Surely you have heard playwright Bertolt Brecht’s quote: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” If by some great luck you hadn’t, I need you to pretend you had because I am about to start complaining bitterly about the songs in dark times.
On 11 May, Gujarati poet Parul Khakhar posted the poem Shab-vahini Ganga to talk about the massive tragedy of the pandemic and government inaction. It went viral and was immediately translated into multiple languages. She was also predictably criticised and viciously trolled but Khakhar, a popular poet who apparently doesn’t write much about mainstream politics, seemed unshaken. Reportedly hailed recently as “the next big icon of Gujarati poetry”, she quickly wrote a second poem about being silenced.
In June, Gujarat Sahitya Akademi chairman Vishnu Pandya wrote an unsigned editorial in their journal, Shabdsrushti, describing fans of an unnamed poem as literary Naxals, and said the poem was being misused for anarchy. After being outed as the writer of the editorial and then confronted by Gujarati writers for his censoriousness, Pandya admitted he had been talking about Khakhar and her hit poem.
In his editorial, while reminding the poet she could regain favour with the establishment, Pandya also reportedly made an astonishing statement—“The poem is bad though the poet is good”, a position he reaffirmed (though less pithily) after being outed.
Pandya has been roundly and rightly condemned for attempting a tinpot dictator number on Gujarati literature. It’s a true indicator of our wheatish-coloured times that literary reviews appear in the political pages and political discussions happen in what remains of the books pages. But have our books pages ever said anything as radical as “the poem is bad though the poet is good”?
When Pandya accused Khakhar’s fans of bad intentions, one can’t help but think of all the writers whose intentions have recently been doubted. Contemporary artists of all stripes must have some sense that they are sending out their work and their selves into a world that currently demands more justice from art than politics. The despair experienced in the political world has somehow been transferred to greater demands of good behaviour from cultural objects and their creators. The phantom of cancel culture can make artists frightened or resentful or defensive. If artists ignore the clout-chasing end of political correctness but contemplate the discourses that fundamentally ask you not to be a jerk, it can even be helpful for their art. It’s a fine balance— but better than sulking.
It can be disorienting to discuss cancel culture when you live in a world where your art or social media post could send you to jail or get you trolled viciously or lynched. It could get you crazy clout or get you fired. And in a highly hierarchical world, this has little to do with the quality of your work. But one of the less talked about side effects of living in a humourless, cancel-freedom culture is that you are supposed to like art for all the wrong reasons. The artist is good so the art is good.
Take this poem. I don’t read Gujarati but I read some ghastly translations that made me think of the queasy results of mixing good intentions with art. In the Hindi translation, at least, the poem has a rousing quality, ideal for recitation and textbooks. But it showed no sign of wit or memorable imagery. The latter is somewhat forgivable, for it does the simple job of memorialising one of the most tragic images of our lifetimes.
Never mind my extra-deep thoughts about this poem though. Once a cultural artefact achieves meteoric success, it lives on a high mountain that requires a special OTP for entry. Shab-vahini Ganga, shared hundreds of thousands of times online and translated into many languages, is well on its way up the mountain (this literary Teflon quality is one I love to point out to men who hate on author Rupi Kaur. Too late, losers. Also, have you ever watched her beautiful hands as she performs for her global tribe of affect-loving young women? It’s hypnotic).
Ever since the stories of the bodies floating in the Ganga came to light, I have thought of the Malayalam phrase for the unclaimed corpse, anatha pretham—the orphaned ghost—and felt a fresh stab of sadness. In a highly polarised nation, serious artists have to work hard to rise above being admired for political propaganda and reclaim the anatha prethams of truth and beauty—a job that is wonderful when done but boring in the doing. It does not give you the endless endorphin highs of social media metrics.
I went through many iterations of Pandya’s vague thesis in my head. The poet is good. The poem is bad. The poet is bad. The poem is good. The poet is the poem. I was edging closer and closer, I realised, to Wendy Cope’s poem, The Uncertainty Of The Poet, which begins, “I am a poet. I am very fond of bananas,” and ends, “I am of very fond bananas. Am I a poet?” Bananas, everyone, bananas.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.