IF the dabbawalla of Mumbai knew such a furore was being created over him – that too via a writer sitting in Canada – he perhaps could be justifiably proud about himself in these times.
But my guess is he doesn’t know. Or more correctly, doesn’t care. He goes about his business bringing food to the hungry office-goers at lunch time, satisfied he has served his fellow human beings and earned his just wage.
Aditya Thackeray nudging the VC of Mumbai University to ban Rohinton Mistry’s book Such a Long Journey for perceived aspersions against Maharashtrians more than a decade after it was written in (1991) is comic if not ludicrous.
I am sure his culture department could have found worthier and more contemporary books to fit the bill. He would be the darling of the publisher of the book – because at least then people would read it.
When OUP published James Laine’s book on Shivaji it raised the hackles of the SS of Mumbai. They dutifully set about doing what they do best, viz. burning copies of the aforesaid book. The situation, I overheard, was redeemed by the wryness of a marketing director who is believed to have opined, “Ask them how many they want to burn, we will supply directly.”
But seriously, books have been banned for the flimsiest of reasons. Reasons which have been turned on their heads as time went by. In fact, the authors of reproach look downright silly today.
Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Doctor Zhivago and Alice in Wonderland are a few examples. Chatterly was too hot for prudish England, Zhivago too cool for Bolshevik Russia and Alice really should not be talking to animals who are equally (if not more) intelligent than her.
In Kerala, extremists cut off professor TJ Joseph’s hand at the wrist this year for including some passages which purportedly made a reference to Muhammad.
Globalisation changed the rules when blanket bans sought to keep the faithful in place. The interdict on The Da Vinci Code by the Vatican seemed ineffective when one saw it flying off the shelves.
In a more subtle way, the present Pope had also scuttled the work of Jesuit priest Anthony De Mello for his Zen-like persuasions in charming (but deadly to one’s faith, it seems) books like Prayer of the Frog.
‘Reading Lolita in Teheran’ addresses this issue, where a group of female university students at a University in Teheran meet surreptiously to read books banned by the regime. I am not sure how the book ended but I do know, that despite the secrecy, they had a jolly good time.
Books and all art for that matter are expressions of personal taste. They have every right to flourish in a society and be spoken about. Art is one of the things that keeps us alive. It expresses a yearning for the absolute, a striving to becoming who we could be.
As this year’s Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa puts it:
What happens with the press, TV and radio happens too, most of the time, with the universities. The government persistently interferes with them; teachers and students considered subversive or hostile to the official system are expelled and the whole curriculum reorganised according to political considerations . . .
So, something curious and paradoxical occurred. The realm of imagination became in Latin America the kingdom of objective reality; fiction became a substitute for social science; our best teachers about reality were the dreamers, the literary artists.
Will India become another Latin America, where fiction has to masquerade for history?
The BJPs meddling in NCERT textbooks to carry the party line between1998-2004 and the UPA government’s attempt to do the same after 2004 show how vulnerable to attack are versions of reality (read history).
It is heartening to note that the right to freedom of speech has been championed in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo. Xiaobo, a former literature professor, was arrested for circulating Charter 08, which calls for greater freedom in China.
Catherine Belsey’s essay ‘Literature, History, Politics’ alerts us to the fact that these three disciplines, though seemingly distinct, are intertwined. As time unravels itself, we need to be increasingly more alert to the annexation of the first by the last and its implications on civil society.
The fact that Aditya (20) has called for a ban is met with impregnable savoire faire by Mistry. The last word to him, “He could lead, instead of following the old regime. He could say something radical – that burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul . . . not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever . . . he can think independently and he can choose.”
But somehow that line seems to me to be tilting at windmills. If human beings behaved with the basic norms of decency, this situation would have never arisen in the first place. The writer hopes for an ideal world, a world of tolerance. Has India already lost this capacity?
In Mumbai, the Sena’s writ runs large. It inspires fear. Like a parallel state government it dictates the future of this nerve centre of India. So far, attempts to curb its dynastic influence have been tokenistic. It is the political will that is lacking. How long do we have to wait for it?