(Published in the Business Standard, August 14, 2012)
The price Raja Rammohan Roy paid in the early 19th century for expressing his views on Hinduism and sati was not minor. His mother ostracized the Brahmo reformer, and declared that he should not be allowed to inherit family property because he was an ‘apostate’.
The Life and Letters of Raja Rammohan Roy chronicles the anger of the Hindu community. The Raja’s criticism of Hindu traditions prompted some Hindus to throw the bones of cows into his courtyard. The reformer asked the women of the house to ignore them, though the practice continued for months.
In the words of the book, “…Great excitement was produced in Hindu society, and the orthodox feeling against Rammohun soon became very hostile”. Raja Rammohan Roy’s weapon was his knowledge of scripture (he translated the Upanishads, for instance), his zest for debate, and his ability to gather strong allies around him. He survived threats, excommunication attempts and much scurrilous gossip.
There were two kinds of persecution, however, that writers like Raja Rammohan Roy didn’t have to face—the direct death threat, or the threat that his views had incensed his assailants so much that they would relieve their emotions by attacking innocent members of the public. That distinctly medieval reaction has become such a commonplace today that it is now considered unremarkable.
For Indian writers, one of the saddest truths about living in this moment is the acceptance that they write with a gun held to their heads, if they are any kind of radicals. Last week, the poet, novelist and editor Jeet Thayil wrote a reflective piece in The Guardian after he was told that the opera Babur In London (with a libretto by him) could not be performed in India, because of fears of protests or violence.
The merits or demerits of Babur In London are not the subject of my column; the fact that most of the sentiments expressed by the Emperor’s ghost in the opera may be found in the Baburnama or in the emperor’s letters is no defence in these times.
It was the writing of histories, especially of Hindu mythological figures and historical heroes, that shut down first, after increasingly trenchant attacks on academics from Romila Thapar and AK Ramanujan to Wendy Doniger and James Laine. (Except for the Mughals, few historical figures are safe territory in India, and most publishers will not touch anything controversial, in the face of the very real fear of protests, riots, court cases and worse.) In the absence of true histories, what the Indian reader now has is pulp retellings of myth, unchallenging but safe.
The next to go were the plays: the late Habib Tanvir’s oeuvre was a repeated target, and many plays, especially some of Vijay Tendulkar’s more incendiary ones, seemed to fade from the stage. More books were challenged, and more disappeared from the shelves, from Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey to AK Ramanujan’s Collected Essays.
Each decade brought not just more book bans, but a slow tightening of the net as more subjects became effectively taboo, and almost literally, unthinkable. In the present, congratulatory state of Indian writing, where we celebrate the power of the mass market bestseller, literary festivals will soon start editing out the more inconvenient authors–the security risks, the arsonists–just as the mainstream has. Some dissent is tolerated, because it allows a judicious blindness: we can safely ignore those who are no longer welcome at the banquet, if we have a few genuine activists to leaven the lump.
This is not China, to lay that classic, knee-jerk argument to rest, and perhaps one of the reasons why what Thayil calls the rise of self-censorship is so insidious is because we’re more like Turkey or Malaysia. Authors have a buffet line of acceptable subjects to pick and choose from—the butter paneer of India travelogues, the savoury khichdi of intelligent fiction that stops just short of being truly challenging.
It’s hard to see what is lost when there’s so much still there; it is only the empty shelves that act as reminders. The shelves of the non-fiction missing from the Indian canon because it is impossible to write an honest life of Shivaji—or even Rammohan Roy—without stepping into controversy, the novels not written and thoughts left unarticulated because they might be too incendiary, disturbing the peace. The freedom of intellectual inquiry once claimed by Ramanujan, of complete creative fearlessness, claimed by Vaikom Mohammed Basheer, the freedom to voice desire and discontent, claimed by Lal Ded or Andal: few writers living in India could confidently claim these freedoms today.
As Thayil says, quoting Nissim Ezekiel, most authors accept that no book is worth dying for—even when the author is not the person who wields the gun, the knife, calls up the mobs. And so we live with absences and silent ghosts, the permanent tenants of the censored mind.