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Literary Review

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In defence of books

What is it that lawmakers fear when they resort to banning books? DIVYA DUBEY ponders over the question in the light of the ban on Great Soul.

Photo: The Hindu Photo Library

Joseph Lelyveld:Latest entrant to the "ban the book" club.

So Great Soul, the Mahatma's new biography by Joseph Lelyveld, happens to be the latest entrant in the Indian hall of ‘shame' following a whole series of other books, the recent ones including Jaishree Mishra's Rani, and Rohinston Mistry's Such a Long Journey. A little earlier, OUP had to face the music for Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (2003); and Penguin's publication of Mitrokhin archive II saw huge demands for bans from outraged political parties as well as anonymous phoned-in threats (2005).

Yes, this list doesn't feature several other ‘confusibles', objectionables, and unmentionables that suffered the same fate in the land of free speech. The most controversial was, of course, Rushdie's Satanic Verses (hammered for sacrilege); and Nabokov's Lolita is still on the barred-books list.

Some of the bans were lifted later. Great Soul, however, has been banned in Gujarat, labelled as ‘insulting', since it talks about Gandhi's possible liaison with a part-German part-Jewish man. The ban has been met with severe criticism by general readers (and non-readers), authors, and academics all over India and abroad.

Incisive voice

One passionate and incisive voice recently rose in The Book Beast, saying “The latest controversy over Gandhi's sexuality ignores his true legacy as the ultimate symbol of Indian manhood.” This was Aravind Adiga, author of The White Tiger. “This grinning old man with the missing teeth had been sent to jail by the British again and again: but he had never been broken. If this wasn't manliness, what was?”

“Come on, India. Grow up!” said Shobha De in her column. “If the Great Soul was indeed attracted to another man, is that so hard to accept or understand? Which century are we living in?”

I agree with both Adiga and De here as, I'm sure, most of the new generation of Indians does.

Rani, Jaishree Mishra's historical fantasy, was similarly banned by the U.P. government sometime back, because the book depicted the queen's more human aspect, presenting her as a woman who believed in love rather than war.

The point is: it's not about Gandhi, or Lakshmi Bai, or others who share the pedestal. And it is not about being ‘insulted'. To begin with there was no offence intended, and none taken, at least not by the majority of mature adult Indians, when these books were released.

It is bizarre that we, grown-up people in our own democratic sphere, even need to come up with such arguments in the defence of books that perhaps reveal a different (but plausible) dimension of these luminaries. They make them more complex, more intriguing, more real; in a word: more human.

Why do lawmakers insist upon such an apotheosis of these figures that they lose their humanness altogether? Instead of inspiring awe and deference, they are reduced to 2-D characters that most people begin to look upon with contempt.

For instance, Adiga points out in the same article, “Stamped on our currency notes, embossed on government notices, framed on the walls of our police stations, Gandhi's face is now as an instrument of social control. This is why many young men — and I was one of them — regard Gandhi with something like hatred.”

It is easy to understand and empathise with that. We belong to the same generation; the one taught to see and think 3-D. The angst is about a set of conservative and tunnel-visioned lawmakers trying to drill into us what is good or bad, allowing us no say in the matter.

Amazing reasons

To see the list of books banned in India, you need go no further than Wikipedia. The list and the reasons for most bans are amazing, with the exception of a few (threat to national security being a relevant example).

The reasons cited broadly fall into three categories: (perceived) blasphemy, insult, and obscenity. The question is: who decides what's blasphemous, insulting, or obscene?

It becomes an even more significant question now since India's been going through a transition phase for about a decade and a half. Indian culture itself has changed 15 times over in the last 15 years.

Divorce is no longer taboo. Women no longer believe in pati-parmeshwar customs. MTV has not only survived, but continues to thrive. Attitudes to homosexuality have changed. Plus, people can download all the hard porn they want from the Net; children happily watch adult reality shows; You-Tube beats edited news videos; and the virtual world has destroyed all boundaries. One could extend this contrail here, but the point has been made.

When it comes to books, what do the lawmakers fear? Moral corruption? Violence? Sentiments being hurt? Then they should be barking up the right tree! When they choose to ban these books, aren't they being rather presumptuous? They believe for instance that a huge majority of the population reads/buys books; that the people who buy these books actually read/analyse them; that those who do analyse them get corrupted/motivated enough to act against the state. (Most of those who do make the grade are academics and litterateurs by the way, denied the opportunity to even discuss/debate the subject.)

A populace that read so much would be any Indian publisher's dream. Unfortunately, we're talking about a country where a fraction of the whole population is educated, and a fraction of a fraction reads for pleasure. A fraction of them spends on books. And, forget not, some out of that fraction have books on their shelves simply because their interior designer thought they would go well with the décor in their drawing room.

What, therefore, does a book ban achieve? Unwarranted rules have scourged modern-day India enough, clamping the freedom of educated adults. Will it take another Anna, and another revolution, to convince the lawmakers that we, the people, have the right to make our own judgements?

The writer is the Publisher, Gyaana Books, Delhi

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