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Pulp friction

Pulp friction
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The imminent ‘pulping’ of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History sounds an ominous bell. It is really two things at once: one, the relentless political pressure rising from the far-right religious groups, whether they be Hindu, Islamic or Christian; and the other, the shrinking of liberal space via a) censorship and b) self-censorship. The decision to opt for an out-of-court settlement and look for a quiet exit by Penguin, in this light, is no less criminal than Dinanath Batra’s feeling offended by Doniger’s innovative interpretation of Hinduism, particularly by its uncovering of neglected and subaltern histories – those of women, Dalits, Tantric yogis and other practitioners of pleasure and pain that go, strictly speaking, against the ‘bourgeoisie’ Vendantic tradition, favouring all the entrenched divisions and tiers within the religion. So while we feel embarrassed and offended by Batra’s lawsuit that describes Doniger’s ‘factual inaccuracies’, we should feel a million times more let down, and indeed we do, by Penguin India’s pusillanimous stand, its supine succumbing to a little pressure from a tiny group affiliated with the RSS.

Doniger’s tome is not alone in this tragedy of collective ineffectuality. We had A K Ramanujan’s stellar essay Three Hundred Ramayanas scrapped from the Delhi University’s MA English curriculum only three years back. Other works of historical reinterpretation, say Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul, based on M K Gandhi’s stint in South Africa, was dubbed unreadable and insulting for its frank explorations of sexuality. We have, of course, the epic case of book banning and burning in The Satanic Verses, the hounding flames of which still reach for the NYC-dwelling Salman Rushdie, making his India tours a matter of great political and public consternation. We also have Taslima Nasreen, whose books keep facing the axe at the same pace at which she pens them, choosing still to go with the gut rather than opting for safer thematic havens. Among artists, we have the grand catastrophe and historical blunder in the maestro, the late M F Hussain, picking exile in Qatar over the ‘creative chaos’ of India as a result of Shiv Sena’s constant vandalisation of his works, his nude Saraswatis and Mother Indias.

No matter how we wish to look at it – whether as a grand dance of democracy which throws to the surface the obscene but often sidelined voices of the neo-natives, the hardline cultural nationalists, the patriarchal patriots, mostly all easily offended, or as a muzzling of truly liberal and radical voices, not just those dressed in seminar English and political correctness of the day, but those digging deep and excavating lost or buried tropes, shedding new light on the subterranean tunnels of history, politics and literature – there’s little joy in seeing a book waiting for the gallows. Much like capital punishment, pulping or burning of books reeks of an extreme punitive approach to dissent, to difference and to the other. It’s uncomfortable with non-conformity; hence perennially threatened. It’s rarely the exact occasion that ensues this angry bird’s hawkish ire – it’s more a mouldy and partisan convenience, whether of relevance or reiteration, that sets off the triggers, resulting in violence, intellectual, physical and cultural.

It is in fact the same state-society complex that punishes people and ostracises them for thinking and expressing differently, say in their choice of sexual partners, or in their interlacing of words with loaded sexuality, particularly of the dissident variety, also goes for the theory of banishment – of ideas, of people, of lives. Hence, whether Doniger’s book is an erudite work of scholarly brilliance or a puerile mass of unsubstantiated conjectures is not the question. The real question is: why can’t Doniger’s book exist, be read, shared and critiqued, stirring, as the Chicago University-based ‘Indologist’ hoped, ‘creative controversy’? Why must debate be sacrificed at the altar of sameness, or interpretations that have ossified and exploited millions for thousands of years thwart ones that are new and contentious?  And, in this context, why can’t a publisher, one of the oldest and biggest, with liberal pretensions and self-aggrandising tone and tenor, also a global shark really with the latest merger with Random House, stand up to a small, literally insignificant tributary of the RSS stream?

These are strange times. If world cities and mega malls have no room for libraries and if we run out of reading material, if we stop ourselves from coming out and reclaiming the streets, the bedrooms, the pages, the ink, the mind and the bodies, what good would that be? Perhaps, the mantra ‘publish or perish’ has a new meaning now.

Is the Chicken listening?
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