Every year around this time, I dust off two old pieces I’d written on banned and censored books in India, here and here. I read through these lists with a sense of failure: for all of our pride in India’s democracy, the rise of Indian writing in English and this country’s openness to argument and debate, we still have a deep unease when it comes to protecting free expression.
As a reader, which is what I’ve been for most of my 20 years in the workforce, whether in journalism or in publishing, I find it terribly saddening and disheartening that we haven’t been able to examine previous bans on books. Would the earth really shake if we made copies of Aubrey Menen’s gloriously subversive take on the Ramayana, The Ramayana Retold, available? Is there no way we can come back to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, 23 years after it was banned in India, and allow readers to discover the book for themselves? It often seems to me that Satanic Verses marked a turning point in the history of Indian thought: the day we banned this book was the day we lost nuance, and lost shades of meaning.
Every argument about the Verses in the two decades since then has stalled on gross simplifications: this is the book where Rushdie “insulted” Islam, and that is the end of all debate. Denied the right to read the Verses for themselves, Indians are unlikely to discover the layers to the Verses, the migrants’ story at its heart, the exploration of insanity, the questioning of faith that Rushdie permitted himself. It followed, from the ban on the Verses, that we set a precedent that dissuaded authors from exploring the big questions about faith, belief and religion. It’s easy for a contemporary writer to criticise the India Shining story–but faith has slid silently out of the frame, no longer to be discussed with ease.
Banned Books Week makes me envious. The reverence with which the US still–by and large–regards the right of its citizens to free speech is not encoded into our own DNA. We haven’t yet had a political party or an individual politician stand up for free expression rights, even though a culture that bans books freely is also often a culture that will work very hard to shut down other forms of debate and dissent. Few of us would be surprised if school libraries banned books–in fact, in most schools, the librarian is expected to act as a kind of moral guardian, and many “filter” out books that might be seen as too violent or too unsettling for their constituencies.
The courts have consistently worked to protect free speech rights, but as a culture, I think we prefer silence to dissent and we would all too often choose the right not to be offended over the right to have our minds and beliefs challenged. We very rarely connect all the dots and ask what a book ban pronounced (and never re-examined) twenty years ago might have to do with a state that thinks it’s all right to deport foreign journalists who are asking inconvenient questions, or another state that thinks it’s okay to force Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey out of Bombay bookshops because his writing does not spare the Shiv Sena.
Perhaps we could start Banned Books Week here in India just by talking about, and thinking about, censorship. There’s the censorship of the state, but there is also the far more insidious and damaging self-censorship that we often practice, or the intolerance many might face when they express views that differ from the hard certitudes of the moral majority. I hope to spend at least part of Banned Books Week thinking about the ideas and debates that make me uncomfortable, and trying to figure out where, and why, I have been silent in my own life. And if I have time, I’ll try to share posts about books that have been banned in India, and what they might still have to offer us as readers. Feel free to share your own thoughts.