Religion has a way of circling writers and academics like a shark that has smelled blood. Professor TJ Joseph never saw it coming. Till five years ago, his life in Muvattupuzha, a small town in Kerala’s Ernakulam district watered by three rivers, had been placid, and his pre- disposition for dark humour was not enough to think he was risking life or limb. Inspired by a conversation, taken from an essay by Malayalam filmmaker PT Kunju Mohammed, between God and the schizophrenic protagonist of his film Garshom, Joseph did what any good teacher would do—he shared it with students and asked them to wrap their heads around it. In the excerpt, a lunatic poses a silly question to God: how many pieces should a mackerel be cut into? The Creator cusses, calls him a dog and a son-of-a-bitch, and seems frustrated with man’s inanities. To Joseph, the absurdist dialogue evoked Samuel Beckett and the futility of human endeavour, and it came spiked with the humour of a god who possessed Malayalee traits. Joseph would cite it every time he brought home a mackerel and cut it into three as is customary. He even made it a part of his dramatics class at Nirmala College, a stone’s throw from his house where he had taught before serving at Newman College in Thodupuzha, Idukki district, as head of the Malayalam Department. It was in March 2010, when the professor decided to adapt his favourite passage and include it in a grammar test for a class of 28 BCom students, that his troubles began. In his enthusiasm, he made the unwitting ‘mistake’ of naming the lunatic ‘Mohammad’, and a dangerous subtext emerged in the form of an unsavoury conversation between the Prophet and God. Joseph became the prototypical blasphemer. In a brutal attack that was entirely without precedent, the self-styled soldiers of a god who does not take kindly to being made sport of maimed the professor—held down his right hand against the tarred road and hacked it off—for his offence.
A month after Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, also a professor, succumbed to threats issued by a right-wing mob and put down his pen in a crushing defeat for free speech, Joseph, now 57, reprises his own life beset by great suffering. He speaks in a voice that betrays no affectation and flips through several notepads filled with his neat handwriting. He is now halfway through his autobiography, a detailed account interleaved with comic-ironic detachment about his days in prison and an aggrieved sense of injustice from being repeatedly punished for what should not, in a democracy, constitute a crime. “It is a religiocracy,” he says, speaking in Malayalam. “If there is a third World War, it will be fought in the name of God.” When a work of fiction set in the distant past is not immune to religious rage, the risks of excavating his own life for a book are not lost on Joseph. He has stood unflinching against all manner of attack. The LDF government of Kerala accused Joseph of hurting religious sentiments, he was mutilated by an Islamic mob and suspended and dismissed by his college, and he lost his wife to the forces of intolerance. None of this, he says, was reason enough to make him regret his actions. “I have never once thought that what I did was wrong. I was doing my duty as a teacher, since the passage presented a unique opportunity for punctuation,” he says. “God and the devil, Rama and Krishna—in a classroom they all become characters. They take on human characteristics.”
The fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and more recently, the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the exile of Perumal Murugan, were all acts of terror against modern civilisation. So was the chopping off of Joseph’s right hand in broad daylight on 4 July 2010. It is dangerous to regard it merely as a personal misfortune that befell a ‘foolish’ professor, as many have insinuated. Joseph does not have any delusions of literary grandeur, but to ignore his case is to base the right to free speech on some measure of talent. The media, which excoriates book burners and killjoys who demand apologies of a bunch of comedians, must acknowledge that like the artists above, Joseph too is trapped by the times we live in.“Does the common man have a right to say what he wants? No,” he says. “People in Kerala were much more liberal until the 1970s. Today, those who attack free speech haven’t understood the real import of their religions.”
“We have been misled into believing there is freedom of expression. An individual cannot speak up on communal issues or police injustice. He will be stamped out,” says Paul Zacharia, a respected Malayalam litterateur. “Even a well-known writer cannot write a piece on Joseph. No Malayalam newspaper will publish it. The editors are my friends. They will tell me pleasantly, you know how it is; we cannot do anything; give us another piece,” Zacharia says. “I cannot write about caste or religion. The media in Kerala, while megalomaniacal on the one hand, is schizophrenic about certain issues.”
Like Joseph, his modest, white house, hugging a steep, winding road south of the river, appears ageless. It is a hot day and he wears a lungi, a striped T-shirt and scars from the attack that almost killed him. His black Wagon-R, parked under a blue tarpaulin, and a shade-net-covered area where three policemen take turns guarding the family, are grim reminders of the ordeal that still drags on in the National Investigation Agency Court, Ernakulam. According to sources in the know, all arguments have been presented and the final verdict is set to be pronounced later this month, almost three years after trial began. The NIA, which took over the case and filed allegations against 31 people, including seven who were directly involved in the attack (two of them are still at large), has established a case of conspiracy by the Popular Front of India (PFI), a Muslim outfit in Kerala that is alleged to have orchestrated a smear campaign against the professor and planned the vicious attack. Joseph has maintained that he has no personal issues with the accused, but wants justice to prevail.
A source close to the case says the professor’s steadfast struggle has served to push the PFI into dormancy. “There haven’t been any big attacks by them since. It is a big achievement,” the source says. Joseph doesn’t quite see it as a struggle. “It is a sacrifice,” he says. “I have only been bearing with what has happened.” The physical attack wasn’t the worst of it. The first reports of a stir over his controversial question paper started trickling in on 25 March 2010, two days after the exam. Caught unawares, he called the college principal to explain himself and thought the issue would die a natural death. By the next day, however, it had snowballed into a communal storm. Hundreds of pamphlets on Joseph’s alleged defamation of Prophet Muhammad were circulated among Muslims in Thodupuzha. Police arrived at the college and well-wishers advised him to leave town for a few days. From a friend’s house in Ernakulam, he watched in dismay as the management announced his suspension on live TV. “Even then, I thought the suspension was temporary and could pacify people. I did not want anyone to get hurt, that was my worry,” he says. When police landed up at his house later that day, he naively assumed they had come to protect him and his family. But they put out a lookout notice with Joseph’s picture on it, exposing him to extremists across the state. It dawned on him that he was a wanted man and he fled to Palakkad, where he took refuge in a tourist lodge under a false name. (He would later go back and apologise for misleading them.) He did not dare to leave the safety of his room for two days and subsisted on water before finally mustering the courage to leave at midnight. In his autobiography, which DC Books has agreed to publish, Joseph writes with a touch of fond braggadocio about the drama that filled his days as an outlaw. He did, after all, study Malayalam literature aspiring to be a playwright.
For someone who isn’t very pious, Professor Joseph’s life doesn’t lack in religious symbolism. A church-goer, he betrays not more than an academic and a cultural interest in Catholicism. Indeed, he quotes from the Gita and the Bible in the same breath. Yet, religion has stalked him like an unrequited lover. Convinced of his innocence, Joseph turned himself in on 1 April, which happened to be Maundy Thursday, the day Jesus is said to have been arrested on charges of blasphemy. He was released on bail on 7 April, and three months later, attacked in his car while on his way back from church with his sister and his aged mother. “I knew I wouldn’t get away this time. I was prepared for death,” he says. “For how long could I have lived in fear, confined to my house?” The men who struck at his hands and legs 15 to 20 times, severing a limb and grievously injuring the rest, wielded axes, Joseph points out, the weapon of Parashurama who, as legend goes, flung it at the sea, splitting it to reveal the landmass that we know as Kerala.
The morning after a 16-hour surgery at Specialists Hospital, Kochi, Joseph awoke to find his son, who had been injured trying to defend him, sitting by his hospital bed. “We have crossed another hurdle. The worst is over,” he calmly told the young man who was then 22. To his doctors, the fact that the professor not just survived the attack but was also regaining the use of his limbs was miraculous. For a while, optimism seemed to filter through the blinds of the family’s living room. Visitors poured in; friends offered financial support; TV channels that had conveniently broadcast his apology while leaving out his interpretation of the controversial question now wanted him on air again. “We were okay with putting the incident behind us. I could have been injured in a road accident for all we cared,” Joseph says. There was hope of restitution, of getting his job back and leading a normal life, even if it meant police lurking outside the house. Perhaps he could now look for a match for his daughter, who was studying to be a nurse. Or even get around to building two more rooms on the first floor. But in two months, the family’s dreams came crashing down like a house of cards. In September 2010, the college terminated his service for hurting the sentiments of a community. The Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Kothamangalam, which runs the college with aid from the state, wrote in a letter that was read in about 120 parish churches in the area: ‘The teacher will not be absolved of his mistake just because a group of religious fundamentalists took the law into their own hands and cut off his palm. If we think that he has been absolved of what he did, it would mean that we are accepting the cruel deed of anti-socials.’ The message has a distinct parallel in Pope Francis’ comment after the Paris attack earlier this year that there is a limit on freedom of expression when it insults someone’s faith.
By now, Joseph had been punished several times over for his Mistake. “People continued to feel sorry for me, but only because they thought I had got more than my share of punishment. No one seemed to think I was not guilty,” he says. “The worst blows came from institutions I respected: the government, which had made me seem like a criminal and had possibly helped the mob identify me by publishing my photograph, and the college, which refused to take me back even after I was acquitted of charges of blasphemy in 2013.”
The family was distraught and could barely make ends meet. Joseph’s wife Salomi, the main witness in the case who had appeared remarkably strong in the initial months of the investigation, sank into depression and eventually hanged herself in the bathroom in March last year. Citing Joseph’s petition against his dismissal in the University Tribunal, the Diocese had called off negotiations ahead of his slated retirement date of 31 March. Now, the college found itself embroiled in Salomi’s suicide and agreed to reinstate him on ‘humanitarian grounds’ with three days left for his retirement. It also promised him his arrears in full—about Rs 40 lakh, Joseph says—but he is yet to see the money.
Joseph has driven 40,000 km since the assault, inspired by a crippled mason who had modified his bike, moving all controls to the left. “I was fine, I knew I could handle whatever came my way. But my wife’s death changed everything,” Joseph says. “Now I am focused on my children.” His doughty spirit hasn’t crumbled, but he feels much like a character in the theatre of the absurd, floating in a world that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Before his suspension, Joseph had been director of Newman College’s value education programme. He had prepared ahead for his class on morals every Thursday, mining Gandhian texts and Advaita for ever-relevant lessons. His last subject was humanity and he had based his lecture on the qualities of kindness, love and non-violence, all of which must seem intangible to him now. “A spider never stops spinning a web, no matter how many times it breaks,” he says, recalling another lecture—on sportsmanship. “I am like a spider. Life is a long- distance race. Even if you don’t come first, it is not something you run away from. You must complete it.” In a final irony, the professor, dismissed for the reprehensible act of insulting a religion, has been paid an advance by DC Books for a text on value education.
He is also making steady progress with the autobiography. Joseph can no longer write with his right hand, of which he has only regained partial function. It took a year of physiotherapy and painful practice sessions before he could write legibly with his left. The observational passages on jail life, describing every meal in detail and obsessing absurdly over a barber’s visit on Tuesday were enjoyable, he says. Tackling the angst of his son’s torture at the hands of the police is proving much harder. In a disturbing scene, a heavy-set constable interrupts the young man’s meal, lifting him by the neck and making him gasp for breath. The senior inspector then makes a timely entrance, breaking his stronghold. “My son was panting all day. He threw away the rest of the food,” says Joseph, who has to refer to recorded conversations with his son for reproducing this part of the story. “I doubt he will speak of all that now,” he says.
Professor Joseph paid an unreasonably high cost for exercising his right to expression. We are among his offenders, guilty of vacillating between disapproval and vague sympathy, like Pontius Pilate delivering Jesus to Caiaphas’ bloodthirsty mob. Let us not deliver ordinary men and women into violence, or, for that matter, into silence.