A young person of enterprise could make a fortune in today’s India by modelling herself on The Hon Galahad Threepwood and setting up as an Unpublisher. For a modest consideration, such an enterprise would refrain from publishing salacious memoirs, period histories guaranteed to rattle many skeletons in many cupboards, and letters that would hurt the sentiments of such-and-such a special interest group. I can guarantee that Unpublishers Inc would made a tidy profit.
The question of what we don’t want to see in the public domain, and why, is always fascinating. Take the recent controversy over the publication of letters written by Frances Fitzgerald to Dr B R Ambedkar.
Frances Fitzgerald was a typist in the House of Commons who met the young Ambedkar in 1920 when he shifted to the boarding house she and her mother ran. The exact nature of the relationship between her and Ambedkar is unclear, but it would hardly have been unusual for a young man trying to survive in the England of that day and age to form a friendship with his boarding house keeper. There was genuine affection on both sides: he referred to her as ‘F’ and dedicated one of his books to her: “To ‘F.’, In Thy Presence is the Fullness of Joy”. None of this is unknown to Dr Ambedkar’s biographers.
In 1923, when Ambedkar returned to India, Fitzgerald began writing to him; they stayed in touch until 1943, when her plans to come to India were disrupted—she was denied a visa because of “the political situation”. Fitzgerald’s letters were in the custody of Ambedkar’s personal librarian, the late S S Rege. The letters were handed over by Rege to Arun Kamble, professor of Marathi and Dalit activist; Kamble also has notes from Dr Ambedkar’s second wife, Savita, permitting him to use the letters as he saw fit.
Kamble brought the letters to Roli Books a few months ago. Now there’s a considerable tangle over the letters that is playing out through newspaper columns and special reports, each adding to the confusion.
Are the letters authentic? Roli is satisfied on this point, as is Kamble. It may be desirable to verify the provenance of the letters further, but few people seriously doubt that these letters were written by Frances Fitzgerald.
From here, it gets murkier. Dr Ambedkar’s grandson, Prakash Ambedkar, wants the publication of the letters stopped, disputing Kamble’s right to own them. Ambedkar biographer Gail Omvedt was asked to be a formal collaborator, and told Outlook that Roli was not willing to work with her to establish the authenticity of the letters. Roli, conversely, says that Omvedt never showed up for a meeting arranged between her and Kamble in Pune, and that they broke off the collaboration after other points of difference arose. There may be another factor here: Omvedt is a well-respected scholar with a strong academic background, while Roli is a general-interest publishing house. Their ways of handling a collection of letters like this would diverge considerably.
One section of Ambedkar scholars wants the letters to be suppressed because they might show the Dalit leader in an “unfavourable light”. I have no sympathy with this argument; Ambedkar acknowledged the relationship, and it is not for us to censor after his death what he did not censor while alive.
But what about Frances Fitzgerald’s story—who was she, what drew her to Ambedkar and India, what happened to her between 1943 and 1945, when she died? Kamble’s detractors say no serious research has been done by him on these questions. He and Roli would agree, however; as the publishing house pointed out, the contract had only just been signed when the first rumbles of dissent arose. Kamble is supposed to go to England to find out more about Frances Fitzgerald, and Roli has expressed hopes that they will find the Ambedkar half of the correspondence.
The doubts and fears being expressed about Roli’s handling of the affair are understandable; with a figure like Ambedkar, in a country like ours, the instinctive response is to try and protect his legacy.
Perhaps the Frances Fitzgerald letters will be no more than a footnote in Ambedkar’s life; perhaps they will be a source of information for feminist scholars or scholars interested in that social period. If Roli does a good job of the book, this could only add to our knowledge of the period; if they make a mess of it, the text of the letters will still be there in the public domain for other scholars to reclaim. Either way, I don’t see how suppressing the publication of the letters helps anyone, least of all the interested reader.
(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, November 29, 2005)