(Published in the Business Standard, March 1, 2010)

As a bunch of ruffians disrupted the Sahitya Akademi award ceremony earlier this month in protest against Yarlagadda Lakshmi Prasad’s novel, Draupadi, I realized that it’s hard to defend the right of bad writing to exist. YL Prasad wrote his novel in Telegu five years ago; it became a popular success, but within the Akademi, there has been heated debate over its literary merits.

The men who threw shoes and other objects at the author and threatened a dharna outside the Akademi if the award wasn’t withdrawn weren’t concerned with questions of literary merit—their protests concerned the question of Draupadi’s literary chastity, which is another matter.

The two figures in the Mahabharata guaranteed to exercise a writer’s imagination would have to be Karna and Draupadi. Karna is Arjuna’s dark shadow—deprived of his birthright, cast into war against his true brothers, his dazzling skills counterbalanced by his resentments.

Draupadi is complex, her story not easily reduced to the simple “good and faithful wife” narrative that dogs Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana. She has wit and intelligence; married to five brothers, she struggles to overcome her partiality for Arjuna; she has the resilience needed to withstand years in exile and the independence needed to fight for her own rights when Yudhishtira gambles her away in the game of dice.

Representations of Draupadi in Indian literature have sometimes been controversial, but often rewarding. In Pratibha Ray’s classic Yajnaseni, Draupadi comes through as a woman of fierce independence, struggling to balance her passions against her dharma. In various versions of the epic in oral traditions across India, Draupadi is cast as something of an early feminist, ready and able to speak her mind, matching wits with Krishna. In a short story by Mahasweta Debi, a tribal woman called Dopdi Mejhen endures a modern-day form of vastraharan—rape by local armed forces—and emerges with a kind of strength still intact. In Chitra Banerji Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions, Draupadi comes through as a romantic heroine.

One of the most insidious forms of censorship is an insistence on a rigid, simplistic narrative. To those who would see Draupadi as an upright, helpless woman forced into marriage with five brothers, versions such as the one by Pratibha Ray retelling are unwelcome, and have attracted controversy in the past. But Ray’s version, or the tribal Bhil version of Draupadi, are literary creations in their own right, easy to defend.

Yarlagadda Lakshmi Prasad’s Telegu novel, Draupadi, is not an easy book to defend. It is poorly written, transliterating the Telegu Mahabharata almost section for section in some chapters, and poorly conceived: his focus is almost exclusively on the nature of Draupadi’s relationship with her Pandava husbands and with Krishna. In his novel, Draupadi is a caricature, all flashing eyes and heaving bosom as the author describes her first night with each of her husbands. This is the material of pulp rather than literary fiction.

There are two separate questions at work here, though. Does YL Prasad’s book deserve the Sahitya Akademi award for literature? Many critics in the Telegu sphere believe that it doesn’t—this is a prurient, unimaginative novel that adds little to the many retellings of the Mahabharata. As for the sexual detail, the descriptions of Draupadi’s beauty in the Mahabharata and of how her form and her eyes stir up obsession and lust in each of her husbands is written with far more evocative splendour in that ancient epic.

But does YL Prasad deserve to be censored for undertaking to write about Draupadi’s marriage, or trying to reimagine the passionate woman behind the rigid stereotypes of the dutiful wife we’re offered today? Absolutely not; one of the beautiful features of the two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, is how they’ve lent themselves to local versions across the centuries in the oral and written tradition in India. There are “feminist” Ramayanas where an angry Sita upbraids her husband for sending her into exile; and there are versions of the Mahabharata that have speculated on the relationships between Draupadi and Krishna, or Draupadi and Karna.

The worst that can be said about YL Prasad’s Draupadi is that it’s a prurient potboiler that fails to analyse the complexities of Draupadi’s marital and emotional life. And I would have much more sympathy for the protestors at the Sahitya Akademi if all their exertions, including “jumping over the dais” according to one report, had been intended as a literary protest. (Think of how entertaining the Indian literary scene would be if jumping across the dais became the accepted method of demonstrating one’s critical disagreement.) Instead, their protests and threats stem from the belief that there is only one way to write about and depict Draupadi—or any of the great figures of Indian mythology and history.

YL Prasad’s way of reimagining Draupadi is a bad way; but let’s not forget that he’s entitled to his own brand of mediocrity. We need better versions of Draupadi, not one fixed, piously pallid, acceptable story.