NEWS
09/09/2016 1:38 PM IST | Updated 09/09/2016 3:28 PM IST

Suketu Mehta Has Everyone Talking With His 'Eunuch In A Harem' Remark

Criticism is not dead yet.

Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Suketu Mehta, October 2006. (Photo by Franck CRUSIAUX/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Writer Suketu Mehta, best known for his magnum opus, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (2004), has set social media talking after a comment he made during a Twitter chat run by Juggernaut Books, which has recently published his long story, What Is Remembered.

But first, here's a brief recap for those who are new to this episode.

Mehta's story, which is his first major publication in a while, has expectedly provoked a variety of responses, both positive and negative. A review in Scroll.in compared it with the work of Spanish master, Jorge Luis Borges. Praising the story on Twitter, writer Amitava Kumar described Mehta as the "postcolonial Proust".

While these sentiments were echoed by many approving readers on social media, there were some who did not share the same enthusiasm for it. The Wire found it "riddled with... classism, casteism and Orientalist cliches", while this publication also had similar reservations. Brown Paper Bag (BPB), too, thought much the same and found the subplots in Mehta's story "written in the wobbly, loud voice of a person shouting because he's wearing headphones."

So far so good. Criticism, good and bad, is part of the deal of putting any work of art — be it a book, or a piece of music, a painting or a performance — in the public domain. The creator is left with the difficult business of dealing with the bouquets and the brickbats. They must accept or reject the feedback of the consumers, before moving on to their next enterprise.

Every writer, artist, singer and dancer has their own ways of responding to criticism. When asked about his way of engaging with critics, Mehta had this to say:

His comment, which was really a quote attributed to Irish writer Brendan Behan (1923-64), was retweeted and favourited several times, though not everyone was amused by it. Using "eunuch" as pejorative may have been fine during Behan's time, but the word is singularly unsuited to this day and age, when public discourse has evolved into talking about transgender rights. Also, rather ironically, Behan's definition of a critic must apply both to those who write unfavourable as well as favourable reviews of a work.

Journalist Aditya Mani Jha tweeted back at Mehta with this response.

Readers, writers and, of course, critics joined in.

Nilanjana Roy, known as much as a writer as a literary critic, tweeted out the long, august history of writers calling critics eunuchs.

Samit Basu had a word of caution for his colleagues.

Mahesh Rao had this to say.

Jha also put his response to Mehta's tweet on Facebook, which grew into a long thread on writing, criticism, writers versus critics, and, of course, the word "eunuch". The post, which is not publicly shared, has resulted in a fascinating discussion about how to take bad criticism, whether critics and artists are mutually exclusive entities, and the cultural implications of the role of eunuchs.

Those who thought criticism was a dying art in India, or a tool used in the service of keeping one's friends and riling one's enemies, should be pleasantly surprised.

Postscript

We wish the story had ended on that pleasant note for all concerned. But, sigh, that was not meant to be — at least for Jha, who is responsible for the riposte that started the debate on criticism, and for journalist Supriya Nair of BPB, which had not been very charitable towards Mehta's book.

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