(Published in the Business Standard, May 7, 2013)
The reading was at a sedate mela; literature was tucked in sideways, between the food stalls and the sellers of heavy machinery. Jeet Thayil read a passage he had read often at literary festivals.
It involved a rant from a character meditating on the endless varieties of ways in which Indians from different regions could be—and at this interesting juncture, Mr Thayil allowed his character to use a common expletive, liberally and with some imagination.
A lady in the audience expressed her indignation. There were, she said, impressionable young people in the crowd, and this was not what she had expected from a book reading. As she paused to draw breath, a group of boys at the back called to one another: “Abey, g*****!” one said. “What do you c******s want to do now?”
It would have been pointless to explain to this lady that characters in a novel have their own integrity, and that they must be free to use language in the way that they would off the page. Nor did she see the absurdity of asking that a book reading be sanitised, when the language she found objectionable was in the air of Delhi. What she had expressed is a common, and interesting, expectation across India: that literature will occupy a chaste space.
Recently, the chief justice of the Gujarat High Court read a passage aloud in court from the popular novelist Chetan Bhagat’s Three Mistakes of My Life. According to news reports, His Lordship commented: “The language doesn’t look decent. A chaste writer cannot write this stuff. The language looks pornographic.”
It is mildly ironic that Bhagat, who has in the past piously urged authors to “be more responsible”, should now find his writing characterised by a high court judge as pornographic. But perhaps there is no faster way for a writer to be convinced of the virtues of free speech than to find his own at risk of being censored.
“Pornography,” wrote Bhagat across two tweets, “is erotic art for sexual arousal… a riots passage [referring to the passage in his novel] will be gruesome and cannot/ has not sexually aroused any one”. This is not entirely accurate—while the legal definition of pornography is notoriously elusive, one key component of the pornographic is that it must be sexually explicit. Erotic art may arouse, but need not be explicit: for years, a repressed and censored Hindi cinema cut to shots of flowers being roughly molested by bees, priming that generation to have a distinctly kinky relationship with ikebana and perhaps explaining the Indian obsession with bouquets-for-all-occasions.
But Bhagat’s obvious dismay at being accused of pornography does not merely stem from enlightened self-interest—as authors from Arundhati Roy to Mridula Garg to Rohinton Mistry have discovered, an obscenity accusation or obscenity charges can be painful and time-consuming to defend. As the author of the passage in question, he knows that he did not write with pornographic intent, and he has responded with the hurt common to all writers, regardless of their literary merit, when they have been misunderstood by their readers.
The plea for writers to be chaste in their prose—virginal, unsullied, pristine, “decent”—has its roots in the days of the British. The Raj did its best to replace sex with cold showers and hot water bottles, and its chiefly unsuccessful book bans provided conoisseurs of the erotic with a useful index of what to read next, from The Perfumed Garden to Victorian erotica.
Those who ask for chastity in writing, like the lady at the festival, are expressing another, less articulated desire: that writing and art will entertain and not provoke, that it will be an escape from reality and not a reflection of what is on the streets, that the point of writing is to create a finer, better world rather than to interrogate or engage with the messy one that we actually inhabit.
The recent move to ban the viewing of pornography, and attempts to classify writing that criticises political parties—by Rohinton Mistry or the late Habib Tanvir—as obscene, because they use the language of the street, is part of India’s slide into censorship. Web censorship, the crackdown on criticism of religion, politics and the state has already been intense, contributing to India’s low position in the Press Freedom Rankings—we are at 140 out of 179 countries this year, a drop of nine points.
At a time when women are beginning to articulate their rights vociferously, it is probable that pornography will become the next red herring to justify a crackdown on the erotic or on the disquieting, just as the bogey of riots has been used to silence people on religion, just as national security has been used as an excuse to silence voices criticising the state.
When a writer’s chastity becomes more important than a writer’s freedom to say what s/he wants to say, whether in the language of the street, the bedroom or the dinner table, watch out.