kind of a contrast and perspective to the present. For people like me who were born in the Socialist welfare state of the early 70s, who could only paint Nike's "just do it" symbol on a canvas shoes procured in the local market, the sudden rush of goods and glitter from all across the globe was again a fantastic play of contrasts in the mind.The themes of the plays came as a reminder of our origins.

At a more personal level, my father had turned 60 and I was not present for the celebration and what better way to compensate than translate his plays. I was pretty aware that these plays were not representative of his literary work of more than three decades, but I was sure that the spirit of developing a common pursuit for a culture had not altered one bit inside him. Also, his self-effacing nature and quietness had become legendary. Cultural historians had documented it well and a writer of P. Lankesh's eminence had admitted in an editorial in his weekly newspaper that my father had brought about a "quiet revolution" by creating a forum for young writers in the Kannada language. He was described elsewhere as the most "celeberated literary patron of his time." For over three decades he had published the first and initial works of hundred of young writers. Many of them, like H S Shivaprakash, Abdul Rasheed, T N Sitaram, K V Narayana, Raghavendra Khasnis, H S Raghavendra Rao, K R Nagaraj and others dominate the Kannada literary scene today. He had also revived critical interest in senior writers like D R Bendre, A N Moorhty Rao, Sriranga, H S Biligiri, Shankar Bhat and others. All of this single-handedly with savings from his salary and huge sacrifices from my mother. A well-known literary critic, Basavaraja Kalgudi in a public meeting compared my father's cultural role to that of 'antarjala,' (groundwater), something that quietly infuses life to all on the surface. Therefore, I understood that 'mime,' 'silence,' 'quietness' were words that were largely associated with my father's personality. So his mime plays seemed curious.

Translating his mime plays has also been a process of understanding his silence for me. As I left home, travelled, met people, I realised my father's 'silence' was very different. I may not be able to describe what it is, there is the disadvantage of emotion and the proximity of time, but I may be able to tell you what it is not. It is not the contemptuous silence of the learned that I saw at the university in Hyderabad. It is not the silence of loneliness that I saw in a retired colonel, who was my landlord in Jaipur. It is not the silence of indifference that I encountered in the London Underground. It is not the empty silence of Dublin bars after the night of revelry. It is not the silence of submissiveness or intrigue. It is also not the silence of the contented and devout, which I perceived in my own grandfather. Nor is it a silence of authority, where a question or a gesture or a mail never gets answered. Probably it is the silence on the Buddha's face that filled up a corner of my brother's sketchbook! Silence as serenity, a friend said. I don't know. All I know is that I continue to stare at his silence after I first did it as a 7-year-old from inside a small hole in my blanket. Something had woken me up early. It was about half past four on the clock, my father was at his worktable, he was writing, the table lamp had lit up his face, his wavy hair was in its place and he occasionally lifted his head to smile at the shadow on the wall. I dozed off again in about half-hour. I was late for school that day!