Bringing up Father

Prem Panicker

 

My father taught me to read.

In imperceptible stages he widened my horizons, broadened my mind, inculcated an eclectic taste that endures long after his passing.

Then one day, I taught my father to read.

I was around 16 at the time. My father walked into my room looking for something innocuous – a pen that would actually write, if memory serves — and found on my desk something that triggered instant apoplexy.

A book. Specifically: Thy Neighbor’s Wife, by Gay Talese.

I had discovered it a few days ago while browsing in the late lamented Moore Market, familiar to Chennai-ites of a certain generation as the ultimate cornucopia of second-hand books.

‘Don’t you know you have a younger sister in the house?’ I remember him asking. ‘I don’t care what becomes of you, but I will NOT have her corrupted, I will not have her ruined by the filth you bring into my house…’

There was more, but you get the idea.

The problem was the cover. On a stark white background, it featured the line drawing of a nude woman, artfully posed so the ‘interesting bits’ were more hinted at than overtly depicted.

At some point, his mounting rage overwhelmed even his considerable powers of self-expression. He stormed out of the room, strode down the passage, flung open the front door and hurled the book out onto the street.

I stayed where I was, neither remonstrating nor stepping out to retrieve the book. I was in shock; I had no idea what my crime was.

A few days later, I came back from school and found the book in the exact same spot my father had picked it up from.

We never spoke of it, dad and I. But the return of the book allowed of only one inference: He had, once tempers cooled, retrieved the book, read it, and found it unexceptional.

That inquisitive boy has grown, today, into an entire nation. That judgmental father has morphed into an unthinking bureaucracy and an uncaring government reacting, like Pavlov’s mice, to every random finger on a pressure point. Those uninformed invocations of ‘moral corruption’ and imminent if unspecified ruin visited on a sister have metastasized into expressions of concern for the ‘feelings’ of some community or other – and if neither community nor government has any sense of what lies beneath that cover, what of it?

Since when do we let a simple thing like fact come in the way of righteous indignation?

That day long ago, a father hurled a book as far as he could fling it; today, a government bans simply because someone threatens to burn. (Or even if there is no threat, merely a vague sense that one might be voiced – remember that secular India was the first nation in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, well before predominantly Muslim nations even realized that this was a promising faggot to lay on the fire of intolerance.)

Every ban is a tacit admission of that same government’s inability to protect a citizen’s inalienable right – but what of that? We, the deprived, do not care enough to take to the streets to demand what has been snatched away from us. And unlike my father on that day long ago, our governments do not have the grace to revisit a decision, to admit to a mistake made in haste, and that is assuming it has the intellect to understand its error in the first instance.

Before this is interpreted as a disguised assault on the ‘sensibilities’  of one particular community, let’s take note that James Laine has been banned because a fringe political party in a particular state didn’t like it (never mind that no one in the party had read it). Bertrand Russell’s Unarmed Victory was banned in India because it was unflattering of the Indo-China war of 1962 that is more flatteringly referred to as the Himalayan Blunder while Hamish McDonald’s biography of Dhirubhai Ambani was banned because… wait, because?

And before this is interpreted as a typical ‘pseudo-intellectual’  rant against the country of his birth, take stock of the fact that Lewis Carroll’s Alice was once banned in ‘intolerant’ China and Brett Easton Ellis in parts of ‘progressive’ Australia. George Orwell’s Animal Farm has been banned in UAE because it, among other things, features a talking pig as protagonist while Norman Mailer’s Naked and the Dead was banned in Canada for ‘obscenity’…

Set those names (and the dozens of others in even the most cursory list of banned books) down in black on white, and you will find that the vast majority of bans imposed on books proceed from no sensibility and make no sense..

Yet they ban what they know naught of, because they can. Because in a world where we tut-tut over genocide and walk away while a young girl is stripped and molested in broad daylight, who is there who will stand up for a book, and against those who would suppress the thoughts it contains between its covers?

PostScript: All those years ago, when I first read Thy Neighbor’s Wife, I did not know of Talese the journalist, nor of the ‘literary journalism’ he helped pioneer and, over time, elevate to the status of an art form. That came later, when a friend to whom I mentioned the book told me of his journalism, and loaned me a copy of Esquire magazine 1966 that contained Talese’s seminal profile of Frank Sinatra.

Reading that led to a fascination with his work, and those of his peers – Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson and Ernest Hemingway and Joan Didion and Jimmy Breslin and so many others. And the flames of their collective talent sparked in a shiftless, rootless, directionless, addicted college dropout the desire to write.

My sister? She grew up without too much of a strain on her morals and her character, thank you for asking. And today, she has a daughter of her own who is happiest with her nose buried in a book. Any book.

(Prem Panicker is an Indian journalist, and can be found at twitter.com/prempanicker.)

(More posts on Banned Books Week:  go here)