Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Book, its Writer, the Goon and Our Response

Everyone knows by now about the ban on Rohinton Mistry's book, Such A Long Journey and its removal from the syllabus of the second year course in Bombay University. Below is the PEN's Statement, in full, and a link to The Hindu's report this morning, of Mistry's own statement.

1.The PEN All-India Centre's statement:

Theosophy Hall
40 New Marine Lines
Mumbai 400 020

20 October 2010

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

The PEN All-India Centre strongly condemns the removal of Rohinton Mistry’s novel, Such A Long Journey, from the SYBA syllabus of the University of Mumbai’s Literature course. We also express our great disappointment at the manner in which politicians belonging to the supposedly centrist and liberal parties, including the Indian National Congress, have consented to this ban, demanded by the scion of a right-wing political party, the Shiv Sena.

India has lapsed into the worst kind of competitive populism, with political forces seeking to outdo one another in destroying and banning works of literature, art, theatre and cinema, in the name of an aggrieved religious, ethnic or regional sensibility. Not only does this constitute a betrayal of the liberal Enlightenment ideology that ushered India into postcolonial freedom, but it also makes nonsense of our claim to being a 21st-century society, marked by openness, tolerance of diversity, and respect for the creative imagination.

There is only one name for a society that bans and burns books, tears down paintings, attacks cinema halls, and disrupts theatre performances under the sign of an aggressive chauvinism. ‘Fascist’ is too gentle a description. The exact name is ‘Nazi’. It is a matter of extreme sorrow that Mumbai in 2010 is exactly what Munich and Berlin were in 1935. It is for civil society in our city to decide whether we want to plunge deeper into the abyss of Nazi-style obscurantism, dictatorial oppression and a savage destructiveness towards every impulse that is open, receptive, creative and compassionate -- or whether we shall resist it.

Ranjit Hoskote
Naresh Fernandes
Jerry Pinto
For The Executive Committee

“The Shiv Sena's student wing complains to the Vice-Chancellor of Mumbai University that it is offended by the novel ‘Such a Long Journey.' Copies are burnt at the University gates. Needless to say, no one has actually read the book. The mob leader, speaking in Hindi to a television camera, says: The author is lucky he lives in Canada — if he were here, we would burn him as well. The mob demands the book's removal, within twenty-four hours, from the syllabus. The good Vice-Chancellor obliges the mob. 


“As for the grandson of the Shiv Sena leader, the young man who takes credit for the whole pathetic business, who admits to not having read the book, just the few lines that offend him and his bibliophobic brethren, he has now been inducted into the family enterprise of parochial politics, anointed leader of its newly minted “youth wing.” What can — what should — one feel about him? Pity, disappointment, compassion? Twenty years old, in the final year of a B.A. in history, at my own Alma Mater, the beneficiary of a good education, he is about to embark down the Sena's well-trodden path, to appeal, like those before him, to all that is worst in human nature.
“Does he have to? No. He is clearly equipped to choose for himself. He could lead, instead of following, the old regime. He could say something radical — that burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul, will not house one homeless person nor will it provide gainful employment to anyone [unless one counts those hired to light bonfires], not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever.
“He can think independently, and he can choose. And since he is drawn to books, he might want to read, carefully this time, from cover to cover, a couple that would help him make his choice. Come to think of it, the Vice-Chancellor, too, may find them beneficial. First, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, in order to consider the options: step back from the abyss, or go over the edge. Next, the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali. And I would urge particular attention to this verse: ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;...Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake'.”

Yes. Well. 

Depressingly familiar, certainly. No question there. But I want to ask if civil society's response - that Mistry so touchingly appreciates and puts faith in to change something - isn't equally depressing in its familiarity.

It should be clear by now that organisations like the Sena burn and ban not because they're really outraged by the representations of artists; they behave the way they do because it pushes our buttons and polarises people.They do it because they can.Offense has very little to do with any of this.

It helps very little to appeal to their better conscience, because they have none. It helps even less to compare them to the Nazis, or Germany before WWII, because presumably civil society reacted with precisely this mixture of futile outrage and fear, with equally abysmal results.

Which is not to say that civil society must not respond. The question is, to what part of the phenomenon is one to respond to? Here is a 20 year old pimply youth in his final year at college. There is the middle generation of the Sena, divided, with no one very clear what the difference is in their agendas, but perfectly certain that it's a question of inheritance. What is the young man - absurdly called the scion of the Thackeray clan - to do to establish his credentials as a goon worthy of inheriting the mantle of his grandfather? 

Why, find some poor sod whose book or painting to ban, of course. 

So should we be outraged that this Aditya person has not read Mistry's book or should we figure out why it's so easy these days to cynically manipulate people and events so that such a thing is even possible?

For instance, how did a rule unused for a 150 years get invoked without any oversight from any other person in the University? What routine action is taken against those who are entrusted to uphold whatever law there is, when they fail to do so?

I'm sure there'll be reams written about how outrageous this whole thing is. And don't get me wrong, it is outrageous. But let's also acknowledge that we being jerked around quite deliberately.

I don't know what the answer is, of course, or how to respond adequately but I want to know what the misdirection is concealing. I only know that to respond by buying more copies of Mistry's book, or recommending that Aditya Thackeray read it, or some such is to offer a band-aid to someone having a stroke.

Oh, and previously on bans. (I was so much older then...).

Update: I've just read Supriya Nair's excellent piece, 'Protesting the Protesters', in Mint. She says:

Finally, one girl stood up and marched to the front of the terrace. “If we’re going to go off into discussions of the book’s literary merit or whatever, this is never going to end,” she said. “This is a procedural issue. If we don’t treat it like that, we’ll never get anything done.”

Amazingly, she had the last word. I liked her and her fellow students, who applauded her unequivocally. They know their outrage legitimizes nothing. Perhaps they agree with their opponents that the forums of debate afforded them are already skewed. They are not the ones drawing the battle lines in a fake battle. They can only claim their rightful place as part of the public, as much as their sword-carrying classmates. They know they have to get stuff done, the way Patwardhan did for Ram Ke Naam, court by court and channel by channel. This is not the time to keel over rasping “The horror, the horror”.
 To the Batfax, comrades!


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Everyone knows by now about the ban on Rohinton Mistry's book

I haven't heard of it. What ban?

The girl you mention at the end had it right: this is a procedural issue. The university is within its rights to include a book in its syllabus or not. The question is on what grounds was the book removed. Are threats from political thugs adequate grounds? That is a question for the Mumbai University VC to answer, and for its members to debate.

But you aren't the first to call it a ban. Hyperbole doesn't help.

Space Bar said...

Rahul: Fair enough. Aditya Thackeray seems to have said, "“We have no issues with the book (a Long Journey) being available in the market but it is being forced upon us. That is not acceptable,” the younger Aditya Thackeray said, referring to Mistry’s novel that was taken off the syllabus of the university following protests by the Shiv Sena student wing."

km said...

Completely OT, I know, but do these guys not know of Godwin's Law?

Book bans are obviously silly, but must PEN insist on employing the Nazi analogy? As writers, should it not be their duty to write a "creative" protest letter?

kbpm said...

idiots, the whole lot of them. universities. bah. education. bah. higher education double bah.

Cheshire Cat said...

Great title. Civilization vs Barbarism is what Greenaway's always on about.