Reading the bans

Thomas Abraham

I had promised to send this in last weekend. Irony or serendipity, call it what you will… the reason I was delayed was because of having to cope with the first call to censor JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy for hurting religious sentiments. And emanating from no less a body than the SGPC. Their Chief on seeing a quote that described one of the characters–a Sikh teenager abused by a fellow student–decided that Sikhs were portrayed in a bad light.

 SGPC chief Avtar Singh Makkar said the author must apologize or remove the text from her book in India or face action.”Even if the author had chosen to describe the female Sikh character’s physical traits, there was no need for her to use provocative language, questioning her gender. This is condemnable,” said Makkar. He refused to say what action the body was planning. A paragraph before the Sikh student’s physical description reads even more slanderous, “‘The great hermaphrodite sits quiet and still,’ murmured Fats, his eyes fixed on the back of Sukhvinder’s head.”

 This was after everywhere else various Sikh communities globally were praising the book for having central Sikh characters and bringing Sikhism to the forefront–a religion the author had already declared she admired. At the time of writing, the SGPC had tempered its response saying it was having the book read by a special officer to decide what course of action to take. While we await the special officer-on-duty’s review I was thinking back at my brushes with bans and censorships.

The first was ironically even before I entered publishing. I was a rookie exec with a soft drinks company who had just discovered that an upcoming book by a big brand author in its opening page had described Bombay as the city of Thums Up. This news flash caused some ripple of excitement and we were figuring out how to use it somehow in a brand campaign. Those were the days when books were considered to have an impact (more on this below). The next day we were to have a meeting to see how we could use that endorsement as it were–when the news flashed across headlines everywhere–The Satanic Verses banned. All the fizz had gone out–our campaign along with Gabriel Farishta fell to the earth…never to be seen in India again.

Many years later and now in publishing I had my next encounter with Bruce Banner type rage. A huge mob had gheraoed our Chennai branch demanding the withdrawal of this absolutely scurrilous book. The mob picketed the office for two days–staff were trapped all night. The office was OUP Chennai (it was fortunate that OUP regional offices had in-houses canteens, so nobody starved) and the book in question–the Concise Oxford Dictionary. The definition of ‘pariah’ had angered a ‘section of society’ who wanted it banned. Thankfully more than a decade later the COD trudges on.

Few years down the line came the next one from an agency product range I managed at Penguin —Prince of Ayodhya, the startlingly good retelling of the Ramayana in fantasy style. But it still ran afoul of orthodoxy. This one didn’t make news because the offending line (yes, there was one that again hurt ‘religious sentiments’) was removed by the author after a legal notice served up by someone from a district court.

The biggest one –now I was running Penguin and this was baptism by fire–followed the publication of The Mitrokhin Archive, the explosive memoir-records of a KGB archivist which claimed to reveal all those who had been on the KGB’s payroll from the ‘50s to the ‘70s.

Particularly hit were the Congress and the Left, and what followed was a mini ten-days-that-shook-our-world, including threatening calls from anonymous sources –though official party lines were sensible if outraged with cries of sedition too (I wonder how many even remember it today). For a few days plain clothes security men guarded the Penguin offices, (to this day just the senior staff were aware of it) until it blew over. For the next ten day wonder to take centre stage.

But to me the most telling ban story was Black Friday: The true story of the Bombay Blasts by S. Husain Zaidi published two years later. The book had done well by publishing standards then. Everybody will remember the movie being stuck for years until it was finally released. On a TV interview a panel was debating the ban. I can’t remember the people on the panel, but whoever it was who had called the ban was on it. The anchor asked him why he was making such a hue and cry when the book had already been published, and how come he wasn’t asking for the book to be banned. I can still remember his reply as he lifted an eyebrow–“Book? Who reads a book? Ten thousand people? Twenty thousand? It has no impact. A movie impacts and influences millions!” Talk about a picture being worth a thousand words!

At Hachette, a company I had the privilege of setting up…I joined with a book already on the banned list–The Polyester Prince, that had a sequel of sorts on offer. Roli went on to get that one published as Ambani and Sons, but the original Polyester Prince remains banned to this day–the reason is unclear, but the Internet claims at the behest of Ambani père… presumably les fils had no issue with the sequel.

All of which brings us to some key questions:

–What exactly is the position of authority (the powers that be) on this one? It’s clear the state has no policy and no enforcement mechanism. Particularly when so-called banned books are sold as pirated editions–with flagrant disregard for government or protesters and with complete impunity on the roads. The Polyester Prince certainly used to be a few years ago, probably still is. How come the state is so helpless against piracy? Pirates seem to have protection that publishers and booksellers don’t.

Lolita is I’m told still on the banned books list. Frontal pictorial nudity even in sex education books are banned under obscenity laws (why that is obscene and the Kama Sutra not is perhaps only answered by Lehrer’s ‘filth is in the eye of the beholder” but most bookstores carry both Lolita as well illustrated sex books in all pantone shades…not just grey). So effective banning obviously needs some politico-religious context.

–The draconian sedition law we have is completely out of place in a democracy the way we’d like ours to be. How does one get rid of that?

–How does one ever stop extra legal measures from being the first default position?

–How far must publishers or authors go? Is giving in “cowardice in the face of intimidation” (as Ram Guha puts it) or is it the better part of valour? If OUP was craven in giving in on the Ramanujan issue, why wasn’t Peter Heehs similarly castigated for his offer of having a separate ‘appropriate’ Indian edition.

–On the flip side, how much of it is actually issues of free speech and how much provocation in the garb of creative expression? Who decides?

–How much of publishing is business and how much of our raison d’être should be steeped in the defense of the intellectual and socio-cultural? If one is primarily a business house, should one jeopardize one’s margins and the safety of one’s staff and customers for the higher principle, particularly when the state that is supposed to defend your right to free speech does not do so. Should one publish and be ready to be damned– literally the fundamentalists would tell one, numerically on the P&L, and figuratively on almost every other front?

–equally if it’s the defence of art, then does the pursuit of the trivial not merit a defence? Should a thriller writer (for those who think that a trivial pursuit) not have the same support mechanism?

I have no complete answers, just my own views… not always clear, I must admit. What we do need however is a clear articulation of a stand–from policy makers and the powers that be. Which may well be when Gabriel F toots his horn…until then…may the banned play on.

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(Thomas Abraham is Managing Director of Hachette India. The views in this post are his own and not those of his company’s. Not to be reproduced elsewhere without the author’s consent in writing.)

 (More posts on Banned Books Week:  go here)