New Yorker Posts

The art of biography, with Diarmaid MacCulloch and Ken Krimstein

Earlier this year I read two brilliant books. Both happened to be biographies. One is the long, detailed biography of Thomas Cromwell: A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch which took the better part of a decade to put together. In it he has scoured empirical evidence, mostly documents, scattered in different libraries and collections to create a magnificent biography of a man who rose from being the son of a blacksmith in Putney to the chief minister of Henry VIII in London. It is detailed and rich and yet not tedious to read.

The second one is a graphic novel written and illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Ken Krimstein. The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth was more than three years in the making but is one of the better introductions to Hannah Arendt that has been ever written. While the images and story frames continue to keep the plot moving in a straightforward narrative style, it is the layout consisting of footnotes and slowly increasing shades of green, till the last frame is soaked in the colour, that makes this a layered and textured reading.

Months after having read these two magnificent biographies, I came across the Guardian podcast where amazingly enough these two authors were speaking in quick succession. Have a listen:

8 November 2019

“Beowulf” A translation and commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Beowulf” is the longest Anglo-Saxon epic poem in Old English, and is dated to the early 11th century. It is about Geatish prince Beowulf who comes to the aid of Danish king Hroðgar, slaying the monster Grendel and his mother and fifty years later a dragon guarding treasure. Tolkien’s date for the poem is the 8th century. In 1920 Tolkien began teaching Old English at the University of Leeds. He finished translating the poem in 1926 but never published it. He was thirty-four.  He was in a dilemma which he expressed in a letter to Rayner Unwin of November 1965 concerning his inability to compose the ‘editorial’ matter to accompany his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

 I am finding the selection of notes, and compressing them, and the introduction, difficult. Too much to say, and not sure of my target. The main target is, of course, the general reader of literary bent but with no knowledge of Middle English; but it cannot be doubted that the book will be read by students, and by academic folk of ‘English Departments’. Some of the latter have their pistols loose in their holsters. 

Forty years after his death Tolkien’s third son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, decided to publish the translation along with his father’s series of lectures given at Oxford about the poem in the 1930s and the unpublished ballad Sellic Spell — an imagined story of Beowulf in an early form. Also included in the book are two versions of Lay of Beowulf. As Christopher recalls in the Preface: “His singing of the Lay remains for me a clear memory after more than eighty years, my first acquaintance with Beowulf and the golden hall of Heorot.”

For years now there has been speculation about the translation. In fact in 1999 Seamus Heaney published a brilliant translation of the poem which won the Whitbread prize too. In 2014 Tolkien’s estate announced the publication of Beowulf. Tolkien has in his translation retained the spirit of the poem, its descriptions and rawness but changed the alliteration in the original to run-on lines — a prose translation. There is considerable debate about this dramatic restructuring of the form in the “modern-day” translation by Tolkien. The majority view is that the clunkiness of Old English forced an alliterative structure to the poem for it to be narrated but this was no longer a necessity with modern English. It was possible to create a story in a nuanced fashion and hence Tolkien’s preference ( or presumably ease) with a prose version. Yet the shift in structure does little to spoil the beauty of the poem. There is a wonderful review-article of the book in the New Yorker by Joan Acocella. It was published within weeks of the book’s release in 2014. She gives a brilliant background to the possible compulsions ( read monetary) that drove Tolkien to consider a translation of this long poem before embarking upon an exquisite textual analysis of the poem. She compares the new translation with the original while comparing it to the Seamus Heaney translation. At the same time Joan Acocella brings in Tolkien’s fascination with languages — already told to fabricating new ones as he did famously for the Hobbit series with Elvish or the private language, Nevbosh, that he shared only with his cousin Mary. All these talents of Tolkien go into making the wonderful new translation of Beowulf.

It is a delicious translation enriched further by the endnotes and lectures. This volume is a keeper.

Beowulf ( Translated by J. R. R. Tolkien) Edited by Christopher Tolkien. HarperCollinsPublishers , London, 2014. Hb. pp. 430 Rs. 799 

Hisham Matar “The Return”

My review of The Return has been published in the Scroll on 10 July 2016. The url is: http://scroll.in/article/811475/as-polls-near-number-of-cases-filed-against-opposition-leaders-in-goa-go-up ) 

I had never been anywhere so burdened with memories yet also so charged with possibilities for the future, positive and negative, and each just as potent and probable as the other.

Hisham Matar’s third book The Return is a memoir, unlike his previously award-winning novels. He is of Libyan origin, born in New York but now a British citizen living in London. His childhood has been spent in Nigeria, Egypt and the UK. He is the son of a prominent Libyan, Jaballa Matar, who was abducted by the Egyptian secret police and delivered to Muammar Gaddafi. Jaballa Matar vanished.

“He was taken to Abu Salim prison, in Tripoli, which was known as ‘The Last Stop’ – the place where the regime sent those it wanted to forget.” There were rare letters smuggled out of prison, which the family treasured. After a while even those stopped coming. Twenty-two years later, after the Arab Spring of 2011, Hisham Matar returned to Libya. He was accompanied by his mother Fawzia Tarbah and his wife Diana Matar.

The Return is about Matar’s homecoming, so to speak. It is also about his public campaign to put pressure on the Libyan government to provide information about his father’s whereabouts. As Matar says, he is “a very private man”, but he is “writing something way beyond my person”.

Jaballa Matar was a young Army officer under King Idris’s rule. He returned from London to Egypt full of hope when a young soldier named Gaddafi led a coup in Libya. Gaddafi’s dictatorial rule soon manifested itself. All those considered to be close to the previous government were sent out of the country on minor diplomatic missions. Jaballa Matar was sent to the United Nations, where he spent a few years before resigning and returning to Libya.

My father was one of the opposition’s most prominent figures. The organisation he belonged to had a training camp in Chad, south of the Libyan border, and several underground cells inside the country. Father’s career in the army, his short tenure as a diplomat, and the private means he had managed to procure in the mid 1970s, when he became a successful businessman – importing products as diverse as Mitsubishi vehicles and Converse sport shoes to the Middle East – made him a dangerous enemy.

Despite making his home outside Libya, Matara considers himself an exile.

I am often unnerved by exiles I meet who, like me, have found themselves living in London but who unlike me, have surrendered to the place and therefore exude the sort of resigned stability I lack. Naked adoption of native mannerisms or the local dialect — this has always seemed to me a kind of humiliation.

There is a calm pace to the text, almost matching the cadences of Hisham Matar’s serene voice. ( http://www.newyorker.com/podcast/out-loud/hisham-matar-and-david-remnick-on-returning-to-libya ) But the almost lyrical prose cannot mask the horror of the human right violations committed under Gaddafi, which Matar documents. These range from the barbaric torture of the prisoners and the massacre of more than 1200 inmates in Abu Salim prison to snippets of information about Matar’s father.

Matar’s uncle Hmad Khanfore, an aspiring playwright, was incarcerated in prison for 21 years. Upon his release he met his nephew to thank him for the campaign that assured his release. He also recounted the horrors of the massacre.

It began with a group of disobedient prisoners who started a scuffle and tried escaping by jumping the guards. There was firing and some prisoners and guards were killed. But the standoff continued, with water supply to the prisoners being cut off too. By sunset the guards were willing to negotiate with the representatives of the convicts. When they returned they were accompanied by the three senior most figures in the regime:

Abdullah Senussi, who was the intelligence chief and brother-in-law to Gaddafi; Abdullah Mansour, also in intelligence; and Khairi Khaled, the head of prisons and brother of Gaddafi’s first wife…Throughout these exchanges, Senussi was in regular contact with Gaddafi. His phone would ring and he would stand as straight as a reed and start whispering. His phone rang again now, and once more we watched him take a couple of steps away before answering, “Yes, Your Excellency. The situation is completely under control, Your Excellency. Absolutely, we will do exactly that. Rest assured.”

At dawn, before daybreak, the prisoners were matched into the big open courtyard where rows and rows of soldiers were standing, dressed for battle, with several of them poised in firing positions. The dead prisoners were dumped into rubbish bins and rest of the prisoners handcuffed – Israeli cuffs, their latest design. “A thin plastic wire that drew tighter with the slightest resistance. You felt the pain not so much around the wrists but inside the head.” Later, six courtyards were filled with the prisoners and the shooting began. Surprisingly, Matar’s uncle Hmad, his brother Ahmed, Uncle Mahmoud, Cousin Ali and a couple of others from the Ajdabiya Group, the opposition and from the 1990 case were spared. They “witnessed” the execution from their cells by hearing the sounds.

Of course, memory plays a role.

I am not sure if my recollections… are accurate or if they have been affected by my state at the time. Either way, this is how I remember it.

At this point in the text he is referring pointedly to his meeting with Gaddafi’s son and entourage in London to enquire about his father but it is an observation that holds true for the entire narrative. Despite lobbying with the British government to help extricate information from the Libyan government about his father Matar was unsuccessful in finding out whether his father was alive or dead. He had become so desperate that at the height of the campaign he wrote a letter to Gaddafi’s son, Seif el-Islam, detailing the known facts of his father’s case and asking them to clarify his fate.

I was a desperate man, willing to talk to the devil in order to find out if my father was alive or dead. That was how I was then; I am no longer like that now.

The Return is about the loss of a father. A masculine text in that sense. Perhaps has to be, since it is wholly preoccupied with Matar’s search for his father. This is echoed throughout the book, as he invokes other renowned literary texts that focus on the father-son relationship, such as the one between Odysseus and Telemachus.

But it is also evident in, for instance, the way Matar refers to his mother, who is a big pillar of support to him and his brother, as “Mother”. She is introduced by her name only two-thirds into the book, when it is mentioned by a grateful Libyan whose family had been provided shelter by the Matars.

And yet Matar does recognise and acknowledge the invaluable contribution women make to surviving in a conflict zone, especially with their insistence on information from the authorities about missing relatives. This is a common feature of gendered participation in conflict and post-conflict zones. And it happened in Libya too.

…from 2001 onwards, mothers and wives began to camp outside Abu Salim prison, holding framed photographs of their sons and husbands. Their grief was never acknowledged. They kept growing in number, until the moment when a young human rights lawyer decided to defy the wishes of the dictatorship and take up the case of the families. When in 2001 he was detained, they all marched to the Benghazi courthouse to demonstrate against his arrest.

The Return is a heartrendingly painful but dignified memoir. It is disconcertingly beautiful.

Hisham Matar The Return Penguin Random House UK, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 280. Rs 599

4 July 2016 

Paul Kalanithi – ” When Breath Becomes Air”

When breath becomes air“…I found myself increasingly often arguing that direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them. Words began to feel as weightless as the breath that carried them. Stepping back, I realized that I was merely confirming what I already knew: I wanted that direct experience. It was only in practicing medicine that I could pursue a serious biological philosophy. Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action. ( p.43)

Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is an account of his being17856882._SY540_ diagnosed with cancer, the birth of his daughter, rediscovering religion (though his parents were Christian and Hindu) and his death, as narrated in an epilogue by his wife, Lucy. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful book written with surgical precision and an objective insight that only a doctor can possess. It comes across throughout the book but is evident when Paul Kalanithi is recalling a terribly acute back spasm he had while at a railway station. As he lay on the hard wooden bench to manage the pain he was reciting the name of every single muscle that was paining.  In Jan 2014 he wrote an essay for the New York Times called, “How long have I got left?” ( http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/25/opinion/sunday/how-long-have-i-got-left.html ) and it went viral. Subsequently he wrote/interviewed for Stanford Medicine in Spring 2014 called, “Before I go” ( http://stanmed.stanford.edu/2015spring/before-i-go.html ).

Paul Kalanithi was a voracious reader when he was a child. His father and his elder brother were doctors but when Paul applied to university, his first preference were the literature and history courses. But before leaving his then girlfriend in Arizona encouraged him to read a “low brow” book that she had enjoyed instead of the “high culture” reading he was constantly immersed in. This brow book influenced Paul considerably. It talked about the importance of the mind and the brain. After finishing the book, he browsed through the courses being offered at Stanford and began to explore some of the biological science classes too. He turned out to be an exceptional student who would survive the 88-hour week and more, plus study and remained top of the class. Unfortunately cancer intervened in the eighteen months of his residency. This put immense pressure on his marriage to Lucy who was also at Stanford. But despite the hiccups, Lucy and Paul were together through the first phase of his treatment. At this point he did not require chemotherapy as the cancer began to respond to the oncologist’s treatment. So much so, Paul returned to work a few months later, although on a lighter schedule. Within days he had returned to his full workload of surgeries and was in the OT every day. Unfortunately soon the cancer returned. This time far more virulently. He read his own scans at the end of a long day at work. Here is a very moving excerpt from the book published in the New Yorker on 11 January 2016 where Paul recollects his last day at work — “My last day as a surgeon”.  (http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/my-last-day-as-a-surgeon )

Paul Kalanithi with CadyPaul left the manuscript incomplete on his computer. He requested his wife to complete it. Lucy Kalanithi has written a heartrendingly poignant essay as the epilogue to the book. Like her husband, Lucy too is a medical professional, but there is marked difference in their writing styles. Unlike her husband who brings in his love for literature with his passion for medicine to write crisply and objectively, Lucy writes gently, calmly, but the pain at losing her much beloved husband is unmistakable. She completes the book by describing his last day, holding his eight-month-old daughter for the last time, the funeral, the memorial service and his grave. ( I was weeping by the time I finished reading the essay.) On 6 January 2016, Lucy Kalanithi wrote in the New York Times, “My Marriage Didn’t End When I Became a Widow”. ( http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/06/my-marriage-didnt-end-when-i-became-a-widow/) It describes some of the memories she recounts in the epilogue.

When Breath Becomes Air would be better seen as having been written by husband and wife. The tragedy that befell such a young family where the couple had promising careers ahead of them can only be experienced by reading the book in one sitting, reading/hearing Paul at first and then closely followed by Lucy’s voice grieving at the loss of a much loved husband, companion, friend, father, son, brother and surgeon. His memorial service in Stanford was attended by his family, friends, colleagues and patients.

I have often wondered what it must be like for a doctor to realise they are ill and their mind analyses, evaluates every stage while they are sick. When Paul kept prompting his oncologist for some idea of the realistic time it would require him to recover, she kept evading his question. At one point in the book he has an epiphany when he realises it is sometimes best to stop being a doctor and looking after oneself but be treated by others, instead of second guessing their treatment.

When Breath Becomes Air  is a very moving book and should be read by everyone.

( The images used to accompany this article are from the Internet. I do not own the copyright to them at all. If anyone knows who owns them, please let me know and I will acknowledge the source.)

Paul Kalanithi When Breath Becomes Air ( Foreword by Abraham Verghese) The Bodley Head, an imprint of Vintage, Penguin Random House, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 230 £ 12.99

1 February 2016

Nell Zink, “The Wallcreeper”

The WallcreeperNell Zink’s debut novel, The Wallcreeper, was published in 2014. (It has recently been followed by Mislaid.) The Wallcreeper is a slim novel, about Tiffany and Stephen who met when they were colleagues at a pharmaceutical firm in Philadelphia USA. They married within few weeks and relocated to Berlin, Germany. Tiffany learns, “I wasn’t a feminist. Even men in their seventies…would raise their eyebrows when I said I had followed my husband from Philadelphia to Berne and then to Berlin. I couldn’t come up with a step I’d taken in life for my own sake.” The Wallcreeper  is also about birding, open marriage, environmental activism and later, environmental sabotage too.

From the opening line of the novel you are hooked to the story. “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the marriage.” The novel continues in the same calm, confident, feisty and forthright tone. The former bricklayer and secretary, fifty-year-old Nell Zink was published for the first time last year at the insistence of Jonathan Franzen. She had written a fanzine to him a few years ago. Upon reading her prose that she began sending him regularly, he persuaded her to stop writing for an audience of one and consider a larger readership. Her debut novel, The Wallcreeper, had already been accepted by a small press called Dorothy that specialises in women’s writing. So Nell Zink’s second novel, Mislaid, was represented by Franzen’s agent and got Zink a six-figure advance. Both the novels have received a resounding reception in USA and are soon to be available in India too.

When you write for an audience of one, it is inevitable that the writing is imbued with a rawness and a sense of intimacy that is refreshingly confident. It a no-holds-barred style of writing. Surprisingly Nell Zink’s novels are churned out rapidly in a period of three weeks. They are well structured, with no flabbiness to the prose and bring in pithy observations on issues such as science, ethics, environment, feminism, freedom, the institution of marriage etc. On marriage, Nell Zink writes, “Marriage isn’t a sacrament. It’s just a bunch of forms to fill out. It either works or it doesn’t. Do what you want.” She is an eclectic and voracious reader judging by the literary references sprinkled throughout the novel. Otherwise how else do you account for a casual reference made yoking together Stanislaw Lem and The World of Apu in one paragraph? ( The World of Apu is a 1959 Bengali film drama made by noted filmmaker Satyajit Ray. It was based on the 1932 Bengali novel, Aparajito, by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay.) She writes as people would speak when sure that their statements are being made in confidence. The one-liners that are embedded throughout her story come across as off-the-cuff perceptive comments that seem to have been carried over from the spoken word onto paper and fixed. This probably occurs due to the speed at which she thinks and writes prose. It is an incredible form of writing.

The cover design for the book is stupendous showing a wallcreeper feather. Yet I cannot help but think the design is Burial Ritesvery similar to another fantastic debut novel, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

This profile of Nell Zink in the New Yorker by Kathryn Schulz published on 18 May 2015 is fabulous. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/18/outside-in . Some other links worth reading are:

Robin Romm, review of The Wallcreeper, NYT, 17 Oct 2014  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/books/review/nell-zink-wallcreeper-review.html?_r=0

From the Guardian, January 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/04/nell-zink-jonathan-franzen-clear-distinction-taking-career-seriously-writing-seriously

The Paris Review, December 2014:  http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/12/08/purity-of-essence-one-question-for-nell-zink/

An interview in  Vice, June 2015: http://www.vice.com/read/nell-zink-is-damn-free-585

A profile in The Literary Hub, May 2015: http://lithub.com/the-mislaid-plans-of-nell-zink/

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is not necessarily only for the story, but the style too.

Nell Zink The Wallcreeper Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2014. Hb. pp.168 

4 September 2015 

 

Toni Morrison “God Help The Child”

God Help the ChildI wasn’t a bad mother, you have to know that, but I may have done some hurtful things to my only child because I had to protect her. Had to. All because of skin privileges. At first I couldn’t see past all that black to know who she was and just plain love her. But I do, I really do. I think she understands now. I think so. 

Last two times I saw her she was, well, striking. Kind of bold and confident. Each time she came I forgot just how black she really was because she was using it to her advantage in beautiful white clothes. 

Taught me a lesson I should have known all along. What you do to children matters. And they might never forget. She’s got a big-time job in California but she don’t call or visit anymore. She sends me money and stuff every now and then, but I ain’t seen her in I don’t know how long.  ( p43) 

It has been more than a month since I read an advance proof of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child. Yet, I cannot get any of it out of my mind. Bride or Lula Ann as she was named at birth, is successful in the cosmetics industry. She is known for her beauty, enhanced considerably by her black skin contrasted by the sharp white garments she wears. As the designer she consulted for her makeover, Jeri, told her, “You should always wear white, Bride. Only white and all white all the time. … Just you, girl. All sable and ice. A panther in snow. and with your body? And those wolverine eyes? Please!” ( p.33-34)

Despite being a very successful professional, Bride as she prefers to be known, is haunted by her unpleasant memories of her childhood. For instance the innumerable instances of shadism or of child abuse such as witnessing the rape of a young boy by their landlord.  As an adult too she is abused and comes across other victims such as Rain. It is as if this cesspool of violence coexisting with “normal” life is a given. There is a moment when Bride ( innocently) hopes that she can “right” a “wrong” she did in her childhood with a repercussion she did not anticipate. While recovering from the episode, Bride decides to set off on a quest in search of her boyfriend, Booker, who disappeared from her life.

God Help the Child is a fine blend of all that is familiar in Toni Morrison’s novels and interviews. Her preoccupation with portrayal of women, Black culture and history, race and child abuse. Her fine expertise as a master craftsperson shows in the novel. There is a hint of magic realism in the storytelling along with the confident play of different narratives, juxtaposed in a manner that jolt the reader into realizing none of the narrators can be relied upon. Yet, every voice that tells their version of events is a strong personality. It is possible to envision the speaker, especially the women, clearly whether it is Booker’s elderly and kind aunt Queen, Bride’s mother Sweetness, ex-convict Sofia, or child prostitute Rain.  The ending of the novel is chilling with its disturbing note, ironically couched in circumstances that offer hope.

Toni Morrison began writing God Help the Child as a memoir a few  years ago, but abandoned it midway. She resumed working upon the manuscript recently as a work of fiction, deciding never to write her memoir. Instead of critically analyzing this literary fiction masterpiece threadbare, it may be worth considering the story as wisdom being shared by an 84-year-old woman who has packed in many lifetimes into one. It has a tired (but angry) tone of an elderly woman and an award-winning writer, who after having written 11 novels and edited many other well-known writers, marking her stamp as a formidable force in American Literature, sees little change in the modern world. The publication of this novel is timely when USA is preoccupied with issues of racism and riots such as the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland or that of 51-year-old Walter Scott in North Charleston. For Toni Morrison “Race is the classification of a species…and we are the human race, period. But the other thing – the hostility, the racism – is the moneymaker. And it also has some emotional satisfaction for people who need it.” In her NPR interview she makes it clear that her emphasis on Bride’s dark colour was to make the distinction from race, the preference and hierarchy for skin colour being a social construct and responsible for racism.

In a delicious interview where Junot Diaz interviews Toni Morrison at NYPL , December 13, 2013. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5kytPjYjSQ ), Diaz says that upon reading Song of Solomon at Rutgers University, “the axis of my world changed and never returned”. Eight novels later, it holds true with God Help the Child. Toni Morrison retains the magic to tell a story and making the reader think.

Read it.

Some links:

1. “Sweetness” by Toni Morrison New Yorker, February 9, 2015 issue ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/09/sweetness-2 ). This is the first chapter of the book, an extract published in the New Yorker.

2. Toni Morrison in the New York Times. “The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison” By RACHEL KAADZI GHANSAH,  APRIL 8, 2015. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/magazine/the-radical-vision-of-toni-morrison.html?_r=0 )

3. ‘I Regret Everything’: Toni Morrison Looks Back On Her Personal Life, NPR, 20 April 2015. ( http://www.npr.org/2015/04/20/400394947/i-regret-everything-toni-morrison-looks-back-on-her-personal-life )

3. A glowing review http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/19/god-help-the-child-review-toni-morrison

4. An ambivalent review http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/04/18/toni-morrison-spins-a-lame-fairy-tale.html

Toni Morrison God Help the Child Chatto & Windus, London, 2015. Hb. pp.180 £14.99

21 April 2015 

PubSpeak: Total Recall

PubSpeak: Total Recall

My column, “PubSpeak”, in BusinessWorld online focuses on the Wendy Doniger book controversy. Here is the url to it:   http://businessworld.in/news/economy/total-recall/1266222/page-1.html   . ) 

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose On 11 February, Penguin Books India reached a compromise drawn up in a Delhi Court that insisted it cease the publication and sale of American Indologist, Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History in India within six months. Dina Nath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samitri had filed a civil suit against the publishers to withdraw from circulation all copies. Given that Batra had filed the case four years ago and it was still subjudice, the news of this compromise spread like wildfire. Later that day, Doniger issued a press statement “I was, of course, angry and disappointed to see this happen, and I am deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate. And as a publisher’s daughter, I particularly wince at the knowledge that the existing books (unless they are bought out quickly by people intrigued by all the brouhaha) will be pulped. But I do not blame Penguin Books, India. Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book. Penguin, India, took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit. They were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece — the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardises the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book.”Wendy Doniger

PBI logoPenguin Books India released a statement on 14 February stating “a publishing company has the same obligation as any other organisation to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be. We also have a moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment where we can…. The settlement reached this week brings to a close a four year legal process in which Penguin has defended the publication of the Indian edition of The Hindus by Wendy Doniger. We have published, in succession, hardcover, paperback and e-book editions of the title. International editions of the book remain available physically and digitally to Indian readers who still wish to purchase it.”

What followed the announcement perhaps was only a natural outcome given the speed at which social media helps communicate information. There was public outrage at this development— newspapers, print, digital, and, of course, social media forums. A number of commentators, journalists, and even Penguin authors wrote passionately against Penguin Book India’s decision to destroy the book. Arundhati Roy in an open letter spoke of her distress and said “You owe us, your writers an explanation at the very least”. Nilanjana Roy, author and member of PEN Delhi wrote on censorship and how to remain free; Jakob de Roover in an outstanding essay “Untangling the Knot” discussed the complexities of governance, judiciary and free speech; journalist Salil Tripathi commented perceptively on the issue on many platforms ; Stephen Alter wrote, “Both as a writer and as a reader, I am deeply offended that anyone should dictate what I may read or write”; Penguin author and essayist, Amit Chaudhuri reiterated that “It’s important that the law protect all texts”; and Antara Dev Sen, Editor, The Little Magazine, wrote that the Indian Penal Code “Section 295A targets ‘deliberate and malicious acts (which include speech, writings or signs) intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’. In an age of identity politics and hurt sentiments, this has been used frequently by politically motivated people to stifle free speech. But back in 1957, the Supreme Court had ruled that only when there is a ‘deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feelings’ is it an offence under this law. Higher courts in India have consistently ruled in favour of freedom of speech and have protected books and people hauled to court under this law.”

In fact, two Penguin authors, Siddharth Varadarajan and Jyotirmaya Sharma, asked for their contracts to be terminated. Another Penguin author, Arshia Sattar (who has translated Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Kathasaritsagara from Sanskrit to English) expressed her dismay at the “complete capitulation” of the firm and how her “pride and that faith has been shaken…of being with a publishing house that protected its people and the books they wrote”.

A counter legal initiative perhaps was expected. According to the website, Legally India, advocate Lawrence Liang, part of the Bangalore-based Alternative Law Forum, has issued a 30-paragraph legal notice to Penguin India, claiming that the publisher has violated freedom of speech laws and readers’ rights by agreeing to destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus’. The notice sent on behalf of Liang’s clients, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Aarthi Sethi, argues that because Penguin has agreed to withdraw the book from India and destroy all copies, after a legal dispute with a religious group, it has “effectively acknowledged that it is no longer interested in exercising” its ownership in the work and should surrender its copyright to the Indian public. Sengupta is a Delhi-based artist and writer, while Sethi is an anthropologist with a “deep interest in Hindu philosophy”, according to the legal notice. Both are “avid bibliophiles” and were apparently “delighted” when Penguin published Doniger’s book, “and as people who have closely followed the scholarly contributions of the said author they regard this book to be a significant contribution to the study of Hinduism. They consider Ms Doniger’s translations of Indian classical texts and her work on various facets of Hinduism from morality in the Mahabharata to the erotic history of Hinduism as an inspiration for their own intellectual pursuits.”

At the recent Globalocal event (German Book Office, New Delhi’s annual B2B conference on publishing), a regional language publisher wondered if it was possible for any other publisher to option this book and publish it, after all it has not been legally banned in this territory. Echoing this sentiment, Shamnad Basheer, IPR lawyer, writing in Spicy IP, reflected upon the pros and cons of compulsory licensing, and whether it was possible if a publisher decides to stop publication, one could apply for a compulsory license.

Globally Penguin has been in the news related to their peripheral businesses and their merger with Random House. In 2012, Pearson PLC (of which Penguin Books India is a part of) acquired the self-publishing firm, Author Solutions, for $116 million. But in 2013, this deal soured as a number of disgruntled authors filed lawsuits against Author Solutions for its poor service. In the landmark case pertaining to ebooks and agency pricing, in April 2012, the US Department of Justice sued Apple and five publishers, including Penguin, for conspiring to raise prices and restrain competition. This was done after Amazon filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. In 2013, Penguin was obliged to pay $75 million. George Packer observes in the New Yorker, “an enormous sum in a business that has always struggled to maintain respectable profit margins”. On 1 July 2013, the global merger between Penguin Books and Random House was announced. It was a strategic alliance, forged as a response to the growing presence of Amazon in the publishing industry. The formation of Penguin Random House (PRH) has created a group that has 25 per cent of the market share. A merger comes at a cost of resources that have to be taken into account for the new firm to begin work on a strong footing.

In Oct 2013, Penguin Random House announced the completion of its purchase of Ananda Publishers Private Limited’s minority stake in Penguin Books India. It plans to invest Rs 55 crore or $8.6 million for this stake buy. As banker-turned-author Ravi Subramanian, with whom in June 2013 Penguin Books India signed a two-book deal worth an estimated Rs 1.25 crore (approx $210,700) wrote on his blog with respect to Doniger’s case, “publishing is a business”. For any firm, particularly in publishing, this is a lot of money being moved around its balance sheets.  Naturally the ripple effect of these financial adjustments will be felt even in the local markets—it is like conducting business in a global village where in the context of a globally contacted world, the minimum consumption that people desire is also influenced by what is going on elsewhere.

Similarly, with the Doniger case, Penguin Books India has probably taken an informed business decision, based upon a global strategy when it signed this deal on 11 February, in order to preserve a healthy English-language publishing market in India.

Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Penguin Books India, in a guest blog post in 2012 during the Banned Books week, had this to say: “Injunctions make things costly, time consuming, and take our energies away from the work we are really meant to do. And so we try and avoid them as much as possible. Apart from the fact that we don’t fight hard enough for them, I wonder whether it means we impose a kind of self-censorship on ourselves.”

Ironically this latest controversy broke exactly twenty-five years after the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie for his ‘Satanic Verses’ published by Penguin. At the time, his publishers stood by him and did not pulp the book. The fact is publishing is a business that is built upon the creative energies and emotions of people. India is also a functioning democracy. Freedom of speech is the right of every citizen. With the General Elections less than a hundred days away, the need for openness, frank conversations without any inhibitions, and certainly not a capitulation to any ideological position is imperative.

Scholar-journalist and historian Mukul Kesavan points out that that selling books is not like selling any other commodity. Publishers have moral responsibility and a publisher voluntarily agreeing to withdraw a book has previously been challenged with the case of James Laine’s book on Shivaji in 2007. Oxford University Press voluntarily agreed to withdraw the book. An FIR was issued against the publisher and printer of the book in Pune (one charge, under Section 153 A, was ‘inciting class hatred’) and the printer was actually arrested. When the case (‘Manzar Sayeed Khan vs State Of Maharashtra, 2007’) came up before the Supreme Court, however, the government of Maharashtra’s case against the author and the publisher of the book was found to be wanting. So, there is a precedent by the Supreme Court to rule in favour of free speech.

Nevertheless, the Wendy Doniger book controversy raises a bunch of issues pertaining to the publishing industry. Questions about legislation and the freedom of speech, what are the ethics involved in publishing, do readers and authors have a right that they can exercise, what does it mean for licensing, do possibilities exist in a mixed environment of digital and print publishing such as do readers have a choice?

Finally does this self-censorship by a publishing firm mean an inadvertent promotion for self-publishing, encouraging authors to be responsible for their books completely? Interestingly in a space of less than six weeks I have heard John Makinson, CEO, Penguin Random House and Jon Fine, Director, Author & Publishing Relations, Amazon talk about their publishing businesses and both have stressed upon the importance of discoverability of an author. This controversy could not have come at a better time for Doniger and even Penguin. They have achieved the Streisand effect whereby in an attempt to censor a piece of information, it has had the unintended consequence of publicising the information more widely. It has achieved what no PR could have—a boost in sales.

21 Feb 2014 

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