Wendy Doniger would probably never visit India again

Saturday, 15 February 2014 - 6:00am IST Updated: Friday, 14 February 2014 - 10:48pm IST | Agency: DNA

[For] those of us who are currently published by Penguin...it is dispiriting, [but] maybe not entirely surprising given the way publishers have gone in this country earlier on such issues. Not just publishers, but also people, organisations, government, etc.

Wendy Doniger has released a statement saying that the Indian legal system is to blame and not Penguin India. In a personal email exchange with me in the last 24 hrs she told me the same thing. I am taking her word for it. But substantial blame must lie with the international organisation (Penguin-Random House). There’s a difference between how this organisation once responded in the UK to The Satanic Verses  episode and how it’s responding now — but one should remember that the ethos of idealism in which literary publishing once operated in the West has been severely depleted by the market in the last two decades.

The political-legal situation in India pertaining to creativity and free speech has been in existence since the ban on The Satanic Verses. We no longer even talk about the ban. It is so taken for granted that we don’t really care, when we go looking for books...by Salman Rushdie, that this particular book is not available. We need to go back in time and first correct this particular decision.

Other countries have thought long about this. South Africa decided not to ban The Satanic Verses despite the multicultural ethos that it wanted to nurture after apartheid, unlike the somewhat cowardly dispensations ruling over India in the last 20-30 years. In the name of liberalism and tolerance towards all we have become increasingly intolerant. I think, as members of an indigenous liberal middle class, we are insufficiently intolerant of what this does to our own belief systems. We know that our views coexist among those that might occasionally be offensive to at least some of us. That can’t be helped: what’s important is that coercion be made illegal. What we’re witnessing here yet again are blunt forms of intimidation and coercion. You or I, for instance, might, from a secular-humanist point of view, find many things in the Manu Smriti, the Koran, the Vedas, and the Ramayana offensive. That doesn’t mean one asks for these texts to be expurgated or destroyed. It’s important that the law protect all texts, including each one I’ve mentioned: The Satanic Verses, the Koran, Doniger’s The Hindus, the Ramayana.

Not only do the plaintiffs concerned here not know enough about, let us say, Hinduism...relatively few people have any knowledge of how modern literary culture in India is based on extremely creative and often irreverent takes on our sacred texts. First, there’s the text from which in a way modern Bengali poetry begins — Meghnad Badh Kavya by Michael Madhusudan Dutt, a version of an episode in the Ramayana.
Dutt said in a letter, ‘I hate Rama and all his rabble. But the mythology of our ancestors is full of poetry.’ Dutt makes the distinction that something might have great imaginative power while what it represents might in part be unappealing. What would our litigious protestors do with a modern Indian literary history  with such beginnings? Indeed, even the Bhagavad Gita is deeply critical of the Vedas. Should we then ban the Gita? Doniger is an easy target because she is not Indian, is mistaken for being Christian, and because she lives in America. The fact is that most of the canonical modern writers in Indian languages are and were deeply irreverent.

Doniger also wrote to me that she would probably never visit this country again, given the context of litigation. This is one of the most profoundly tragic consequences of our stupid, legally sanctioned policy of appeasement: that our country has become fenced in, narrower, and inhospitable to a series of thinkers and artists (Husain, Rushdie, Doniger) who have depicted it compellingly.

The author is an eminent novelist, poet, critic and musician. Penguin has published several of his books and will also publish his next novel

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