A Sahitya Akademi Awardee Explains Why it was Necessary for Him to Return the Award

19 October 2015
Courtesy GN Devy
Courtesy GN Devy

On 11 October 2015, GN Devy, a renowned literary critic and activist joined the rising chorus of authors returning their Sahitya Akademi awards. Devy, a 2014 Padma Shri recipient for his work on dying languages and nomadic tribes, returned the Sahitya Akademi award he had received in 1993 for his book After Amnesia. He is the founder of the Bhasha Research and Publication Center in Vadodara and the Adivasi Academy in Tejgarh, which works with tribal education. In 2010, Devy led the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, for which he researched and documented 780 living Indian languages. Last year, he spoke at Central University of Kerala on “aphasia” and the human acquisition of memory through evolution. Last week, Surabhi Vaya, an independent journalist, met Devy at his residence in Vadodara. Vaya spoke to Devy about his decision to return the award and asked him about “the moment of reckoning” he had referred to in his letter to the Akademi. Reproduced below, is an edited excerpt from their conversation.

Earlier this year, when the renowned Tamil language scholar Perumal Murugan announced he would stop writing I felt as though someone had driven a nail through my heart. It was like physical pain. Various groups had threatened Murugan, a brilliant man, after his book Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman) was translated and released in English.

When an author says he is “dead as a writer,” it is a painful moment. It makes you think about the genesis of such intolerance. I had felt the same pain when Babri was demolished, when Sudheerna Kulkarni’s face was blackened recently and when the Syrian child washed up on the shores of Europe, running from an intolerant society. After all, I am a human being, not a bundle of logical premises or sentences. We feel the stab whenever there is a human tragedy because we are driven with just as much emotion as intellect.

Murugan’s response to stop writing and withdraw his entire body of work is part of what I term “aphasia”: the inability to speak. The build-up has been slow: one prime minister or regime can’t be held responsible for it. After all, what is the difference between the economics of Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi? They are the same: the increase in consumerism; greed; erosion of humanitarian values; alienation from nature; and most of all, an absence of respect for life. It is a symptom of a world transitioning into a “post-human” existence of sorts.

In this phase, society starts permitting artificial memory to perform its mighty functions. Structures such as governments and nations push to reduce diversity. Just look at the rapid death of human languages in the last 30 years. It is a window into what the future will be. Aphasia is becoming a necessary ingredient in economic and political structures. It looks to kill imagination and replace it with selective memory. We have already started imposing aphasia in various forms, in schools and universities, by legislating language as medium of instruction, by telling writers to stop discussing anything different from the norm.