(Published in the Business Standard, September 2014)
Keep your Arab Springs and popular uprisings: if you’re going to “vive” any “les revolutions“, please think of the unsung heroism of librarians. This particular group of adults has an undeserved reputation for mildness.
But rouse a librarian (or several), and you unleash hell, as Canada discovered some years ago when it tried to pass an anti-pornography bill that would also have chilled free speech. Dany Lacombe quotes a policy advisor to the department of justice in her book, Blue Politics: “And for the first time ever, the librarians of Canada rose up in anger. I had never seen anything like that; they are among the most conservative people … They were greatly offended that the government would do anything that might tell them how to control their collection.”
Ms Lacombe tells the story of how librarians eventually defeated Bill C-54 through a campaign of reasoned but fierce protest. Every year, when Banned Books Week rolls around, I think of the librarians in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada who’ve spent decades defending the right to read. Librarians do not represent the media, the state or the slightly harder to define category of people lumped under the label of “activists”. Instead, they represent the community at large, and they often speak for a neglected and misunderstood but essential right – the right to read.
In India over the last few decades, the debate over the right to read usually covers the areas where this right has run into trouble. The British fondness for banning books has yielded to some extent to the modern Indian fondness for burning them, and for placing legal hazards or threats of violence in the way of authors and publishers who might deal with contentious subjects, which at present covers almost everything except for books on knitting.
Banned Books Week, observed in so many parts of the world at this time of the year, has been only noted in India, not observed. In the absence of extensive public libraries where communities of readers gather, bookshops, publishers and literary festivals have not yet combined to make this an annual event where you might either celebrate reading, or go over the problems in the way of readers.
But during the rest of the year, there is – usually prompted by a lawsuit or by an attack on books or authors – a relatively loud buzz of discussion on banned and censored books, the rising problem of internal censorship among publishing houses. As for India’s defamation and offence laws, there is growing awareness that they act like hyacinth weeds choking waterways, and choking research, academic inquiry and writers’ freedoms in a hundred different ways.
The other part of Banned Books Week, though, is exploring the freedom to read – who has it, who doesn’t and why these freedoms are absent from the cultural spaces that most Indians inhabit. One of the most interesting indexes of how much Indians across the country care for books comes from the work done by the National Mission for Manuscripts (NMM), which has been looking for manuscripts in homes, religious places, and community centres and offices since 2003. Its volunteers and staff travel from one region to another, taking anything from a few months to a year or so to cover an area; donations of manuscripts are entirely voluntary, and all that the mission asks is to see and record whatever manuscripts a householder or a community might have with them.
In place after place, from Basgo in Ladakh to Imphal in Manipur, the NMM volunteers have found the community stepping up to help preserve what they see as their collective memory. Some families, such as the Narlikars in Kolhapur, have been custodians and collectors of manuscripts for years; in other cases, local museums, temples (Buddhist and Hindu), or madrasas and mosques will hand over their manuscripts to be copied.
In the early years of the NMM, volunteers came across rural and urban families alike who had carefully preserved old books and manuscripts in tin trunks or in corners of their homes. The love of literature, oral or written, is encoded in the DNA of most Indians; it is only in this period that the country has lacked a proper reading culture.
The building blocks of that culture isn’t just the missing infrastructure, the absence of good bookshops and libraries. These are important, and it is heartbreaking to see Delhi’s public libraries. With their broken windows, roughly painted exteriors, the puddles of water on the floor, it is hard to conjure up a place less inviting to readers, especially younger ones.
But despite the depressing beige aura that hangs over libraries such as the ones in Shahdara or Seelampur, the staff does an amazing job of reaching out to local families, and many of the west and north Delhi libraries have become miniature creative hubs, notwithstanding the peeling paint.
When these kids grow up, what kind of world will they inhabit? Just as libraries and bookstores provide the physical infrastructure that creates readers, so do a certain set of ideas go along with the territory.
The American Library Association (ALA)’s “Freedom To Read” statement is not just about book bans and censorship. In essence, it declares that publishers, librarians and booksellers do not need to endorse every idea they make available; that one should not coerce the tastes of adults; that individuals or groups should not impose their own tastes and standards on the community at large. At the core of the “Freedom To Read” statement is a simple idea: publishers, librarians and, by extension, those involved with the intellectual life of any community have a duty to support the freedom to read in the broadest ways.
What every reader should have, the ALA suggests, is access to “the widest diversity of views and expressions”, including unpopular or unorthodox ideas. It’s a radical idea, but then it was dreamed up by those incendiary rebels, a bunch of librarians.