Banned Books Week: Ashok Malik on unbanning the banned

Alexander Campbell was a Scotsman who served in the 1950s as Time magazine’s correspondent in New Delhi. In 1958, he wrote a book called The Heart of India, which was seen as so repulsive and diabolical that the government banned it in March 1959.

Campbell also wrote travelogues called The Heart of Africa and The Heart of Japan. He is now a forgotten man. Yet the ban, immutable and constant, stays exactly where it is. Has anybody read the book in the past 53 years to understand why it was banned and whether it is still worthy of being denied to Indian readers?

When D.H. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928 it was deemed too explicit for public consumption. By the 1960s, with greater permissiveness and social freedom, uncensored copies of the book were being published in Britain and the United States.

Taboo is not an absolute. It varies with time and geography. As such, a book or a film that may be deemed outrageous in one era could be seen as acceptable and normal in another. This may take longer to achieve with criticism of religion, but what of books on social or political themes?
The question struck me this past week as I bumped into Campbell and his book.

The encounter began when a friend forwarded me a list of books banned by India since Independence. Some of them were easy enough to identify — being categorised as pornographic or insulting of a religious icon or historical character. Some of the titles were more general and spoke of a narrative that was not necessarily a critique of one religion or individual. Intrigued, I pottered around on the Internet looking for more.

Fairly soon, I found the entire text of The Heart of India on a website, and wolfed down a significant portion of the book. In parts it was outrageously funny. Clearly written by someone who didn’t think much of India, it nevertheless had a droll, deadpan style and poked fun at the government’s sanctimonious manner.

The Indian elite made pretentious claims about idealism, socialism and spirituality that were, to Campbell, humbug. The obsession with esoteric ritualism — or what Campbell considered esoteric ritualism — the hierarchy of caste, the grimy and dirty cities, and the poverty: it was all too much for the author. In his exaggerated and fictionalised account — the book’s protagonist is an American visitor to India — Campbell is guilty of what post facto analysis would term political incorrectness and racial stereotyping.

Several books of that period were equally guilty of these. The white man’s gaze, looking down on one or the other bunch of Orientals, was not unique to The Heart of India. Many accounts from the 1950s and 1960s were as trenchant and, from the vantage point of history, as unfair in deciding that, having broken away from the British Empire, India was headed down the road to disaster.

Given this, why were Campbell and The Heart of India singled out for a ban?

The answer is probably in the book’s views on the economy rather than religion and society. Campbell was in India in the period of 1954-55, when Jawaharlal Nehru’s government was putting together its industrial policy, finalising the Second Five-Year Plan and talking of the state being at the “commanding heights of the economy”. Campbell mocked this. He was clear it would not work and only create a bureaucratic mountain.

Extracts from his book are revealing.

One describes a meeting with an economic policymaker: “I introduced Rud to Mr Vaidya Sharma of the Ministry of Planning. We sat down, and the chaprasi was sent for cups of tea. Sharma began telling Rud about India’s Five Year Plan. He had a responsible position in the ministry, but not at the highest level, so he spoke Welsh English. He took his job seriously, and he tended to address foreigners as if they were a hostile public audience. He told Rud severely: ‘India is carrying out a bloodless revolution. Austerity is our watchword, and we need every man, woman, and child for honest constructive work… Unlike the capitalist countries, we cannot afford flunkies, Mr Jack.’ The chaprasi brought in the tea.” Campbell used the dagger subtly.

A few lines later Sharma talks enthusiastically about building massive housing estates for “government employees, clerks of various grades”: “New Delhi is like Washington, Mr Jack, there are thousands of people here working for the government.”

Finally, he comes to the Second Five-Year Plan: “The first Plan built up our food resources; the second Plan will lay the foundations for rapid creation of heavy industry. Delhi, as the capital of India, will play a big part, and we are getting ready to shoulder the burden. We are going to build a big central stationery depot, with a special railway-siding of its own. There will be no fewer than 12 halls, each covering 2,000 square feet. They will be storage halls, and we calculate that the depot will be capable of an annual turnover of 1,400 tons of official forms, forms required for carrying out the commitments of the second Five Year Plan!”

The book is riddled with such examples. In 1959, India’s policy-framers took themselves and their model very seriously — who is to say they still don’t? — and were convinced they were embarking on one of destiny’s great journeys and were about to give the world a new economic and development model. Campbell obviously didn’t think so, and made his sarcasm plain.

Today, in 2012, Campbell’s digs at the anticipated excesses of India’s bureaucratic socialism would seem mild. Indian writers and economists have said much harsher things. Yet, in all these years nobody has bothered to ask if The Heart of India is still worth banning, and quoting those extracts above is still as contested (or as legal/illegal) as reading from The Satanic Verses at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Do we need Alexander Campbell to tell us the Indian system is strange?

(Published with permission from Ashok Malik; first carried on January 29, 2012 in the Deccan Chronicle)

Previous posts on Banned Books Week: A history of book bans in India

More posts from Banned Books Week, here.

Banned Books Week: Banning Books In India

A brief look at the history of banned books in India:

The 1930s: Almost exactly 70 years since Katherine Mayo’s Mother India was placed on the list of banned books, the import of this “drain-inspector’s report” is still prohibited. More typical of books that incurred the disapproval of the State in pre-Independence India was Arthur Miles’ Land of the Lingam, a salacious “history” of sexuality in Eastern lands. Max Wylie’s Hindu Heaven was an intemperate expose of mission conditions in India, and was banned in 1934. Perhaps the most puzzling ban was the one placed on Frank Richards’ Old Soldier Sahib, an account of this veteran soldier’s pre-war army service in India. Richards was a friend of Robert Graves; his memoir of the Great War was never banned in India, and indeed, did extremely well. Old Soldier Sahib appears to have ruffled military feathers for its candid portrayal of life in the ranks.

The 1940s: Moki Singh’s Mysterious India and Bernard Stern’s Scented Garden are fairly representative. Scented Garden was considered too sexually explicit (versions can still be found at pavement bookstalls, providing competition to the Kama Sutra). Mysterious India offered the usual stereotypes, some of them at least moderately offensive. The 1940s also saw early bannings of pamphlets containing material that was considered inflammatory to one or the other religion and politically seditious literature. In 1946, for example, the Customs notifications prohibited any reproduction of an issue of the journal Britannia and Eve, containing an article entitled Codijah the First and Devoted Wife of Mahomet, on the grounds that this might be offensive to the followers of Islam. Pamphlets offering a “neutral opinion” of Kashmir were also banned, on the grounds that these opinions were not as neutral as they seemed.

The 1950s: In the aftermath of Partition, the first bans on specific books from across the border came into force—Agha Babar’s play Cease-Fire, and a treatise on Somnath called Marka-e-Somnath, the newspaper Hamara Kashmir were typical of the Urdu writings from Pakistan that were put on the banned list. One of the oddities of this period was a book about a Saurashtrian freedom fighter, written by Kaluwank Ravatwank and published from Karachi—Bhupat Singh crops up with alarming regularity on the banned list. The ban on Robert W Taylor’s trashy and semi-pornographic Dark Urge went almost unnoticed.

But in 1955, Aubrey Menen’s Rama Retold was placed on the prohibited list—marking one of the earliest significant “literary bans” in India—for Menen’s irreverent, iconoclastic attitude to the scriptures. (Books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover routinely found their way onto the banned list, but surprisingly few literary works have actually been banned by the central government—most bans on specific works of literature have been implemented by state governments.) In 1959, Alexander Campbell’s Heart of India was also banned.

The 1960s: Aubrey Menen continued, apparently, to offend the sensibilities of the Indian state—his Ramayana was one of the first novels to be banned in the 1960s. (I never figured out whether the ban on Menen had been officially lifted or not, but the effect lingered—we read him in college with a faint sense of enjoying illicit pleasures, which did his work no harm.) In 1962, Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama was banned for its insinuations about the poor security around Mahatma Gandhi and how that may have aided his assassins. The erotic offender of this decade was Allen Edwards’ somewhat overwrought history of sexuality in India, The Jewel in the Lotus. But the real change in the sixties can be seen in the periodicals that appeared on the banned list. In addition to “incendiary” and “anti-national” journals from Pakistan, there was a spate of Tamil journals published in Ceylon, and magazines preaching revolution and sedition from France to Portugal to Rangoon (the famous Lushai Weekly), that were banned in India.

By the end of the sixties, a few magazines and books from China were also on the contraband list. In the next three decades, the list of banned books would increasingly read like a list of the deepest fears of the Indian body politic—and while fewer books were permanently banned, there was a corresponding rise in temporary bans, and in bans by individual Indian states.

The 1970s: Politics, and what the state often saw as the misrepresentation of either India’s policies or its leaders, triggered most book bans in this decade. Former MI5 operative Greville Wynne upset MI5 and the Indian government when he published his memoirs, The Man From Moscow.

It was increasingly books that “misrepresented” India that were targeted. Desmond Steward’s Early Islam and Michael Edwards Nehru: A Political Biography were both banned in 1975 for what the government considered grievous factual errors, as were Charles Bettelheim’s India Independent and Alan Lawrence’s China’s Foreign Relations Since 1949. Lourenco de Sadvandor’s incendiary, and sadly ill-researched, Who Killed Gandhi was banned in 1979, while the ban on Arthur Koestler’s scathing (but hardly well-informed) view of Eastern religion, The Lotus and the Robot, was carried over from the late ‘60s.

The 1980s: The early part of the decade appeared to be remarkably free of bans, but this was because broader, all-encompassing rules had now been framed. Any book that misrepresented India’s borders was confiscated by Customs and released only after the offending frontiers had been manually “corrected”.

In 1983, Morarji Desai obtained a temporary ban on Seymour Hersh’s The Price of Power: Kissinger and Nixon in the White House, which described Desai as a “star performer” for the CIA. The ban was eventually lifted, but by that time public interest in the book was on the wane. And Morarji Desai—who was then 93—gained much sympathy when Kissinger stepped up to testify on his behalf, stating unequivocally that Desai was no CIA spy.

But the most significant ban in the 1980s was the 1988 ban on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Many writers saw this ban as shameful, and also saw that this might set a dangerous precedent. Rushdie himself was “hurt” and “humiliated”; India, his country of birth, was the first country in the world to ban the book.

The 1990s: Outright bans became increasingly rare, even as books faced different, sometimes sharper, challenges. Arundhati Roy’s Booker-winning The God of Small Things was challenged, but mercifully never banned, on grounds of obscenity.

Relatively few books were banned by the Central government—Hamish McDonald’s Polyester Prince, a life of Dhirubhai Ambani, banned in 1998, was a rare exception. Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh was temporarily banned after Bal Thackeray objected to a character in the book who bore a striking resemblance to the Hindutva leader. The Supreme Court overturned that ban in short order, though, and the book is now freely available.

2000-2012: In the last few years, the courts are no longer the main theatre where decisions about banning plays, film or art are carried out: instead, various groups, religious or political, have found direct action, vandalism or aggressive threats more effective. Literature has, by that yardstick, been slightly luckier, though James Laine and Taslima Nasreen might not agree. Laine’s life of Shivaji sparked off a virulent attack in January 2004 on the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune, and subsequently, the professor was threatened, and his book was banned in Maharashtra. (His publishers, OUP, withdrew the book before the state ban was enforced, but that gesture of appeasement didn’t satisfy Laine’s antagonists.)

Technically, the Central government is not at fault; it is the state of Maharashtra, not the Centre, that has banned Laine’s book, but the effect has been identical—the book is no longer easily available in India, and the controversy has long since overshadowed Laine’s original scholarship. Taslima Nasreen’s autobiography was similarly banned by the West Bengal state government in 2003, but the ban was lifted by the High Court in 2004, and her books are freely available. The one book that is officially on the banned list in this decade has an interesting history. The True Furqan: the 21st century Quran was banned in 2005 by the Indian government. The book has apparently been written by an evangelical Christian group, challenges the Koran, and attempts to proselytise Muslims. A rumour spread that the US government was trying to impose “a new American Koran” on Muslims, and gained such currency that USINFO issued a formal disclaimer to the effect that these claims were false.

From the mid-2000s to the present time, India saw a rise in other forms of censorship. Authors such as Arundhati Roy spent years in court fighting cases, when obscenity charges were filed against The God of Small Things. Bans by state governments–or calls for book bans by state governments–became increasingly common. The UP government briefly banned Jaishree Mishra’s Rani on the grounds that her book, a work of fiction, had added unacceptable colour to the life of Rani Lakshmibai. In 2009, the Chattisgarh government banned performances of Habib Tanvir’s plays, on the grounds that they offended the sentiments of the Satnam Panth community; the Gujarat government briefly banned Jaswant Singh’s Life of Jinnah.

In 2010, Arundhati Roy’s house was attacked by BJP Mahila Morcha activists, after she had made comments on Kashmir, and talk of “sedition charges” began to circulate. In October 2010, Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey was dropped from the Mumbai University syllabus after a political party first complained that the book contained “anti-Shiv Sena” passages and then broadened the complaint to argue that Mistry had offended all Maharashtrians. In 2011, AK Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayana, Nina Paley’s Sita Sings The Blues, an exhibition of Korans in Delhi and films on Kashmir all found themselves in the firing line. In January 2012, threats of violence prevented Salman Rushdie from attending the Jaipur Literature Festival and four writers who read from The Satanic Verses (Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi) sparked controversy and the threat of court cases. Controversies also flared over the publication of cartoons said to be offensive to Dr BR Ambedkar, in a school textbook, and over growing attempts by the Indian government to censor the Internet.

The practice of banning books was once an expression of British paternalism towards their Indian subjects: erotica was supposed to be harmful for the natives, as were books that discussed the possibility of independent rule for Indians. Perhaps we have reached a point of maturity where we can debate, not ban, books we disagree with.

(Earlier versions originally published in the Business Standard, in 2006, 2010 & 2012/ Nilanjana Roy)

Writers, September: Mulk Raj Anand

Mulk Raj reads from Untouchable, for the South Asian Literary Recordings Project

(Amardeep Singh (@Electrostani on Twitter) on why he thinks Untouchable is a copout:




“Presumably, therefore, the fate of the English language in Asia is either to fade out or to survive as a pidgin language useful for business and technical purposes. It might survive, in dialect form, as the mother tongue of the small Eurasian community, but it is difficult to believe that it has a literary future. Mr Anand and Ahmed Ali are much better writers than the average run of English novelists, but they are not likely to have many successors.”


George Orwell, getting it wrong in his review of The Sword and The Sickle by Mulk Raj Anand.

(Mulk Raj Anand, died September 28, 2004)

The Unprivate Lives of Authors

(Two linked columns, published in August/ September 2012 in the Business Standard.)

The faint sense that Shashi Tharoor had been cloned by his publishing house last week was inescapable. There was Mr Tharoor at the launch of his own book, Pax Indica; presiding over the launch of Chetan Bhagat’s book; in conversation with several authors, from Shehan Karunatilake to Yasmeen Premji.

Mr Tharoor’s ubiquity is unremarkable. As one of the few genuine literary superstars left from his generation, it would have been far more unusual if he had been restricted to just his own launch. For authors like him, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and a few others, the relentless publicity blitz is the price they pay in return for the privilege of being left in peace to write for the rest of the year.

And Mr Tharoor’s life in politics has left him better prepared than most for the curious contradiction at the heart of the writer’s life: the necessity of drumming up a public performance from the most private of the arts. Early storytellers were, in truth, performers—the telling of a story was as important as making it up in the first place in the age of the spoken word. But the shift to print changed the nature of authorship. A storyteller had to address his or her audience directly; a writer could, for a brief while, push the book out there and let it do the talking instead.

In 1989, when Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel came out, the book launch hadn’t acquired the ceremonial importance it holds today. A smattering of book discussions at the Sahitya Akademi or the India International Centre offered the humble incentive of chai and biscuits. (The importance of the speaker could be gauged by whether the evening ran to chocolate or jam biscuits rather than plain Glucose or Marie biscoot.) Vikram Seth read to packed halls at JNU, Shashi Tharoor was welcomed at his old college, St Stephen’s, but even when the first few launches began to push authors into the public eye, the five-star hotel launch was a long distance away.

Today’s launches are like the sangeet and the mehendi at weddings: completely inessential and utterly inescapable.Most publishers don’t think launches do anything to promote books, but they can’t stop the practice without upsetting their authors and worse, disturbing the delicate ecology of the literary world, for whom book launches are the equivalent of the coffeehouse adda. Authors may be aware that a book launch, however entertaining and well-executed, is basically a bald call to The Public, asking them to please buy your book, but few would skip the launch all together.

Some do, explaining as I Allan Sealy memorably did, that they would much rather be back home doing the gardening. Sealy did one or two rounds of author interviews, book launches and festivals before retreating to Dehradun where, as he had threatened, he occupies himself with the writing and the gardening, and emerges only rarely into the public eye. But few authors would be comfortable with Sealy’s choice, or as happy to walk away from the limelight. As another writer friend said, only 50 per cent of your work as a writer has to do with the writing. The other 50 per cent is, depending on one’s perspective, about accepting the need to market your book, or about being gracious enough to thank your readers for the time and money they’ve invested in you.

For a lucky few, the public life of a writer doesn’t have to be a burden. The happiest writers seem to be the ones who don’t measure their festival appearances in the number of books sold—the missionary approach to writing, which sees all readers as potential converts. Instead, they see the public life as a necessary balance to the essentially private, solitary, quiet act of writing; the festivals and launches are ways of introducing you to your creative community.

In an essay on Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf reflected how close the other author had come to losing her obscurity—Austen was so close to becoming famous, at the time of her death. “She would have stayed in London, dined out, lunched out, met famous people, made new friends, read, travelled, and carried back to the quiet country cottage a hoard of observations to feast upon at leisure.”

Woolf was not thinking of fame as we define it for writers these days—photographs in the paper, Amazon sales ranks—but as the passport to a life with a broader margin. “Her sense of security,” she writes of Austen, “would have been shaken.” The launches are mere ritual; the real gift that a public life might offer a writer is richer experiences, and a useful sense of uncertainty.

II (published the week after Part One)

Anthony Bourdain’s pastry chef gave the world an immortal line. Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown, psychotic bread baker, would call Bourdain and random chefs at unexpected hours of the day, and they’d hear a voice rasp: “Feed the bitch! Feed the bitch or she’ll die!”

What he wanted them to do was to maintain his starter for the dough—“a massive, foaming, barely contained heap of fermenting grapes, flour, water, sugar or yeast…” which had to be “fed” with a mix of warm water, fresh flour and yeast at regular intervals. It was a messy, time-consuming, laborious job, and it was mandatory if there was to be any bread at all.

This part of the life of a writer, feeding the bitch, is not something that writers like talking about. It ruins the pleasant myth that books sell themselves, spread from reader to reader without any actual manipulation on the part of the dark forces of the marketplace.

But it’s necessary, even for the recluses, who fall into two camps. Some suffer for their belief that authors are, separated from their writing, inarticulate people best left alone; they retreat into doing just the writing, and are swiftly forgotten—even if their work is important. (Manohar Malgonkar, GV Desani, Aubrey Menen—the list of neglected and now dead writers in India makes for sad reading.)

A few are already celebrities, famous enough to get away with being reclusive, though they bring up the Pynchon Question: if a Pynchon or a Salinger was writing today, would they be able to hold on to their privacy, or would they never have found a publisher at all?

Some writers and artists dissect what the media wants with ruthless clarity, and give it to them. Yoko Ono, on a recent visit to India, gave of her time in 10 minute segments–sliced down to 3-5 minutes in practice. (The best use of that interview was made by the writer and artist Manjula Padmanabhan, who asked to spend five minutes with Yoko Ono in silence.) As Salman Rushdie prepares to release Joseph Anton, the word in the media is that few journalists will get more than 15 minutes of his time, during which they can ask three questions.

This is not arrogance on the part of the writer/ artist, just an acknowledgement of the form that the modern interview has taken. It’s no use complaining that journalists don’t read the book they’re covering; most “interviews”, especially in India, are short space-fillers. That gives the journalist just enough room for three quotes, setting aside the peculiarly human need for the personal, face-to-face meeting.

For writers like Ian McEwan, Rushdie or artists like Yoko Ono, you’d need a Paris Review-length interview to do justice to their long careers. Three questions are enough for most 600-word profiles, even if what’s happening is a simulacrum of an interview—awkward performance art.

If the old-school interview—a conversation, really, a dialogue which assumes give-and-take—survives anywhere, it’s online. There are fewer space constraints, for one. The only sensible way out seems to be for authors to commit a short span of time to the circus, hope to have at least a few interesting encounters, and get back to the desk.

The speed at which India’s reading habits are going online could change that, though. Amazon’s Kindle store in India opened last month, allowing Indian readers to buy books in rupees. Their prices are competitive, and they’re walking into a market that’s already warmed up to buying books (virtual or paper) online, thanks to Flipkart. Many readers—especially business readers—had switched comfortably to reading on their tablets, and the availability of the Kindle makes it likelier that more and more people will read ebooks.

With the growth of online bookstores—and with their ability to create readers’ communities—many writers will be lured by the idea of unfenced conversations with readers. But as writers elsewhere have discovered, there are pitfalls. Some grow addicted to watching their Amazon sales rank swoop or dive; some become obsessed with unfavourable reviews; a few unhappy souls created their own fictitious accounts and praised their books, and were rapidly (and ignominiously) found out.

Amazon might have its hands full with troll wars, too. (A troll is, briefly, someone who posts inflammatory, often bitter or abusive messages online.) Indian trolls are among the worst in the world, and the thought of Chetan Bhagat’s followers battling it out with Ravinder Singh loyalists is curiously dismaying.

The virtue of online bookstores is that they often flag books that might have slipped under the radar, or create loyal communities of readers with similar interests, and it remains to be seen where India’s online reading experience will go. Most authors will have to find a balance between using the Internet to interact directly with readers, and not getting dangerously obsessive about curating their Net presence. In both cases, offline media interviews and online reader communities, less might be more.

Column: A perforated history

(Published in the Business Standard, September 2012)

“I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date.” And so Saleem Sinai tumbled into our lives, 32 years ago, bearing with him the excess of “intertwined lives events miracles places rumours” that made up Midnight’s Children.

It was a rough labour. The late Indira Gandhi, who appears in the novel as The Widow, and whose imposition of the Emergency is shown as a six-hundred-and-thirty-five-day-long midnight, took Salman Rushdie to court for libel. It was an interesting case—Indira Gandhi made no attempt to ban Midnight’s Children or to challenge the bulk of Rushdie’s portrayal of her, including her schizophrenic hair (snow white on one side, blackasnight on the other).

Instead, Gandhi v Rushdie concerned one line in the novel, which suggested that Sanjay Gandhi had accused his mother of bringing on his father’s heart attack through neglect. Mrs Gandhi won her point; the line was excised from Midnight’s Children. It was a nuanced case, but at that time—despite the black shadow of Emergency—there was room for nuance, in a way that might no longer be possible in today’s India.

There were no import bans on the novel, unlike the back-door ban imposed on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and there are no official bans on the Midnight’s Children film in India. Directed by Deepa Mehta, the film made its debut at the Toronto and Calgary film festivals, and will be shown in 40 countries across the world. At present, it won’t be screened in India, because no distributor has bought the rights.

For my generation, Midnight’s Children carried an electric charge; it was the bridge between RK Narayan’s gentle, sharply observed village world and uncharted urban India. Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie and others in that generation were not just “successful” writers; they were the keepers of an alternate, often subversive, history not found in the official textbooks. For this generation of teenagers, Midnight’s Children (and other Indian novels from that period) are distant from their experience, more revered than read if remembered at all. The film version might have brought the book back to life for today’s students and younger readers.

A popular line of argument suggests that distributors don’t want to touch Midnight’s Children because Indians are sensitive to the portrayal of politicians in popular cinema. But how many people seriously think there’ll be mobs out on the street protesting a film that—in part–criticizes the Emergency? If there is indeed a “mob” on the streets defending the reputation of a prime minister widely considered the most undemocratic in Indian history, it will be a bought crowd, paid for by political parties interested in grabbing prime airtime on television.

Bought mobs might be as dangerous as the spontaneous kind, but they are (or should be) much easier to shut down. Indeed, the counter-argument should hold more force: that for a generation in danger of forgetting Indian history and the Emergency, any film or book to offer a reminder is valuable.

The reason why distributors won’t touch the Midnight’s Children film is purely pragmatic. Rushdie is, unfortunately, a symbol of controversy in India—independent of what he might actually say, write or think. Deepa Mehta’s Elements trilogy was attacked in India—Water had to be filmed outside the country because of protests by Hindu fundamentalists who felt this story of a child widow showed Hinduism in a bad light. “He’s got the Muslims,” Mehta said in a 2011 interview to the Globe and Mail, “and I’ve got the Hindus.”

That combination dropkicks the film into India’s box of oblivion: the place where we put every controversial book, work of art, film or piece of theatre marked too hot to handle. So much of Indian creativity is now for export only, not for consumption within the borders of India.

The absence of Midnight’s Children from the mainstream cinema will call up the usual responses. With Rushdie’s memoir of the plague/ fatwa years, Joseph Anton, due to be released on the 18th, many will use these two events as an excuse to pillory him yet again for the crime of going too far with the Satanic Verses. The Verses has, in his phrase, stopped being seen as a book—instead, it has diminished to the point where it is only an Insult and Rushdie only the Insulter.

Midnight’s Children could easily become just that controversial film by that controversial writer. These losses—and a score of similar losses in the last few years–are worse than actual censorship, because they reduce books and writers to cartoon symbols. You lose all of the complexity, the challenge and discomfort, the joy and the exuberance of the act of reading, or watching a film.

If there is one symbol we’re left with, it’s the perforated sheet from Midnight’s Children; the tattered history of Indian contemporary creative life, with fresh new holes and tears punched through the cloth every few months.

The Wildings: Reviews, in Junglee

(For The Wildings website, go here; to order a copy, go here.)

Reviewer, hard at work.

What the reviewers say:

(Mostly) Ayes:

“A few pages into Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings, you’ll wish you had whiskers and could mew. The world as imagined by Roy in this remarkable debut is filled with marvels, not the least of which is the feline social media network which makes Twitter look witheringly banal. Roy is a cat-, cheel-, mouse- and mongoose-whisperer and this is the animals’ story, unhampered by human interference.”

Deepanjana Pal (@dpanjana) in DNA India, August 26, 2012

(Read the whole thing)

“This is a warm, imaginative and well-paced book. It is superbly produced too, with Prabha Mallya’s lovely illustrations sharing page-space with text, or even (as with two small butterflies watched by an enthralled Mara, or a swooping cheel with his wings spread out) weaving amidst the words. Both writing and drawings pay tender attention to the many elements of the natural world. Though the cats are the main characters, many other creatures move in and out of the narrative: three zoo tigers and a langur whom Mara befriends during her virtual wanderings; a stately mongoose who speaks the generic tongue Junglee, which all animals can understand; an Alsatian pup mistreated by his human owners; warblers and squirrels, bats and mice.”

Jai Arjun Singh (@jaiarjun), Tehelka, August 2012

(Read the whole thing)

“Roy’s style has the even, unfaltering omniscience of a master narrator with a deliberately underscored presence, and the book should appeal equally to adults, older children, and readers of fantasy and adventure and well as the category known as literary fiction. Shining through, however, is her wonderment at her subjects, a wonderment lovingly conveyed in the way they are etched. The Wildings is above all a love paean to cats; that it also happens to be a marvelously-spun novel that could well become a classic in its own time is almost secondary.”

Sharanya Mannivannan, Sunday Guardian, September 3, 2012

(Read the whole thing)

“The book weaves a fast-moving plot. Like all good literature, its scope is universal, an allegory that explores hunger, survival, parenting and freedom. This world will remain invisible to readers unless they tap into their noble inner cattiness—a big ask for some adults. It is also possible that some nuances of the tale may elude younger readers. But Roy’s achievement is intense. She has looked so carefully at the feline world, at the way they wash and move and speak, that the reader’s idea of cats will be altered forever. More importantly, The Wildings is the creation of a fully formed imaginative world that carries great allegorical resonance. Roy is, in essence, a moralist.”

Divya Guha, Open Magazine, September 2012

(Read the whole thing)

“If a debut novel can be equated with a cat’s first kill, The Wildings is as perfect a strike as Mara’s. Gripping, humorous and truly immersive, it is well worth a sequel.”

Saibal Chatterjee, Sunday Indian, August 2012

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“Journalist Nilanjana Roy sets herself a tough task in her debut novel The Wildings, which starts out to be a grownup book about animals, with splashes of heroic fantasy, traces of sci-fi, and yet an adventure for all ages… [Prabha Mallya’s] gorgeous pictures provide tantalising suggestions of what a different book this could have been, perhaps with reduced text and a co-authorship for the illustrator.”

Angshuman Chakravarty, Time Out, August 2012

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Bloglove: (from, most appropriately, a Manxcat)

Somehow, I knew that Beraal was going to make an impact on me. A feisty young queen, she oozed charm, grandeur and strength. And tis a cat we talk about! Wildly engaging and foxy, “The Wildings” by Nilanjana Roy. She’s named the book rightly so and has created a band of characters with such mystique, you immediately become attached.

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Fancy That Manxcat, August 2012)


The kitten took a big breath. “It is my Bigfoot — she’s called Nilanjana, by the way,” she finally said, “I heard her say she is writing about us in a book.” “Impossible,” Beraal spat, “you must stop it immediately. Your Bigfoot once wrote a column – that is something they post because they can’t speak Junglee,” she explained to Southpaw – “that led to other Bigfeet messing about our affairs for weeks. No,” she hissed, arching her back “it must be stopped.”
Qawwali turned to address the cats, “I heard it on the Junglee web that the last time a Bigfoot called J K Rowling wrote about our kind, it caused so much interest in the animal kingdom that the unicorns went into hiding and haven’t been seen since.”

Kishore Singh, The Business Standard, August 29, 2012

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