(I had just finished editing the chapter on censorship, part of my collection of essays on reading, when we heard that Delhi University had voted to drop Ramanujan’s essay on Many Ramayanas from its history syllabus. One of the saddest parts of writing the censorship chapter is that it’s never finished: there is always a new ban, a new act of censorship. This is a rough draft-in-progress of the latest addition, and I hope this will be the last.)
There are many official versions of the Ramayana—the one written by Kalidasa, the one by Kamban, Arshia Sattar’s luminous translation of Valmiki’s telling of the great tale, Nina Paley’s retelling that brings together several different versions. But there has never been a single, authorized, definitive version of India’s great epic.
Among the many Ramayanas I grew up with, there was the comic book Amar Chitra Katha version that ironed out all ambiguity. Rama was handsome and muscular and good, and he was clearly the hero, Ravana had ten heads and the bug-eyed expression that Amar Chitra Katha illustrators gave to all rakshashas and asuras, and he was clearly the villain. The television epic, with cheesy side-effects and paste jewellery, was surprisingly compelling, as much as any of the complex narratives staged every year at the Sriram Centre, or any of the epic retellings and translations that illuminated a different corner of the myth.
One year in Calcutta, I watched a mildly Communist Ramayana, where Sita waved the Left Front’s hammer-and-sickle flag to signal her deep distress at being kidnapped by Ravana.
Another year, Sudama, who worked in my parents’ house, asked my sister and me whether we would loan him a silk sari, dark glasses and a necklace. He had been selected to play the part of Sita in the local version of the Ramlila. We stared at him; Sudama was a strapping, muscular man who suffered from premature baldness. He didn’t fit any image of Sita we might have had in mind.
“Are you sure you’re playing Sita,” we asked gently. “Not Rama, Lakshman, Hanuman, Ravana?” He was sure; he had read her lines with such feeling, he explained, that the troupe had chosen him on the spot. Also, he had offered to punch in the heads of any dissenters.
We enjoyed Sudama’s Ramayana. He played Sita with a surprising delicacy of feeling, putting on the dark glasses to stare down his wicked abductor, Ravana. Rama was played by a 14-year-old who did splendidly until his voice broke on stage in the middle of the battle scene with Rama and his monkey army pitted against Ravana’s Lankan troops. Rama left, overcome by woe, and his stage brother Lakshmana had to step in, announcing that the departure of Rama had struck fear into the hearts of Ravana’s cohorts, for they knew not what fearsome weapons he would return with. The demons, who knew a good cue when they saw it, surrendered in a great joyous clamour; the Ramayana continued to its ambiguously happy ending.
Most Indians have similar stories—depending on where you grew up and whether you heard the Ramayana or read the Ramayana, your sense of the epic will be complex, and will involve multiple versions.
The late poet AK Ramanujan was a scholar and a connoisseur of the many versions of the Ramayana—he had read many of the translations in the original tongues, and he wrote about the epic with a kind of abstract, pure love. The versions he spoke of were far more elevated than the rough exaggerations of our street Ramayanas, but they all had in common what the Communist troupe and Sudama’s friends shared—an understanding that the Ramayana was public property. The 15th century Bengali poet Krittibas had come out with a version that was faithful in its own fashion; it was as legitimate a version as the oral tradition popular among the Muslims of Kerala, called the Mappila Ramayana. Nabaneeta Dev Sen has a brilliant essay on women’s versions of the Ramayana.
It’s unclear how and why some rightwing parties decided to target the late poet and scholar, AK Ramanujan, more specifically his classic essay on ‘Many Ramayanas’. This may have been part of the general climate of intolerance and the battle over who had the right to tell the country’s history and its myths that was part of the Indian landscape between the 1980s and the 2000s. The objections to Ramanujan’s essay appeared to be based on simple and willful misreadings of his writings.
This narrow-focus way of reading texts—scanning them only for “offensive” phrases—would happen a year later with Rohinton Mistry’s subtle tale of Bombay and India in the Indira Gandhi era, Such a Long Journey, where many of those who demanded a ban on the book had not read it, but could quote the few sentences where Mistry’s characters had slammed Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena.
It had happened before, reducing Salman Rushdie’s complex Satanic Verses to a series of deranged blasphemies about the Prophet, obliterating the migrant stories and the humour that also went into the Verses. Selective misreading had caused a bizarre situation where the abridged, distorted versions of books and essays circulated and inspired outrage, while the originals were either placed beyond the reach of readers or left unread. Often, it seemed as though the real battle was between those who read freely and those who instinctively feared the subversive potential in books.
In 2008, members of the student wing of the BJP, the ABVP, reacted violently to the inclusion of this essay in the Delhi University history curriculum, and some of them assaulted the head of the History Department. At that time, the department stood firm, defending their decision to allow students to read Ramanujan’s brilliant explorations of the multiple forms in which the epic had been told across India and other countries.
So why would the Academic Council decide, three years later, to withdraw Ramanujan’s essay from the syllabus?
There are easy defences; as was the case with Mumbai University’s craven decision to withdraw Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey from the syllabus, this will in all probability be called a purely internal matter. Despite the apparently furious dissent expressed by nine members of the Academic Council, there is little hope that the decision will be put up for review—changes to the syllabus are made slowly and once made, are usually final.
The damage might seem limited: what prevents a handful of history students from finding Ramanujan’s essay on their own, reading it and discussing it if they so choose? But the real damage is caused by the act of censorship, by the precedent the University sets when it says: this idea is dangerous, or controversial, or too explosive to be discussed. You expect academics and scholars not just to defend free speech, but to defend the work of a man who was probably one of the greatest writers and thinkers in contemporary Indian literature. You also expect them to stand up for the tradition that insists there were always many Ramayanas—that the oversimplified, often chauvinistic version of the epic that the right-wing has often put forward is not, by any means, the only one.
This July, many of us watched in dismay as a screening of Nina Paley’s Sita Sings The Blues was cancelled in New York after a group of Hindutva fundamentalists threatened to picket and protest the film.
Aseem Chabra on Sita Sings The Blues and censorship: http://www.mumbaimirror.com/article/54/2011080720110807052728135114f274a/Battling-for-free-speech.html
Salil Tripathi on Nina Paley and free speech issues in India: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/07/24/sita-sings-the-blues-hindu-film-causes-a-stir-in-queens.html
The “offence” Nina Paley’s version of the Ramayana causes is just as specious as the ways in which Rohinton Mistry or Ramanujan have caused offence, but we now have a situation in India where all that is needed to shut down a work of literature is to declare that one’s sentiments have been offended. The real problem lies in the way Ramanujan began his essay:
“How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas, a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been?”
It took me some time to understand why this idea might be so threatening, because the way we were taught to deal with books or essays or ideas we didn’t like was the way put forward in the great epics: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are filled with debate, with digressions into discussions of what exactly dharma might be. Most of us are intrigued by the multiple versions of the Ramayana—the feminist version, the rough, bawdy village versions, Nina Paley’s elegant cartoon version, they all have their place.
But if you live in a climate of intolerance, a book that questions the tenets of faith and offers a provocative re-imagining of a religious text might be considered so blasphemous that its author will be persecuted for years (The Satanic Verses). A novel that highlights an inconvenient part of the history of contemporary India, speaking openly of corruption in the Prime Minister’s office and the slow stirrings of narrow-mindedness in a once-great city will be erased from the college syllabus (Such a Long Journey). Ramanujan’s great essay on the tradition of many Ramayanas threatens those who would prefer one version, their version, and so it is removed, and his voice is silenced (Many Ramayanas).
In the “debates” over these books, we no longer debate the ideas they contain. Almost every argument breaks down once the threat of violence is made. The courts have rarely upheld censorship in India, but the other places that should protect free speech—universities, publishing houses, art galleries, bookshops–often crumble in the face of either threats of violence or the staging of actual acts of violence. We are such excellent censors of ourselves, and we rarely talk about the basics of free speech, rarely have a consensus on why freedom of expression is important, or where the tradition of free speech in India comes from.
(Some of the most important free speech battles were won almost accidentally, as demonstrated by Ismat Chughtai’s obscenity trial for her short story, Lihaaf:
If you find ideas and stories threatening, if your way of life depends on having just one rigid view of faith, or history, or mythology, then there is no possibility of debate. It is in this perspective that the actions of the Hindutva rightwing parties makes sense: the goal is never to encourage dissent and conversation, but to shut it down. There can only be one point of view, one truth. In that world, making a university back down on what it allows students to learn is a major victory, and it holds out the possibility that one day, it will be only this narrow view of history that will prevail, that we will learn only one kind of history, one Ramayana.
In his essay, Ramanujan does not comment on which telling of the Ramayana is the most accurate, the most authoritative one. Instead, he offers us a bewildering array of Ramayanas: “Hundreds of tellings of a story in different cultures, languages, and religious traditions.” The Ramayana cannot be owned; it is no one’s property. And this is the idea that the ABVP finds unbearable, so unbearable that it must be silenced.
Here is Ramanujan’s essay—read it, and tell me whether you understand why students shouldn’t be allowed to explore the Ramayana(s) through his ideas.