Banned Books Week: Prem Panicker, Bringing Up Father

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

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Banned Books Week: Rules For Citizens, Jeet Thayil


A poem by Jeet Thayil

Let us govern those who undertake the telling of stories.

Censorship is good governance. Self-censorship is an attribute of the highest civilization.

If an actor speaks of God, he will be chastised. He will be refused an encore. If he repeats the speech, he will have his license revoked.

Let us govern those who undertake praise of the next world, since what they say is neither true nor useful to us.

Our best recourse is to be warlike.

We do not deny that storytellers are good at their job and give people what they like to hear. But the better they are, the less we wish our children and men to hear them.

We shall refute their attempts to be wise. We shall scoff when they repeat their vile allegation, Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.

We will do away with the dirges of famous men and leave them for women, and not the best among women either.

Let us abolish those fearful and terrific names, Cocytos, the River of Lamentations, Styx, the River of Fear, Ganga, the River of Death in Life, Lethe, the River of Bliss, Tigris, the River of Affliction.

We shall disallow travel and the mingling of songs.

(Copyright, Jeet Thayil, reproduced here with the author’s permission. Jeet Thayil is a poet, novelist (Narcopolis), editor and musician, and can be found at

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Banned Books Week: Lawrence Liang, “The Process is the Punishment”

The process is the bloody punishment

Lawrence Liang

Sec. 153A of the Indian Penal Code – that favored child of the religious right- provides for punishment of upto three years imprisonment for the promotion by words (spoken or written) of disharmony, feelings of enmity, hatred or ill will between religious communities. The punishment laid down in this section has to one of the most redundant penal sanctions in the law since in this case the process is the bloody punishment.

There is a similar redundancy in Sec. 295A of the IPC which provides that “Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise] insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.

So why is the punishment redundant? Because it doesn’t really matter. The mere fact that the provision exists and the fact that it allows for the possibility for someone to file a police complaint or threaten police action serves the purpose of intimidating speakers, reader, organizers regardless of the fact that in most cases if it were to go to trial, it would be highly unlikely that the offending act would be found to be in violation of the provisions. The courts have laid down reasonably high standards for interpreting what would amount to a violation of these laws, and have even acknowledged their misuse.

In Bilal Ahmed Kaloo v. State of A.P the Supreme Court held that for 153A to be invoked it was necessary that there were at least two groups or communities involved. They argued that ‘merely inciting one community’ without reference to another cannot attract the provision. They expressed their concern over the causal use of the provision and said “we wish to observe that the manner in which convictions have been recorded for offences under Section 153A, 124A and 505(2), has exhibited a very casual approach of the trial court……..Mechanical order convicting a citizen for offences of such serious nature like sedition and to promote enmity and hatred etc. does harm to the cause. It is expected that graver the offence, greater should be the care taken so that the liberty of a citizen is not lightly interfered with”.

It doesn’t matter that the courts have consistently held that there has to be  a causal link established between the speech/ words that are said to incite an actual incitement towards the commission of an offence or violence. Lets face it, the people who file these complaints have little interest in actually seeing anyone being punished. Their interests are extremely short term: the immediate prevention of a reading, a performance, an exhibition and the announcement of their victory via the media. William Mazzarella terms this as the politics of ‘profitable provocation’ which he says are not about silencing tactics, but precisely about harnessing and mobilizing the public energy of the very artifacts that they appear to be trying to suppress.

Most of the focus of the debate  on censorship tends to be on substantive law, and on the actual contents of specific provisions such as 153A and 295A and the demand that is made is either for a repealing or an amendment of these provisions to make them less draconian.

It is unlikely that we will see –atleast in the near future-  a repealing of these provisions. One does not after all exile one’s favored child without giving him thousands of opportunities to change. The Courts have through their judgments effectively circumscribed these provisions by limiting the circumstances under which they may be invoked, and yet at long as they exist in a form that allows for anyone to file a police complaint their job is done. It is both exasperating and bad mannered to repeat oneself endlessly but in these shrill times what can one do but say again and again the process is the bloody punishment.

Rajeev Dhavan in his book Published and be Damned argues that imperfect as the jurisprudence of free speech in India is, it at least provides one with a platform to challenge unreasonable acts of the state. The real challenge is how we tackle the lumpen threats which also expertly use the law in strategic ways. Violent attacks are generally preceded by or followed by the use of criminal law as a strategy of harassment. In his article on Harassing Hussain, Dhavan invents a new acronym KICKS, adding to the familiar SLAPP suits (Strategic Legal Action Against Public Participation). Dhavan sees KICKS (Kriminal intimidatory coercive knock out strategies) as a mode of using the law for the most illegal purposes by the most lawless groups. Recall the way that Hussain was Kicked out of the country by the many criminal cases filed against him across the country.

The Supreme Court in Rangarajan v. Jagjivan Ram has clearly laid down that freedom of speech and expression does not just entail the right of a person to express his opinions freely, but also entails a duty cast upon the state to ensure that there is no interference with such a  right. The court held “If the film is unobjectionable and cannot constitution- ally be restricted under Article 19(2), freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence. That would tantamount to negation of the rule of law and a surrender to black mail and intimidation. It is the duty of the State to protect the freedom of expression since it is a liberty guaranteed against the State. The State cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile audience problem. It is its obligatory duty to prevent it and protect the freedom of expression”.

And yet in the Jaipur literary festival, what we see is a completely submission to threats and an absolute surrender to the blackmail of various groups. When four writers decide to protest and show their solidarity by reading extracts from the Satanic verses- an act they are completely within their rights to do- then we have cases under 153A being filed against them.

While censorship never succeeds in instituting a complete and total subjectification of speech through a process of law, it does effectively circumscribe the social domain of the speakable. Art. 19(2) and provisions like 153A and 295A testifies to the complications arising out of making a claim as a legal speaking subject. Any transgressive speech act, whether in art, literature, or film, will always face the risk of the artist transgressing the kind of speaking subject that you are and taking you outside the domain of who you are as an enunciator.  On the other hand, by limiting yourself to a juridical claim, you run the risk of subsuming yourself to what has already been defined as the speakable.

The recent experience in Jaipur mirrors the conundrum that films makers in India have faced for a long time. Documentary film-makers in India have had two options whenever their films have been cut or censored by the censors. They can either go down the juridical route and fight the case in court, thereby adding to the corpus of jurisprudence that supports free speech in India. Or they can choose to ignore the Board completely and refuse to submit the film for certification altogether. While the former involves making a claim to your right to free speech as a citizen, the latter involves the legal threat of criminal sanctions being imposed on you.

In the case of film, the judiciary’s role is to intervene and correct the excesses of the Censor Board. But the peculiarity is that the court’s decision is determined on the basis of whether or not a particular film violates an existing principle ‘a, b, c, d’, of the list of prohibitions.  For instance, if the principle is about not inciting communitarian hatred, the court will argue that the scene in fact does not do so. What is left intact, however, is the ‘a, b, c, d’, of the list. Thus even as the court affirms the rights of an individual film maker, they do so through a reaffirmation of the basic categories of censorship.

There is thus a curious double bind that exists here. If you choose to rely on the juridical model and try to embody the norms that govern speakability in your speech, then you are absolutely affirming your status as a juridical subject of speech. Thus, if you approach the court as someone entitled to the freedom of speech, then you have to subsume your status as a speaking subject completely within the terms of the juridical. If you refuse to do that, then you risk not being granted the status of being a speaking subject. In other words, if you attempt to move outside the domain of the speakable, which has been defined by the juridical model, then you risk your status as a subject of speech, and as a speaking subject.

How do we imagine our resistance to censorship and how do we look at speech acts that push the ‘margins’ of the speakable? The speaker who speaks at the border-line of the speakable runs the risk of being cast out of the domain of the speaking subject, and yet it is only through such a risk that we can attempt to redraw the lines between what is speakable and what is unspeakable.

Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi redrew-even if momentarily – these lines in Japiur, and any line, not matter how thin or faint is a starting point that we need to seize to think of our collective strategies- legal, tactical, technological- to move out of the dual punishment of the substantive provisions of law and the speech strangling procedures that accompany them.

(Carried with the author’s permission; published on Kafila, January 25, 2012)

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Banned Books Week: “The State’s Duty”

“The State’s Duty”

Samanth Subramanian

(First published in the New York Times’ India Ink blog, February 2012)

On several occasions already, in what is still a very new year, various arms of the Indian state have recused themselves from their duty of protecting free speech, citing the threat of violence as fair justification. The Rajasthan police have been accused of inventing a plot to kill Salman Rushdie, in order to prevent the disruptions to public order that were promised by some Muslim organizations upon Mr. Rushdie’s visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival.

In Lucknow, a play satirizing the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati was banned. In Hyderabad and Pune, police “advised” the organizers of seminars – on Mr. Rushdie and on Kashmir, respectively – to cancel their events. On Twitter, Taslima Nasreen claimed that the “Kolkata police asked Kolkata Book Fair committee to cancel my book release program.” In all these instances, the potential for actual violence was unclear; what was more apparent was the state’s eagerness to choose the easiest way out by simply suspending the exercise of free speech.

Perhaps the most biting legal opinion of such spinelessness came in 1989, in a Supreme Court case called S. Rangarajan vs. P. Jagjivan Ram. Mr. Rangarajan, a film producer in Chennai (then Madras), was fighting for his right to release “Ore Oru Gramathile,” a movie that criticized the caste-based reservation policy in Tamil Nadu’s educational institutions. Members of the Dr. Ambedkar People’s Movement and the Republican Party of India had already embarked upon protests, and the general secretary of the Republican Party had warned that demonstrators “would not hesitate to damage the cinema.” In response, the Tamil Nadu government had stopped the film’s release, fearing “very serious” law and order problems across the state. Professing himself by turns amused, troubled and anguished, Justice K. J. Shetty wrote: “The State cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile audience problem. It is its obligatory duty to prevent it and protect the freedom of expression.”

The plot of “Ore Oru Gramathile” (“In a Single Village”) runs as follows: Shankara Sastry, a Brahmin, procures a fake lower-caste certificate for his daughter Gayathri, worried that she will otherwise not be able to attend university. Gayathri turns out to be a good student and, later, an excellent civil servant, but when she is working on a flood-relief mission in a village named Annavayil, she is recognized and her true caste exposed. In rousing court scenes, Gayathri and her father argue that the reservation policy should be based on economic backwardness and not on caste. Improbably, the case against Gayathri is withdrawn when the people of Annavayil flood the government with petitions demanding that she be restored to her job. (“As usual,” Justice Shetty wrote in his judgment, the film “contains some songs, dance and side attractions to make the film more delectable.”)

S. Rangarajan, the film’s producer, passed away a few years ago. His son Ramesh, as well as Aryama Sundaram and S. Raghunathan, two senior lawyers who worked on the case, helped reconstruct the chain of events that led to Justice Shetty’s landmark judgment.

S. Raghunathan: The movie was based on a script by a poet named Vaali. That was called something else – I don’t quite remember that title now. By that time, S. Rangarajan had been producing films for a number of years. He made “Gauravam,” which was an excellent movie.

Ramesh Rangarajan: My father felt very strongly about [reservation policy]. He saw that some people who got the barest passing mark would get into college, and others who got 90 percent would not. It was a bold movie, and nobody was prepared to make it, so it came to him. He took it as a challenge. In a way, maybe he knew he was going to face this [legal challenge].

S. Raghunathan: At the time, Aryama and I were part of a firm called Natraj, Rao, Raghu & Sundaram. We were partners. S. Rangarajan being my brother-in-law, this case came to us, and Aryama got really deeply involved with it. It was immediately apparent that this could be a landmark case.

Aryama Sundaram: “Ore Oru Gramathile” was clearly a movie on reverse discrimination. It was very hard-hitting, because it criticized the Supreme Court’s upholding of reservation, and it criticized politicians who were using reservation as a method of stirring up passions. It had gone for censorship approval [in August 1987], and first the committee refused the certificate. Then an appellate committee granted it, and a second revising committee [in December 1987] also approved a certificate. At which point, a writ petition was filed in the Madras High Court.

S. Raghunathan: There had been a few demonstrations outside the offices of The Hindu [where S. Rangarajan was publisher] by the Dravidar Kazhagam and the Dr. Ambedkar People’s Movement. So this was what the government was pointing to, when it said that there might be law and order problems.

Ramesh Rangarajan: By this time, the distributors of the film had started to worry. A lot of money was stuck. Anybody else, I think, would have just shelved the whole bloody project.

The writ petition was dismissed by a single judge in the Madras High Court, but on appeal, a Division Bench allowed the petition and revoked the censor certificate that had been granted.

Aryama Sundaram: So it came up before the bench, and there were long arguments on it, and on a Thursday, judgment was reserved after hearing these arguments. But in the meantime, the government of India had given the film a national award, in the “Best Film on Social Issues” category. It hadn’t even been released, but we had sent it in.

Ramesh Rangarajan: It won an award! That was the beauty of this whole thing!

S. Raghunathan: I must have watched this film at least four times in that period, including once with the judges in the Division Bench. There was a brilliant performance by Lakshmi [Narayan, the starring actress], I remember.

Aryama Sundaram: The award was supposed to be presented by the president on Monday, in New Delhi. On Friday, at 3 p.m., the bench sent for us and told us that the film was banned for opposing reservation policy and going against the judgments [on reservation] of the Supreme Court. They also said that they were restraining the government from giving this award. It was a very long judgment – a hundred-odd pages – which was in a way a blessing in disguise, because it gave the Supreme Court a chance to reiterate the Constitution’s values of free speech.

Ramesh Rangarajan: I was in my first or second year of college when this was all happening, and I remember my father coming home every day from his office to tell us what had happened in court.

S. Raghunathan: Rangarajan was initially not very worried about this process, but in its later stages, he started to become very tense. I don’t remember him personally appearing in the high court, or even in the Supreme Court. But he never really expected the decision to go against us, I think, because this was such flimsy ground.

Aryama Sundaram: After the Division Bench gave us its judgment, we prepared an overnight appeal to the Supreme Court and filed it on Saturday morning. We got special permission from the Chief Justice of India to have the case listed. It was the first case listed on Monday morning, and the Supreme Court immediately stayed the order as far as the award was concerned.

S. Raghunathan: Ramesh had to rush from the court to Siri Fort Auditorium to receive the award from the president that Monday.

Aryama Sundaram: Justice Shetty was an excellent judge, and I think the others on that bench were Justices K. N. Singh and Kuldip Singh. They heard really elaborate arguments and saw the film as well, with English subtitles. Then [on March 30, 1989] they upheld the right of the producer to release the film, and they held that freedom of speech could not be suppressed. And I had expected exactly this. I remember there were huge demonstrations outside the Supreme Court on the days of arguments, by people thinking they could influence the court. But fortunately they couldn’t.

S. Rangarajan: There’s no doubt about it: The spirit of that judgment is being violated today [with the Rushdie affair and others].

Aryama Sundaram: Look at this situation today. If people want to suppress somebody saying something, threatening some violence is the line of least resistance. This is exactly what Justice Shetty was talking about. Rangarajan believed in his film, and he felt it had a right to say what it did.

(Samanth Subramanian is a journalist and the author of Following Fish. He’s on

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Banned Books Week: Sedition edition

Section 124-A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizens. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has an affection(sic) for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence. But the section under which Mr Banker (a colleague in non-violence) and I are charged is one under which mere promotion of disaffection is a crime.

These words, from Mahatma Gandhi’s closing statement during his trial for sedition in 1922, have been quoted widely in India this year, along with the resurrection of the antiquated laws of Raj India. There were cries of sedition when Arundhati Roy made some remarks on the alienation felt by Kashmiris; this week, human rights activist Binayak Sen was sentenced to life imprisonment for sedition by a Raipur court in a much-criticised judgement.

By 1909, fears of sedition had turned the British government in India into tireless readers. Sisir Kar’s history of books banned in Bengal under the Raj quotes from a typical circular of the time that urges officers to carefully examine all suspicious material, to “facilitate the immediate detection of seditious books”. As Gandhi was to note, the affection of the subject for the king, or the citizen for the state, could not be commanded — and it was markedly absent in those early years as the national movement gathered steam.

Bankimchandra’s Ananda Math had been in print for 18 years at this time, and as its author, Bankim was struggling between the demands of his job as a government official and the need to express his discontent with the Raj. Between the first and the eighth edition of Ananda Math, the novel that added Vande Mataram to the lexicon of revolution and that would inspire the next generation of revolutionaries, Bankim made continuous changes to the text, often excising or softening sentences that seemed over-critical of the British. In one of the more unusual applications of censorship, there were periods when Ananda Math itself was not banned but the singing of Vande Mataram was proscribed, and the anthem treated as seditious.

By the time Sharatchandra’s Pather Dabi (1926) was published, featuring, as the Government of Bengal Yearbook commented, “the most powerful act of sedition in almost every page of the book”, disaffection was the spirit of the times. The long history of Pather Dabi, the confiscation of the novel, the exchange between Tagore and Sharatchandra on the impact and validity of criticising those in power, points to the fact that it was impossible for the Raj to allow questioning of the state without also admitting the disaffection and disillusionment of the writers who questioned it. Tagore disappointed Sharatchandra by praising the tolerance of the British, and by implicitly refusing to endorse the younger author’s insistence that criticism was the only valid response to British rule.

Books like Ananda Math and Pather Dabi were only the most celebrated of their kind; in the attempt to check sedition, journals and books were often confiscated and plays were routinely proscribed or censored. Sisir Kar cites an unwittingly revealing letter from the police commissioner, allowing the production of Bankimchandra’s Chandrashekhar to continue if certain objectionable portions were expunged — on pages 10, 19, 20, 33, 36, 40, 41, 43, 51, 54, 55, 80, 120,121, 123, 124, 127, 133, 148 and 151, leaving one to wonder what was left of the play.

All of this, including the trials of the likes of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Aurobindo Ghose for sedition and conspiracy, was part and parcel of the paraphernalia of a state that was an occupying power, and that had to command the affection of the people who came under its rule. In an independent India, the question is whether the state should still feel paranoid enough to continue using a law where, as Gandhi puts it, “mere promotion of disaffection is a crime”.

The writings of Arundhati Roy, for instance, or the work of Binayak Sen, would have placed them in the time of the British Raj among the ranks of the disaffected. Their willingness and the willingness of other writers and activists to question the workings of the state are definitely signs of disaffection. But in a healthy democracy, and a healthy state, the affection of its writers and citizens would be earned, not commanded. We need to ask whether the same laws that were used against Bankimchandra, Sharatchandra, Tilak and Gandhi should be pressed into service in a country that prides itself on its many freedoms.

(Published in the Business Standard, December 2010/ Nilanjana Roy)

(More posts on Banned Books Week:  go here)

Banned Books Week: Gautam John on the freedom to read

The Freedom To Read, in India

Gautam John

It isn’t always necessary to ban a book to ensure it isn’t read. With six in ten children unable to read grade 2 texts and half of all children in public schools graduating without being able to read fluently, most books will remain unread. The public education system has created, and continues to create, generations of children for whom books are effectively banned.

For the fortunate few who can read, there are further roadblocks on the road to reading. First, of the 80,000 odd new books published each year in India, only around 30% can be considered children’s books. And of those few, 50% are published either in Hindi or English. This, in a country that has 21 official constitutionally recognised languages and many 100s more used across the nation. It is fairly appalling that while the United Kingdom prints close to 6 books for every child, the Indian equivalent is 1 book to every 20 children.

To make the “Freedom to Read” a meaningful proposition in India there are at least three elements of the puzzle that require bolstering. We need more content, in more languages and ways of circumventing the high cost of distribution in India. ‘Innovation’ is a much-abused term that in the context of the Indian children’s book publishing industry, has invariably begun and ended with product and price strategies. For the “Freedom to Read” to be truly effective, publishers will need to create new models of innovation to address the entire content cycle – from the creation, distribution and consumption to the conversation around content – to make an impact in the gargantuan problem that this space represents.

These are not unrealistic expectations either. At Pratham Books, where I work, we have been piloting many such innovations across the spectrum and have diverse learning from these experiments. At the product level, we now have products that span the range from Rs. 2.00 to Rs. 30.00 and have multiple product forms as well – from story cards to books to newer folded paper story formats that are very low cost but maintain high quality standards of product and content. The distribution of reading material, so long as it is tied to physical formats, remains challenging but we have explored new avenues including non-traditional ones such as the railways and the postal service. However, the largest innovations have come at the strategic level – of what it means to be a publisher.

As a publisher, a constant question we ask ourselves is what the dimensions of our mission statement of “A book in every child’s hand” are and what the contours of the problem we are solving are. For example, producing low cost (yet, high quality) books might very well mean that, if access to reading material is the problem, we are only moving the problem to a lower price point. Similarly, does it have to be a Pratham Books’ book in a child’s hand or does it suffice to enable a child to have access to any book?

However, some of the more vexing questions go to the heart of being a publisher – were we acting as content creators and gatekeepers of content? What the rationale of keeping content, that had been published but might not be re-published, locked up by asserting copyright over it and whether there was greater value in setting such content free. Given our audaciously large mission, we had to find ways to create infinite good with finite time and resources and in the process, to create more value, within the ecosystem, than we capture. With this background, we realised that innovation at a process, product and service level alone was not enough and that we needed to innovate at a business model, strategic and management level.

Having answered most of these questions using “openness” (whereby, we asked whether allowing unrestricted access to use and re-use of their content furthered our mission) as a test and finding that it did fit our mission, the second set of questions to answer was more technical – how, as a small non-profit, do we accomplish ”openness” and not find itself overwhelmed and sapped of resources. It was at this point that we had a moment of realization – that reading is an extremely social activity and that there are communities and organizations that were more than ready to help it achieve its goals. While much has been written about this model of ours (see: and I will restrict myself to two elements of this strategy that strengthens the “Freedom to Read” in the context of the challenges laid out at the outset.

What this new content model, as outlined above, has allowed for is the creation of multiple derivative works, using a single Pratham Book’s book as the catalyst in languages we are unable to publish in, locally printed in places we are unable to deliver to and read in formats we are unable to publish in without any negative impact (we might go so far as to say, it had a positive impact) on our revenue streams. Most importantly, it allows for an inclusive “Freedom to Read” where even those who are print challenged have content made available to them in formats that they are able to consume.

Secondly, this ‘free’ content allied with our mission, has created an incredibly engaged, vibrant and active community around reading. A community of champions that are foot soldiers in making this right to read significant – over the last three years, we have experimented with assisting individuals hold book reading or book launch sessions in geographies in which we are absent. This came to pass as a request from the community itself – that while Pratham Books could not be present everywhere, the community was and all they needed was a minimum amount of material support to extend our reach. Year 1 saw 19 such events on a single day, year 2 saw 54 and this year, we had over 400 reading sessions conducted by over 170 champions covering 28 states and 2 union territories done in 5 languages that the book was published in along with 9 new languages that the book was translated in to by the champions and impacted over 18000 children. All in one day. (see: and:

For the “Freedom to Read” to be effective, innovation must be at the core of the publishing world, not merely at the periphery and we must leverage the power of the collective to achieve this societal goal. But mostly, it involves us, as individuals and as a nation, acknowledging that it as an important and basic right. Without that, stasis is all that remains.

(Gautam John is an educator and entrepreneur who works with the Akshara Foundation and Pratham Books. He’s at twitter/gkjohn.)

(More posts on Banned Books Week:  go here)

Banned Books Week: Thomas Abraham on Reading the Bans

 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.


(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)

Banned Books Week: The Freedom To Read

To mark Banned Books Week, held worldwide from September 30 to October 7, this blog will carry a few posts every day for the next week on the freedom to read (and book bans).  Beyond book bans and clear-cut instances of censorship, Banned Books Week is about, “the value of free and open access to information”.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where we took reading for granted, and to spend many years in a city where everyone had opinions on what we should read next, from the pavement booksellers of College Street to my grandmother’s friends. It didn’t occur to me then that what I accepted as a right–to read as everyday as to eat–was, and remains, a luxury.

Book bans affect a relatively small number of books, and while they affect readers, the greater concern in India has more to do with the precedent they set–allowing us as a community to tidy away and silence inconvenient or disquieting ideas. The other side of the freedom to read has to do with the availability, or lack of, public libraries, especially in low-income areas; and with the freedom to imagine that you could tell all of the truth about your own lives, without fear or censorship.

More about the original Banned Books Week here.

Wednesday’s guest posts:

Arunava Sinha: Ban This!

Mukul Kesavan on censuring those who won’t censor themselves

Mihir Sharma on defending bad art/ books

Tuesday’s posts:

Chiki Sarkar on the courts and the publisher

Sanjay Sipahimalani on exercising the freedom to read

My column on the freedom to read, libraries and bookstores

Monday’s guest posts:

Arpita Das on Reading in Sin

Deepanjana Pal on reviewing The Satanic Verses, 24 years after

Salil Tripathi on The Ten Commandments of Offence

Sunday’s posts:

The history of banned books in India

Ashok Malik on unbanning the banned

Banned Books Week: Arunava Sinha on many Ramayanas

By Arunava Sinha

How about banning this?

 Here are two short passages from two famously funny plays written in Bengali several decades ago. For, they make fun of – without malice, in pure humour – one of the most revered figures of the Hindu pantheon, the mythically immortal Hanuman.

 One possible reason for there being no clamour to have them banned is that they have not been translated into English. This has kept them out of the national limelight all these years, and confined to a regional readership which has historically been tolerant of diverse shades of opinion. Only historically, unfortunately – for, in recent times, the state of West Bengal actually banned a volume of Tasleema Nasrin’s autobiography on roughly the same grounds on which The Satanic Verses was banned.

It is unlikely, of course, that those who demand bans and those who capitulate to those demands have actually ever read the books in question. If English texts face the brunt of the protests in India, it may well be because of the language is somehow associated with an arrogant, callous elite that apparently cares not a jot for the sensitivities of different groups of people.

So, here’s my contribution, through the act of translation, to bringing these ‘offending’ passages to the attention of the lunatic fringe that believes in banning books. Do we hear the roars getting louder?




From Lakhhoner Shoktishel – The Mighty Weapon That Felled Lakshman – by Sukumar Ray


(Lakshman has been felled by Ravana on the battlefield. Immediately after which, Ravana has been caught picking Lakshmana’s pocket. But Rama’s camp is in turmoil, for Lakshman must be revived. The only hope is the wise old ape Jambuman, who has been woken up after a great deal of effort.)


Ram: You see, Jambumana, you’re a wise man – you’re bound to be experienced in such matters…


Jambuman: Yes sire… if only they had told me here… instead the fellows kept poking me – ‘Mantrimashai, wake up, Mantrimashai’ – are we being robbed, I asked myself.


Ram: Well yes, you have to do something about this now.


Jambuman: (addressing Hanuman) I’m writing down a prescription here, go get these medicines quickly.


Hanuman: All right, I’ll leave at first light tomorrow.


Jambuman: No, can’t wait that long. You have to go right now.


Hanuman: At this hour of the night? What if a snake bites me? What if a tiger gets me?


Sugreeb: He has it too easy, this fellow.


Jambuman: No, we need the medicines at once.


Hanuman: What the heck. Why not try homoeopathy?


Jambuman: Listen to me. Here, I’ve written down the name of a tree – Vishalyakarani Mritasanjivani – you have to get these roots.


Hanuman: I don’t know where the dispensary is.


Jambuman: Oh for heaven’s sake. Do you think this is Calcutta, with Bathgate & Co. waiting with its doors open round the corner? You know Gandhamadan Hill near Mount Kailash, don’t you?


Hanuman: Who on earth is this Doctor Kailesh?


Jambuman: Very sharp hearing. Idiot – don’t you know Mount Kailash?


Hanuman: Oh my god! THAT Mount Kailash! I can’t go all that way so late at night.


Jambuman: What do you mean you can’t go? I’ll whip you within an inch of your life. Go at once – and don’t you dare dawdle on the way.


Hanuman: I have an earache…


Ram: Enough now, go, no more of this – here’s a tip for you. (Hands Hanuman a banana.)


Hanuman: As you please. (Exits bowing.)






From Lankadahan Pala – The Sacking of Lanka – by Lila Majumdar


(Exhausted by his search for Sita, who has been abducted by Ravana, Hanuman stops to rest.)


Scene: Ashok Vana


Hanu: Aargh. I can barely walk anymore. I must rest. Uff. First to sit down behind that tree there and do justice to these monkey biscuits – then we’ll see. It wasn’t easy stealing the whole lot – there had better not be anyone claiming a share.


(Begins to consume biscuits behind the tree. A junior rakshas enters.)


Junior: Mmmmm. Smells heavenly, I want some, uncle.


Hanu: Who on earth are you? Get out of here. I’m not your uncle, your uncle’s visiting Ravana, you go with him too, there’s nothing for you here.


Junior: Then I’l scream… haaaaaa…


Hanu: Shhh… here’s a biscuit. This is a nice pickle I’m in now. What to do? There’s no place I haven’t looked for her, but I haven’t even spotted the tip of her tail. Once my feet stop aching I’ll search these woods with a tooth comb. But if I still don’t find her…


Junior: Have you looked under the bed?


Hanu: Shut up. How can I look under the bed, the beds are all sky-high.


(Sita enters in the distance in tattered clothes, with little or no jewellery.)


Hanu: Dammit. Who’s that there now looking hungry? She might want some too. Such a pain.


Junior: It won’t eat your biscuits. It doesn’t eat, doesn’t bathe. It’s Sitey. Give me another biscuit.


Hanu: What! What do you mean Sitey. Is that Sita? Oh yes, it is! That necklace around her neck is just as Ramchandra had described it.


Junior: Oh yes, that’s Sitey, my mother’s her guard, see, where are my biscuits?


Hanu: Take them all, I’m not hungry. So that’s Sitey? Was it for this that Ram and Lakshman are in abject despair? Tchah – you can find much lovelier women rolling on the roads of Kishkindhya… are you getting out of here or not?

(Arunava Sinha has translated much of the canon of Bengali literature, and can be found here.)

( More posts from Banned Books Week, here.)

Banned Books Week: Mihir Sharma on defending bad art

Trash Bans

by Mihir Sharma

I am tired of having to defend bad things. Yet apparently one must, once someone bans them. Taslima Nasreen could perhaps be the most awful writer to emerge out of the Bengali-speaking world, but we all bought her book anyway, to show we were free-speech fans. The Satanic Verses was Salman Rushdie’s most unreadable book, but we all did our best to plod through it to show how very liberal we were. This week, as we effortlessly turned an unknown, puerile cartoonist with no sense of humour and dubious drawing skills into a bearded messiah of free speech, I decided that enough was enough. I am no longer going to engage in discussion about the quality and nature of work that gets banned or censored or attacked. Because it’s irrelevant.

Repeat after me: if it’s banned, it can still be awful. The act of banning leaves things’ aesthetic merits unchanged. Indeed, as things that give offence are usually quite unsubtle – a crucifix in urine, Parliament as a lavatory – basing a defence on their being outstanding works of art is tough. So instead of talking about what’s being attacked, can we please keep the focus on those doing the censoring or attacking?

Last week we should have talked exclusively of the archaic, creaking, ridiculous monstrosities that are our sedition law and the one that defends the delicate honour of our “national symbols”. Instead, we spent as much time apparently gauging Aseem Trivedi’s artistic merit as compared to, say, M F Husain. We thought hard about the point of his artistic endeavours – Politicians Bad, whatay brave and novel point – and tried to give that causal force. Our governments are thin-skinned about criticism, we announced ponderously. Foreign correspondents wrote sombre dispatches for stodgy European papers linking Mr Trivedi’s case to the PMO’s ill-judged responses to criticism.

Oh, come on. The problem is our sedition law: some random case is filed, the courts take cognisance of it, the police have to act on it automatically. The Maharashtra police actually went out of their way, taking months, to ensure every legal check and balance was in place before they arrested Mr Trivedi. They went to the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate for advice, which they needn’t have done; they went to a court for a warrant, which wasn’t required for these charges; they brought him before a judge as soon as possible. The problem isn’t that the powerful are gaming our laws to go after critics. The problem is that we have bad laws. Even Veerappa Moily, the former law minister, told The Indian Express yesterday that sedition is a terrible law. He’s said as much previously. Of course, Mr Moily didn’t repeal it, because the UPA believes in the wondrous power of words — for this lot, saying Good Stuff means you don’t have to do it.

Frankly, too many of the people defending Mr Trivedi were doing so purely because of what they thought he said. Why not ask them where they were when Narendra Modi’s government framed sedition charges against political opponents for circulating anti-Modi SMSes? Or when Karnataka, Maharashtra and Odisha charged reporters and activists for the seditious act of carrying around “Maoist literature”? Notice also the thundering silence that accompanied recent reports that seven thousand people in Kudankulam will be so charged — presumably for seditiously frolicking in the sea and treasonously bringing our National Sport of telegenic protest into disrepute. The exact nature of the act shouldn’t matter. What matters is that there’s a bad law that allows – and sometimes forces – the state to act to stifle speech.

From now on, I’m not letting people change the terms of engagement whenever speech is threatened. If Salman Rushdie is stopped from coming to Jaipur, the wise nod and murmur that he’s been living off that fatwa for some time now, eh, such a has-been otherwise. If a mob attacks an embassy with rocket launchers and murder an ambassador who’s helped stop them from all being killed by a dotty dictator, the US government is expected to first condemn the amateurish 10-minute YouTube video they’re “protesting”, or be labelled Islamophobic. And the rest of us must talk about the video too. It was financed by Israelis! It propagates a Western notion of what religious criticism is, which is unacceptable to Islam! Frankly, I don’t care. If you expect me to watch and then condemn a random YouTube video in the same breath as I do armed assault and murder, you have a serious problem with moral proportion.

Even if the Indian government succeeds in blocking the video on YouTube, I will still not exert the minimal extra effort needed to watch it anyway, even as “protest”. Because I don’t need to have an informed opinion about a video in order to say that it shouldn’t be blocked, and that angry bearded men shouldn’t kill people over it.

I am done with letting other angry bearded men determine my own artistic diet. Including you, Mr Trivedi.

In a funny and moving extract in the latest New Yorker from his new memoir, angry bearded man Salman Rushdie says that friends asked how they could help – shortly after dying angry bearded man Ruhollah Khomeini decided to try killing him – he would reply: “defend the text”, not the mighty principle of free speech. He wanted a “more particular defence”, like was mounted for Lolita or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Understandable, for an author who loves his written words. But in a world where so much is attacked, and so much of that is unreadable, irritating, or childish, must I defend the particular? After all, I’m defending not just my right to read something — but also my right to choose not to read it.

(Published in the Business Standard, September 2012; Mihir Sharma, columnist, senior editor and professional gadfly, can be found at

(More posts from Banned Books Week, here.)