Monday, May 01, 2006

A Heretic in New York!

I just got back from a trip to New York where I took part in the Festival for International Literature organized by PEN World Voices. This marked the first time in what seemed like forever that I was treated as a literary figure and not a political one. It was quite a refreshing change to say the least. I spoke at two panels: Exiles in America, and Truth and the Internet, both of which proved quite interesting and lively indeed.

The highlight of my participation though came when I had an occasion to finally meet and speak with Salman Rushdie, who has just finished his term as the President of PEN. Listening to Salman reciting a passage from the Satanic Verses at a Town Hall event was also pretty inspiring for a heretic like me. But then almost all of the 150 literary figures who were invited would probably consider himself/herself as a heretic, as one participant noted. This is was indeed a meeting of the heretical minds. Creative minds are, by default almost, quite heretical. History does offer exceptions of course, but they have always been few.

There was a glaring downside to the meeting though. For almost everyone was willing to condemn the current policies of the US vis-à-vis Iraq and the War on Terror, yet no one, at least no one I talked to, could provide any alternate vision for how things could be better handled. “The Americans should leave Iraq now,” most declared, but will Iraq survive for long after the departure of American troops? And how about the inevitable backlash that will take place across the region against democracy and human rights activists who were all categorized as pro-American by the ruling regimes, even though most of them are indeed leftists of various stripes and are severe critics of globalization and American policies? No one I talked to has given any serious thought to these matters, it seems.

I have no problem or quarrel with people criticizing the way the War on Terror is being conducted, there is indeed much to criticize here, but when some of the most brilliant minds on this planet seem derelict in their duty to try to envision better policy alternatives for how global affairs should be conducted, this at a time when many of them happen to be dissidents and political exiles as well, I have plenty to gripe, sneer and jeer about.

How should we deal with extremist religious movements? What should we do with all those regimes out there who insist on running their countries as their private fiefdoms with complete disregard to the basic rights of their citizens? How can we bring modernity to people who at once loathe it and need it? How can we oppose the greed of international corporations yet manage to satisfy the growing consumerist needs, desires and expectations of our peoples?

Who else can better debate these questions, whose answers can be more informed, at least in theory, who can help inject a necessary humanist perspective into the global debate, if not these people who were there in New York last week? And what better platforms for the exchange of views on these matters could exist than through such events?

So there I was feeling alienated even while surrounded by so many fellow heretics? Our heretical ethos is simply not the same, it seems. Am I exaggerating here? Of course. After all, I haven’t read the works of all the people who were present at the Festival, and very few have read mine. So, like-minded people must have been there, I am sure of it, but we have missed each other somehow this time around. There is always next time, I guess.