IN A recent interview to Naya Gyanodaya journal, Vibhuti Narain Rai, ex-cop, novelist and vice-chancellor of the Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University in Maharashtra, moaned about the shamelessness of women who write about “infidelity” in the name of feminism, saying that “women writers in Hindi are vying to be seen as prostitutes. I feel that the title of the recently published autobiography of a much-promoted and overrated writer could well have been ‘How Many Times in How Many Beds’.” Naya Gyanodaya’s editor and Bharatiya Jnanpith director Ravindra Kalia also wrote an editorial praising Rai’s views.
Writers across India were furiously offended at the comments, and with Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal also joining the chastising, Rai was forced to issue a mealy-mouthed apology and resign from the Jnanpith Selection Committee. But that has not been enough. There is still a petition doing the rounds, seeking both Rai and Kalia be dethroned from all their posts. The petition has already been signed by many heavyweights, including Sahitya Akademi awardees Ashok Vajpeyi, K Satchidanandan, Kunwar Narain, Kedarnath Singh, Mahesh Elkunchwar and Vasu Acharya. Under pressure, the Jnanpith Board of Directors met on 23 August but failed to reach a consensus on Kalia.
There are some elliptical delights in the situation. Did Rai know, as he was chortling his sexist comments, that he has a gift for snappy phrasing? ‘How Many Times in How Many Beds’ and ‘Sabse Badi Chhinal’ are titles you know you would pay for. And ‘nymphomaniac kutia’ just makes you clap with glee. In a conversation subsequent to the Gyanodaya interview, Rai is reported to have said that ‘chhinal’ (slut) is used more for men than for women in his area. That this man from Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, under attack from indignant females, would turn so swiftly on his fellow-men is just wonderful.
BEING ‘OFFENDED’ at Rai is not enough, and people should stop considering it a lucky privilege — all it is is an invitation to be hosed with abuse again. A knee-jerk response that places women’s (or men’s) modesty at the highest premium is only agreeing with Rai’s worldview. This too is a conservative response. Such incidents should remind us how sexual liberation has been hard-won by women — often at the cost of defying modesty and dignity. Being called ‘promiscuous’, ‘prostitute’ or ‘slut’ has to stop being considered an insult for women — liberals cannot offer solidarity to sex workers on the one hand and take offence at such words on the other. Rai may just as well have called women writers ‘bastards’ or ‘chaprasis’.
One criteria of becoming an adult is whether you can reconcile yourself with everyone’s randiness. Should we thus consider Rai and Kalia — adult men in important, influential and powerful jobs — juveniles? Or dinosaurs unable to adapt? That would depend on the breadth of your generosity. Their record in these positions should certainly be scrutinised closely.
Meanwhile, we could consider the possibility that Rai and Kalia are not corrosive to our moral order — they’re churlish nuisances. They’re like the old-fashioned Tamil movie villains who in their deepest fury would only be able to get out the incomplete English phrase — ‘You bloody…!’
First published here.