My brother DB is a prostitute
Last Thursday I started to teach one of my all-time
favourite novels, J D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. What
a great pleasure it is to simply teach a novel that you love.
The pleasure of teaching has now been suspended for some time.
On Friday night, around 10.30, I met a colleague in the campus
who whispered to me, "Humayun Azad has been stabbed. He
is now in the hospital." I walked home stunned by the news.
Many of us in the campus have been unable to think of anything
At the beginning of my Thursday class I asked
the students how many of them were planning to take the course:
there were about a half-dozen show of hands. At the end of the
class over twenty students showed interest. I think Holden Caulfield,
the 16-year-old narrator of the novel must have seduced the
class. In the very first page of the novel, Holden says, "My
brother DB is a prostitute." What he means is that DB who
used to be a terrific writer had gone to Hollywood to become
a rich, popular movie script-writer. In other words, DB had
become a prostitute selling his soul for material gains.
Holden Caulfield's indictment of his brother,
once a "terrific" writer, and by extension, all writers
who sell their souls, is very strong indeed. Holden's vision
is that of an adolescent whose own purity makes it impossible
for him to accept the inevitable corruption that is part of
the adult world, the world of DB. Most of us have no such illusions.
We know many writers are like DB, fallible, and not even terrific.
I sometimes feel like telling some friends who are writers:
"You too, my friend, have become a prostitute like DB."
I am unable to pass that judgment because I too am fallible,
and not even a writer, in the sense they are writers.
We know that writers are vulnerable to the many
seductions of the vocation: the money, the fame, the glamour
and the spotlight, the women (if you can play the game right),
the autograph-signing, the interviews and the awards. Nothing
makes a writer more eloquent than money. Big-name poets can
be paid to write poetry for presidents who like to pretend they
are poets; big-time intellectuals sell their names to political
parties not always out of conviction, but motivated by thoughts
of profit and position; and writers, big and small, sometimes
lend their names to second-rate glossy fashion magazines, because,
"hey, the money is good." The lure of the lucre is
so very strong, and so many of us fall for it. If Holden Caulfield
could, he would catch us from falling but we are too old to
be caught. Instead he wishes to catch innocent children from
falling off the edge of a field of rye; he wants to be the catcher
in the rye.
Writers suffer from another kind of vulnerability.
They are vulnerable to physical assaults on their lives. Who
can protect writers from being vulnerable to attacks from assailants
in the dark? Poet Shamsur Rahman recently said in a TV interview
that he was just an ordinary vulnerable human being and could
do nothing if someone wanted to kill him. Humayun Azad walked
alone at night, never seriously thinking that what he might
have written might lead to his death. A suicide bomber knows
that death is the inevitable outcome of his action; a religious
martyr willingly lays down his life for his faith. I do not
know of any writer who knows that death is the outcome of his
writing. Yet writers have died for what they have written.
Hamlet had said, "I could be bounded in
a nutshell and still consider myself master of infinite space."
The writer's mind may be infinite, but the space within which
he operates in this country is not. The writer is circumscribed
and limited. There is a certain invisible line one cannot cross:
how much one is willing to push the line back is the writer's
call; how much one allows what is written to go unchallenged
is a test of the tolerance of society. And we have failed that
test. The image of Humayun Azad fighting for his life in the
hospital, maimed and inarticulate, is a chilling reminder of
how vulnerable we are as individuals and how vulnerable we are
as a nation.