Let me try to write this without taking any names at all, since – allegedly at least – a missing epithet was what started it all. Sometime last year, a Mumbai-based comedian took a jibe onstage at the way in which Indians exaggerate about their idols (in this case, a literal idol – a statue of a historical personality). Superpower-attribution was the punchline, as is evident from the video excerpt of one minute and six seconds that made the rounds last week in an organised effort to attack the comedian. She received violent threats; two of her abusers have been arrested. Yet the comedian was not only pressured into issuing an apology, but a venue she’d performed in was also vandalised, and further action may still be taken against her.
Some say that the fact that she pointedly did not use the honorific title for the historical personality was the problem, that this was disrespectful. Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry for the personage doesn’t use it either. Yet a little-known entertainer became the deliberate object of ire.
No matter how small-minded some are, and how they condemn those who believe in fundamental freedoms, including of expression and speech, there is a force of goodness in the world that rises in solidarity. Ironically for those who seek to crush and erase, those they attack invariably become more celebrated. The comedian who many of us hadn’t heard of before last week is now a name we’ll recognise sympathetically and with respect. We don’t find it hypocritical that she apologised, understanding it was a gesture of placation that protects her. We may encourage her next work in a bigger way. And if – like so many who went underground to stay alive with some measure of peace, or worse, like the journalist shot on her porch by an assassin who didn’t know who he was murdering, like the social media star killed by her brother, the jailed dissidents, and others – she is permanently suppressed, she will still be among the names we won’t forget.
There’s a new translation of a novel by a Tamil author who experienced similar persecution some years ago, and is now internationally renowned in part because of the outpouring of support that he received. In it, he seems to compassionately rue the bitterly limited lives of those with intolerant perspectives. He seems to wish freedom from their insularity for them.
The truth, if we examine it, is that dogmatists are fuelled not by pride but by insecurity, not by faith but by envy. They cannot bear the idea that anyone else should feel the liberty they won’t permit themselves to have. This is why they project wildly onto icons and insignia, and organise in mobs. They feel inadequate on their own.
No wonder they hate anyone who can be their own person. All by herself, with a mic. There’ve been at least two more concerted attacks on comedians since last week – on someone who defended the original target, and through the insidious leaking of personal contact details of another. The attackers go after all that opens the heart or mind. It’s no surprise that laughter is anathema to them.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 16th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.