In his memoir, China in Ten Words, Yu Hua writes about growing up during the Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s, when books were scarce, especially after book burnings by the notorious Red Guards. In those years of scarcity the young Yu found literature in unlikely places and forms. The only book to be found in everyone’s home was the Selected Works of Mao Zedong, which didn’t interest Yu, but he managed to find stories and characters in the footnotes, with its summaries of historical events and biographical details of historical figures.
By the time Yu was in high school, a few copies of books not written by Chairman Mao managed to circulate, passing through “the hands of a thousand people or more”, and reaching him in a terrible, tattered state with chunks of missing pages from the beginning and the end. Yu didn’t know the author or title of these works and never found out how the stories ended. He writes, “To not know how a story began was no such a hardship, but to not know how it ended was a painful deprivation. Every time I read one of these headless, tailless novels I was like an ant on a hot wok, running around everywhere in search of someone who could tell me the ending.”
When the Cultural Revolution ended, literature “staged a comeback,” and books became readily available in bookstores. Yu reads Maupassant’s Une Vie only to realize it was one of the headless and tailless books he’d read some years earlier, producing in him a sweet sense of recognition. Reading this, I couldn’t help thinking of my mother’s reminiscence of how she and her girlfriends, growing up in 1950s Delhi, used to read the banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover covered in brown paper wrap — their illicit reading an echo of the illicit material between the book’s covers.
Yu recounts these episodes as having been part of his education as a novelist and to highlight the place of reading in Chinese society. There is something inspiring and quaint about his memories, where literature as a scarce resource gains power and meaning through the sharing of texts and their appearances and disappearances. You get the sense that Yu’s own critical capacities were enlivened by that initial hunt for the printed word.
In the far-from-quaint case of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, the withdrawal and pulping of her book by Penguin India at the behest of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti has, by contrast, resulted in a proliferation of the electronic (in India) and hard copies (around the world) of the book. With the greater circulation of copies and numerous news items about the pulping, it would seem that the book, its contents, and the author are everywhere. Yes, the book’s removal was a political win for the forces of the cultural right, but if the aim was to prevent hurt feelings, they have helped spread Doniger’s text like never before.
In an interview with American National Public Radio (NPR), Doniger stated, “If the purpose of these gentlemen was to keep people from buying my book and reading it, it has backfired quite wonderfully. The book is much more popular than it ever would have been before. ... Copies are circulating in India and Kindle is available in India.” She also added that The Hindus might even be back on Indian books shelves one day since Penguin USA is not subject to the same Indian laws as Penguin India.
The book has also achieved bestseller status on Amazon.com in the US, going from somewhere around 11,000 in its rank to a rank of 33 in a matter of days. And it should be noted that there were also protests against the book by American Hindus.
But a win for the book and even possibly a financial win for its publisher is hardly a win for Indians, especially for those who read, think, or aspire. Scholars based outside India with other funding sources and publishing outlets — whether established like Doniger or even PhD students — will continue to research their areas of interest and publish their books; but those in India will understandably be more cautious as they self-censor their manuscripts or, worse yet, dispose of the germ of a good idea. Who can blame them for losing faith in the judiciary and the publishing industry?
Meanwhile, Penguin India has gone from being considered an important part of the cultural history of English in India to being just another corporate publisher. It may have grown in size after its merger with Random House, but its stature has certainly diminished. As Mukul Kesavan writes, the signature bird has become “plucked, headless, and quite dead.”
It’s hard to imagine youths secretly sharing copies of Doniger’s academic tome, though people may certainly be more curious about the book now that it has been so publicly discussed and abruptly taken from their bookshelves. Or they might just want to know why an organization like Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti gets to decide what they should or should not read.
Whether in India or the US, the novel students ask me about the most — still — is Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. They want to read it and know for themselves. Similarly when in 2008 AK Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas was bullied out of Delhi University’s syllabus, the essay took on renewed strength and meaning, even as it exposed the small-mindedness of the essay’s detractors, the weakness of its publisher, Oxford University Press, and the anti-intellectualism of DU’s institutional heads, the Vice Chancellor and academic council. Soon professors may have to only start teaching banned or pulped books for an “alternative” history that may very well reveal some larger truths. We might call it the thinking student’s syllabus.
Digital technology takes the sting out of the pulping of The Hindus. What is left headless and tailless in this story is Indian democracy itself.
The author is assistant professor of anthropology at George Mason University