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One of the Indian intelligentsia’s tragedies is that to campaign for the right to self-expression, more often than not, we have to champion the cause of spectacularly talentless minds. The latest instance is the controversy surrounding the cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, who has been placed in judicial custody on grounds of sedition. Why? Because he has allegedly desecrated India’s national emblem in this cartoon:

The line in Hindi at the bottom says, “The number of lions is lessening but no need to worry because now the wolves are multiplying.”

This isn’t the first time Trivedi’s got into trouble. Earlier, in December 2011, his website was suspended because of the posters he made supporting Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption rallies. Trivedi set up a blog and put the cartoons on that blog. He chose Blogspot, which should be some indication of his (lack of) aesthetics. Then he got into trouble when he drew a cartoon to let us all know his opinion of how India was treating Ajmal Kasab, one of the perpetrators of the terror attacks on Mumbai in 2008 and the only one we were able to catch alive.

Who is responsible for what, did you ask? Damned if I know. All I can say is Trivedi responsible for drawing a likeness that is so absent of resemblances that  the cartoonist has to actually label this Anubis-ish version of Kasab.

Clearly, Trivedi was among those who believed that lavishing Rs 2 lakhs a day upon the terrorist was outrageous and like rubbing salt on sore wound. Or like aiming pee at the Indian constitution. Or something like that.

As you might be able to tell from the two examples of his artwork, Trivedi’s is not what most of us would describe as a mature, subtle mind. (On the plus side, he seems to know his spellings.) Put simply, he’s a bloody awful cartoonist. His drawing skills are abysmal. He has neither wit nor insight. This is the kind of cartooning that deserves to slip into the oblivion of non-recognition. But no. Thanks to the scintillating brilliance of the powers-that-be in the police, the executive and the judiciary, Trivedi has been put on the fast track to heroism. Like Sanjeev Khandekar — best known for that vomit-inducing show Tits Clits ‘n Elephant Dicks — could say he had something in common with M.F. Husain (the moral police objected to both these artists’ works and in Khandekar’s case, I use the word “artist” loosely), Trivedi is rubbing metaphorical shoulders with Mohandas Karamchand Father-of-the-Nation Gandhi because Trivedi’s cartoons are apparently seditious. Not just that, just like Gandhi chose to not hire a lawyer, Trivedi too has decided to wing it alone. Of course, there’s the minor detail that Gandhi was a lawyer by training and a charismatic speaker. (You can read some excerpts of his closing statement as well as a history of the ludicrous sedition law here.) But never mind such frivolous nitty gritty. Incidentally, Trivedi has decided to stay silent during the legal proceedings. I’ve no idea whether that’s wise or not. Given the evidence of the, er, rapier wit behind these cartoons, it would probably serve him better to be the strong, silent type of martyr.

But yes, those of us who have some sense of proportion and value the idea of a society in which freedom of expression isn’t a notion but a fundamental right, we have to now show our support for this cartoonist who should be persecuted for his appalling cartooning skills — he’s made wolves look like mongrels — but instead has been charged with sedition. Gah.

Speaking of persecution, there’s an excerpt from Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton in The New Yorker. It’s long, intriguing and it has some beautiful, beautiful bits. As teasers go, it couldn’t have been any better. I have a lot of hopes pinned on this book. If I don’t like it, then I’m petrified that I’ll have to give up my membership to the “I Heart Salman Rushdie” club because I’m reasonably certain that the film adaptation of Midnight’s Children is going to make me want to gouge out my eyes. That’s how pretty much every Deepa Mehta movie has made me react — I will do anything A.N.Y.T.H.I.N.G to preserve myself from the maudlin mess she thinks is a movie. But never mind Mehta. The point is, it’s possible that I’m not the fan I used to be. I realised when I heard his speech at the India Today Conclave that my fandom was blanching a little because I found myself unable to hang on every word or giggle delightedly every few seconds. It just wasn’t that much fun. In fact, it was actually disappointing because it just wasn’t as clever as I expect Rushdie to be. So yeah, Joseph Anton, please please bring it.

There’s a bit in the extract in which Rushdie writes a little bit about what he learnt about the origin of Islam while reading History in Cambridge.

“They were nomads who had just begun to settle down. Their cities were new. Mecca was only a few generations old. Yathrib, later renamed Medina, was a group of encampments around an oasis, without so much as a city wall. They were still uneasy in their urbanized lives. A nomadic society was conservative, full of rules, valuing the well-being of the group more highly than individual liberty, but it was also inclusive. The nomadic world had been a matriarchy. Under the umbrella of its extended families, even orphaned children had been able to find protection and a sense of identity and belonging. All that was changing. The city was a patriarchy, and its preferred family unit was nuclear. The crowd of the disenfranchised grew larger and more restive every day. But Mecca was prosperous, and its ruling elders liked it that way. Inheritance now followed the male line. This, too, the governing families preferred.

…Here was a fascinating paradox: an essentially conservative theology, looking backward with affection toward a vanishing culture, became a revolutionary idea, because the people it attracted most strongly were those who had been marginalized by urbanization—the disaffected poor, the street mob. This, perhaps, was why Islam, the new idea, felt so threatening to the Meccan élite…”  

Now compare that description of the time into which Muhammad was born with this one from Benson Bobrick’s new book, The Caliph’s Splendor.

“The rise of Islam is often depicted as having taken place in a primitive community of desert Arabs, who tended their flocks when not raiding caravans or engaged in tribal feuds. … That strange picture, still popular in the West, is at once both too pathetic and high-flown. Islam had its cradle in an area where advanced civilizations — Egyptians, Babylonian, Persian, and Byzantine — had thrived since ancient times. Arabia lay on their outskirts, but in succession or combination all had irrigated its psychic soil. … Empires rose and fell, and by the seventh century A.D., those large Arab armies and the kingdoms they served had long since dispersed. But the region remained in dynamic transition, where the vibrant streams of faith and culture converged.”

Who do you trust? The embittered or the enamoured?

EDITED TO ADD: All those in Bobrick’s camp, you may want to rethink your choice.

In a chapter about Baghdad in the time of caliph Harun al-Rashid (he of Thousand and One Nights‘ fame), Bobrick writes:

“Muhammad himself was said to have singled out scholarship as the highest calling, saying ‘The ink of a scholar is more sacred than a martyr’s blood.'”

Except that line is apparently what is known as a  weak or false hadhith, which means scholars of Islam aren’t convinced that The Prophet Muhammad said it. I agree that Bobrick hedges his bets by writing Muhammad “was said to have” (rather than the authoritative and direct “Muhammad said”), but presumably as an expert, he would know it’s dubious. I mean, Bobrick is writing a book on the subject. It is perhaps fair to expect the quotes to be checked against something more than ThinkExist.com, especially when scholars of Islam aren’t a reclusive, shrinking set. Perhaps Bobrick could have indicated that there’s some dispute about this line? Perhaps he chose to ignore it is considered a false hadith because it supports his argument, which is fair enough I suppose. The responsibility falls upon the reader to be critical and question and research. It’s just a bit of a pain to have to do that for a non-fiction book because — naïvely, I agree — we tend to believe scholarship that’s been printed, bound and stamped with the approval of a respected publishing house. Of course, this doesn’t mean Bobrick’s basic contention is wrong or that his research is shoddy, but it is the sort of thing that once spotted makes readers consider all claims with a degree of suspicion.

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3 thoughts on “Put in Perspective

  1. I like the stance you’ve decided to take – not for freedom of speech but against bad cartooning. that cartoon is rather abysmal. But i also can’t believe he’s been charged with sedition (i seriously doubt that will hold.)

    • Well, he’s in judicial custody till September 24th so something is holding temporarily at any rate. And from the fact that he’s rejected bail, it looks like he’s committed to milk this as much as he can to paint himself as a hero and a victim. Mine is a two-part stance: pro-freedom of speech and anti-bad cartoons.

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