Protest and culture are interlinked. While the former expresses our feelings, the latter provides a medium to do so. Protest refers to our response to any situation which produces a feeling of injustice. Individuals have since time immemorial registered their protests in various ways ~ against acts of injustice either against them or against others with whom they share a psychological bonding. Across the world, those influenced by the idea of protest have picked up their own arms ~ from shoes to garlands made out of slippers or even ink. What if the ink in the pot to smear the face does not work? John Osborne had an answer.
He would vouch for its hard-toshake off blot, and his offensive with the pen was aimed at the Establishment. There was no doubting the contempt of Jimmy Porter, product of what he called a white-tile university, for the clubby world of his MP brotherin- law, the bowler -hatted “platitude from outer space” or for the Bishop of Bromley, who described it as a Christian duty to manufacture the H-bomb. The offstage Osborne was not exactly a conformist either. As a boy he had been expelled from school for hitting his headmaster who had objected to his mockery of the royal family.
As a successful dramatist he was arrested and fined for joining a sit-in against nuclear weapons. Fury at what he saw as a bombhappy ruling class also prompted the open letter he improvised one morning in 1961: “Damn you, England, you’re rotting now and quite soon you’ll disappear”. Sandy Crag in Dream and Deconstruction: Alternative Theatre in Britain uses an image with a Foucaultian ambivalence between enlightenment and destruction. He considers Osborne’s Look Back in Anger to be the torch that ignited the theatre. Jimmy Porter, the protagonist in the play, expressed an inordinate sense of anger at being an isolated individual who can do nothing but look back in anger.
One is expected to consider Jimmy in terms of a disturbed mind, and the internal rather than external circumstances must be taken into consideration. So it was not for nothing that a few years ago, a Haryana leader threatened the West Bengal chief minister that she would meet the same fate as Surpanakha in the Ramayana, whose nose was cut off by Lakshman in the wake of her favourable gesture shown to the Padmavati crew. It bears recall that a renowned leader of UP had announced a bounty on the head of Mamata Banerjee for her crackdown on armed religious processions that were organized by political parties in several parts of Bengal.
It was a common assumption that Mr Varshney must have been influenced by the leader of Madhya Pradesh who had decreed an even heftier price on the head of the chief minister of Kerala. It would be less than accurate to assume that free speech and hate speech are in the same category. Some time ago, Abhijeet Bhattacharya, the Bollywood singer, criticized the Khans for allowing actors from Pakistan to work in the Hindi film industry and called the ghazal maestro, Ghulam Ali, “a form of dengue”. Artist Sonu Nigam expressed his displeasure with the use of loudspeakers, specifically during azaan and resolved to quit Twitter in solidarity with Mr Bhattacharya.
Such expressions of anger or hate speeches are not exactly an Indian phenomenon. Heinrich Heine had said about one of his detractors, “Ordinarily he is insane, but he has lived moments when he is only stupid”. Here the effective insult is not exactly the use of particularly obnoxious language. British MPs, like Indians, are prone to insulting each other. Benjamin Disraeli, when asked to give his opinion of Lord John Russell, said, “If a traveller was informed that such a man was the leader of the House of Commons, he might begin to comprehend how the Egyptians worshipped an insect”.
Lord Curzon, after visiting an industrial area, had remarked, “I never knew the lower classes had such white skins “. Even protests in the form of throwing a shoe or smearing a person’s face with ink are common incidents. Psychologists believe that the culprits are deviants who end up destroying their personalities and disrupting their social relationships. According to James Dean Page, an individual’s adjustment or maladjustment depends largely upon the extent to which his desires are in conformity with the demands and standards of his social group. One is reminded of the bear-and-squirrel game in Look Back in Anger ~ an escape from the pain of human existence.
What differentiates Willy Loman in Miller’s Death of a Salesman from Jimmy is that while Loman is physically exterminated in the end, Jimmy is allowed to exist as an irrational animal. Beyond the heroic and the spectacular in the dimly -lit corridors of everyday life, innumerable voices of protest are raised against both gross and subtle acts of injustice, and fists are clenched in anger. In a way, the apparently insignificant, small daily gestures of protest weave the fabric on which the grand patterns of the spectacular are embroidered. But while history records the acts of protest, literature delves deep into our lives to bring back narratives of anguish and defiance.
Voltaire’s protests against superstition and religious intolerance in the French society of his time and the autocratic rule of Louis XIV and Louis XVI, Hugo’s defiant stand against Louis Napoleon, and Roland’s anguish at the devastation wrought by World War I constituted the crux of the French literature of protest. During the turbulent period of modern French history, Jeans Paul Sartre protested against the German invasion of France. Freedom of speech and expression is the hallmark of a democratic society. Voltaire observed, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
If anger is to be effective, it should have a defined target. During World War II, the Allies had the Hitler-Mussolini -Japan Axis as the target. Even the wrath of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad was caused by the takeover of his woman, Briseis, by Agamemnon. The angry young man of modern cinema has a single target. But the anger of the offender who expressed his willingness to cut someone’s nose seems to be disoriented. The violent gesture is, of course, a serious breach of decorum. True, fearless critique and expressions are signs of a healthy democracy, but there is no courage and heroism in attacking verbally or through bitter suggestions under the garb of free expression.
In TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men, there is a line from Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. Kurtz was “a hollow sham of a man”, but before his death he had sensed the face of truth ~ an affirmation of a moral victory. The message is about the death of a man who was bad ~ “a lost violent soul”. But, he did not die a hollow man. In the other epitaph ~ A Penny for the Old Guy ~ the man who had fixed a particular day for burning the effigy of somebody was also a man of action. Both the epitaphs refer to men who were violent characters in their own way.
(The writer is former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata. He is presently associated with Rabindra Bharati University)