From The Hindu: The Delhi-based publisher Navayana has decided to cancel the agreement for release of the English translation of Mr. D’Cruz’s first Tamil novel Aazhi Soozh Ulagu (Ocean Ringed World) in the wake of his recent political stand on Mr. Modi.
An open letter to S Anand and Navayana
Somewhere along the previous year, I grew tired of the culture of judgement and condemnation that seems to be a hallmark of our times. Everyone has an opinion about everyone else’s actions, and we feel free to weigh and measure each other’s decisions, never doubting for a moment that we have the right to do so, seldom questioning our own selves.
So if I might, I’d like to share a personal story with you, about Yo Yo Honey Singh and the New Year’s Eve concert he’d planned to have in Delhi. It was December, the year Jyoti Singh died of the grievous injuries inflicted on her by her rapists. She was mourned in the way few rape victims are in either Delhi or India, as if her story and the abrupt full stop to her life stood for all the terrible stories we knew of, all the anonymous women for whom we had been unable to find the tears before.
In the wake of that grief, many women railed against Honey Singh, whose songs had included lines about breaking women’s cunts, asking that he not hold his concert. Someone circulated a petition saying ‘Stop the concert’, addressed to the hotel. I had emphatically argued that it would be wrong to ban Honey Singh’s music, but I signed the petition, thinking of it only as an appeal to both the musician and the hotel to be a little more sensitive.
Nikhil Pahwa of Medianama took me up on this the next day: didn’t I see that “stop the concert” could be interpreted as a threat, even if we didn’t intend any violence ourselves? Was it right to ask anyone to stop a performance at all—wasn’t that silencing them? Wouldn’t it have been better to hold a non-violent protest outside the concert, trying to engage with Honey Singh and his fans, explaining our position?
Nikhil and I argued the point back and forth, and slowly, I began to see that he was right. Saying ‘stop’ because this was the wrong time, or because it hurt our raw feelings, was easy enough; but it was the opposite of engagement. It split the world, always a more ambiguous place than social media debates, into Us versus Them. Nikhil’s question stayed with me—wasn’t there a better way to engage?
When you pulled Joe D’Cruz’s book from your catalogue, you did so because you had learned that he was a pro-Modi supporter. Both you and the translator felt that you could not publish someone who held those views, given how strongly you felt about Modi, and you felt that D’Cruz did not belong in your “political publishing house”.
I felt that as a publisher, you had a right to choose which authors you wanted to work with and which authors you would rather not publish. You had published Namdeo Dhasal, with his splendidly contradictory politics before, as many pointed out, but I also felt that you had every right not to represent an author if you didn’t want to. But as Salil Tripathi, Mitali Saran and others argued, that right was a legal right, not a moral right; contract law dictates that you’re the owner of your publishing list, and you can do what you like with it.
But were you really right to shut Joe out? In a time when everyone takes offence so easily, when everyone puts up their barricades and lets in only those who vote for x, or holds y beliefs, should you have closed your doors? The book Joe D’Cruz wrote was about a fishing community, not about Modi. The translator said she stood by the book itself. You had no disagreement with the book, but with the man and his political views.
And that is worrying. For years, the liberal quarrel with the Indian rightwing—sections of it—has been that they want to allow in only historians, thinkers, writers and journalists who agree with their world-view. When we’re dividing the intellectual life of India into Us and Them, we agree that They are intolerant, and that they leave no space for dissenting views.
How liberal are we if we start to close the doors on all those who disagree with us? How open-minded will we remain if we start to scrutinize all those we meet, befriend, work with for political correctness?
Every single week, I have a string of arguments with people who have different views from mine. Sometimes I can’t stand their intolerance; sometimes (always, sadly, in retrospect) I am taken aback at my own rigidities. Often, I learn something along the way, and find that my perspective has shifted. Once in a while you learn something unexpected: perhaps that a man like Joe D’Cruz, whose politics you disagree so violently with, can also create imaginative fiction about a fishing community that makes you want to be his publisher. There is no split between Joe the author and Joe the Modi supporter; they are the same person. (Isn’t that interesting, the idea that we all harbour contradictions?)
Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Ruchir Joshi suggested that you had many other options, all of them to do with expressing your disagreement in ways other than pulling the book from publication. You could have commissioned a foreword critical of D’Cruz, the Modi supporter; invited him to a debate; even used a version of the old Twitter line, ie, publication doesn’t mean endorsement.
It’s your list; I argued that point with several people who felt that Navayana had no right to pull D’Cruz’s book. Not true: you had the right to choose not to represent Joe D’Cruz, and you exercised it.(For another perspective, from Somak Ghoshal, see: Between The Lines: Tough Call.)
But when Penguin pulled Wendy Doniger’s book, and when Aleph was involved in a controversy over a possible recall of her book from bookstores, many of us argued that they were wrong to give into pressure. We also argued that those who wanted Doniger’s book not to be published, because they disagreed with her worldview, were wrong. The only reason you didn’t want to publish D’Cruz is because you disagreed with his worldview. As someone said to me today, how does that make Navayana’s position any different from the Shiksha Bachao Andolan’s logic?
Some days, the squabbling in our cultural life gets to me. It turns out (what a surprise) that I don’t really like being contradicted, or being confronted with opinions that are greatly different from mine, especially when some of them are expressed with great anger or with the intent to harm, some expressed carelessly or without reference to the facts. I’d prefer a world where we all agreed on core issues like freedom of speech, and Indian history, and respect for each other, and all that good stuff.
If these arguments have taught me anything, though, it’s that people don’t agree with each other all the time, and that they don’t necessarily have to. It’s also taught me that I can be dead wrong, or often don’t know enough about a subject I thought I knew well. Sometimes, I’ve learned that people might hold opinions I find completely reprehensible, but that they are not monstrous in themselves. Sometimes it helps to realise that they’re the ones who find my beliefs strange, threatening and reprehensible.
The only thing I know for sure is that we’re closing off and corralling off too much, starting with our own minds. Their history; our history. This bit of intellectual turf for them, this patch of reason for us.
When does “I won’t publish anyone who is pro-Modi” become “I won’t publish anyone who supports the rightwing”? Aren’t we in danger of excommunicating those who aren’t like us—even when their books are not about the ideas you find unacceptable? What kind of precedent will this set, if we all become trapped in our own rigidities?
This cuts both ways: Somak Ghoshal, for instance, asked me whether people wouldn’t have reacted the other way and judged you and Navayana harshly if you had gone ahead and published the work of an unabashed Modi supporter. He’s probably right. We are so contradictory, and so quick to judge.
And yet: so much of the last few decades has been one long wrangle in the marketplace of offence and hurt sentiments. Joe D’Cruz’s beliefs hurt your sentiments; but his fiction didn’t. Argue with the man, but why hold up a stop sign to his book? Why make the already embattled space around us a little less free?
Perhaps you think that it is crucial at this moment in time to draw a line in the sand, and to declare firmly that your ethics as a publisher will not let you publish someone with Joe’s views. Perhaps you feel so strongly about Modi that you cannot, in all conscience, support a writer who endorses Modi’s brand of politics.
You and Navayana could close the doors and let in only those whom you’re sure share your beliefs, and that would be a reassuring world.
But it would be airless, too, and windowless. As Joe’s publisher, you were also in a position to publish, but strongly disagree with, someone who thought so differently from you, and that might have been the more interesting stance to take, in the long run.
I hope you won’t be offended at this letter. I have little standing here; I fail at answering Nikhil’s question every day myself. Sometimes I turn away from arguments, bored; sometimes I’m bad-tempered and abrasive; sometimes I realise there’s a ton of reading to do.
But what he said has stayed with me a long time, and he changed the certainties with which I had once approached the subject of what was right and what was wrong, just as many who argued with me yesterday about you changed my first belief, that it was your absolute right as a publisher to turn away any authors whose political beliefs clashed with yours. It is in this spirit that I offer Nikhil’s question back to you: yes, you had the right. But wasn’t there a better way to engage, couldn’t the doors of your house have been opened a little wider?