• In Defence of the Writer

    August 4, 2016

    Pushkar Raj

    Madhorubhagan (1)
    Image Courtesy Indian Express

    The recent Chennai High Court judgment concerning the writer Perumal Murugan is a requisite addition to the Indian jurisprudence as it underlines the relationship between the writer and society, which has lately suffered from grave confusion.

    Permual Murugan was hauled up in the court of law for describing a cultural practice of Tamil Nadu in his novel Madhurobhagan, published in 2010, and translated as One Part Woman in English in 2013. The advocates of the ban accused him of causing hurt and insulted him to the extent that he renounced writing and declared himself “dead”.

    The advocates of the ban of the novel failed to show a modicum of common sense that as long as a book does not preach or incite hate and violence, it falls in the realm of creative freedom of a thinker and writer.

    The power to determine whether a book has caused or has the potential to cause violence must remain with an independent judiciary in a democratic society, not with an unruly mob. Furthermore, a motivated crowd cannot first create mayhem and then say that a book has caused disorder or violence. That is what happened in Tiruchengode and in the surrounding areas of Tamil Nadu.

    The Chennai High Court ruling has tried to foster the sensible assertion that a mob will not judge the merit of a book.

    In a way, the Chennai High Court judgment has recaptured the spirit of the Supreme Court judgment in K.A. Abbas v. Union of India (1970) case. In that case the court observed, “our standards must be so framed that we are not reduced to a level where the protection of the least capable and the most depraved amongst us determines what the morally healthy cannot view or read.”

    In the past too, books have been banned and writers have been treated unfairly. However, time has always proved them right. When Arthur Koestler wrote The Lotus and the Robot in 1960, it was immediately banned in India as it attacked “Bapucracy” – a godly conversion of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who was put on too high a pedestal in post independent India, much to the disbelief of the thinker.

    The government of India considered Koestler’s ideas blasphemous and tried to shut his voice by banning the book. Koestler must be smiling in his grave today as some of the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi are being snubbed in the political governance of the country, and are being questioned by the dalits and marginalised sections of society who accuse him of patronising them into disempowering silence.

    Without learning from the past, in 1988 the Government of India banned Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses for blasphemy, on the insistence of those who may not have even read the book. Though some people found the book blasphemous, banning the book, however, was based on flawed reasoning.

    Doris Lessing, in her preface to the second edition of The Golden Notebook, wrote that “a book is alive and potent and fructifying and able to promote thought and discussion only when its plan and shape and intention are not understood’’. She further noted that a book may mean different things to different people, illustrating that her readers could not agree amongst themselves whether The Golden Notebook was about sex, war, politics or mental illness.

    After the ban on The Satanic Verses, unruly crowds began to set norms on writing in India. Taslima Nasrin, noted Bangla writer, was hounded out of Bangladesh, and later from West Bengal for writing Lajja (1993), describing the plight of a family in a communal riot. It is telling that over two decades ago Taslima Nasrin could perhaps foresee that Bangladesh was moving towards violent religious fanaticism.

    The writer is the conscience of a society. He or she has a deeper vision. Arthur Koestler calls the writer a seer, who sees more than what others can. He or she is someone who points at the sore spots in a society but does not necessarily advocate precise solutions. Writers Nayantara Sahgal and Udai Prakash pointed out that there is an atmosphere of intolerance in contemporary Indian society. And one can safely vouch that it is a prevailing social experience and thinking.

    The Chennai High Court’s observation that if you do not like a book then shut it or throw it, is a simple, civilized and legal way of dealing with a book. Banning books and condemning writers is historically, politically and constitutionally unjustified. A society may insist on doing so only at the risk of intellectual poverty, mental slavery and social regression.

    Pushkar Raj is a Melbourne based writer with an academic background in political literature. 

    This article first appeared in countercurrents.org

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