Salil Tripathi Posts

Jaya’s newsletter 8 ( 14 Feb 2017)

It has been a hectic few weeks as January is peak season for book-related activities such as the immensely successful world book fair held in New Delhi, literary festivals and book launches. The National Book Trust launched what promises to be a great platform — Brahmaputra Literary Festival, Guwahati. An important announcements was by Jacks Thomas, Director, London Book Fair wherein she announced a spotlight on India at the fair, March 2017.  In fact, the Bookaroo Trust – Festival of Children’s Literature (India) has been nominated in the category of The Literary Festival Award of International Excellence Awards 2017. (It is an incredible list with fantabulous publishing professionals such as Marcia Lynx Qualey for her blog, Arablit; Anna Soler-Pontas for her literary agency and many, many more!) Meanwhile in publishing news from India, Durga Raghunath, co-founder and CEO, Juggernaut Books has quit within months of the launch of the phone book app.

In other exciting news new Dead Sea Scrolls caves have been discovered; in an antiquarian heist books worth more than £2 m have been stolen; incredible foresight State Library of Western Australia has acquired the complete set of research documents preliminary sketches and 17 original artworks from Frane Lessac’s Simpson and his Donkey, Uruena, a small town in Spain that has a bookstore for every 16 people  and community libraries are thriving in India!

Some of the notable literary prize announcements made were the longlist for the 2017 International Dylan Thomas Prize, the longlist for the richest short story prize by The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award and the highest Moroccan cultural award has been given to Chinese novelist, Liu Zhenyun.

Since it has been a few weeks since the last newsletter the links have piled up. Here goes:

  1. 2017 Reading Order, Asian Age
  2. There’s a pair of bills that aim to create a copyright small claims court in the U.S. Here’s a breakdown of one
  3. Lord Jeffery Archer on his Clifton Chronicles
  4. An interview with award-winning Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan
  5. Pakistani Author Bilal Tanweer on his recent translation of the classic Love in Chakiwara
  6. Book review of Kohinoor by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand
  7. An article on the award-winning book Eye Spy: On Indian Modern Art
  8. Michael Bhaskar, co-founder, Canelo, on the power of Curation
  9. Faber CEO speaks out after winning indie trade publisher of the year
  10. Scott Esposito’s tribute to John Berger in LitHub
  11. An interview with Charlie Redmayne, Harper Collins CEO
  12. Obituary by Rakhshanda Jalil for Salma Siddiqui, the Last of the Bombay Progressive Writers.
  13. Wonderful article by Mary Beard on “The public voice of women
  14. Enter the madcap fictional world of Lithuanian illustrator Egle Zvirblyte
  15. Salil Tripathi on “Illuminating evening with Prabodh Parikh at Farbas Gujarati Sabha
  16. The World Is Never Just Politics: A Conversation with Javier Marías
  17. George Szirtes on “Translation – and migration – is the lifeblood of culture
  18. Syrian writer Nadine Kaadan on welcoming refugees and diverse books
  19. Zhou Youguang, Who Made Writing Chinese as Simple as ABC, Dies at 111
  20. Legendary manga creator Jiro Taniguchi dies
  21. Pakistani fire fighter Mohammed Ayub has been quietly working in his spare time to give children from Islamabad’s slums an education and a better chance at life.
  22. #booktofilm
    1. Lion the memoir written by Saroo Brierley has been nominated for six Oscars. I met Saroo Brierley at the Australian High Commission on 3 February 2017. 
    2. Rachel Weisz to play real-life gender-fluid Victorian doctor based on Rachel Holmes book
    3. Robert Redford and Jane Fonda to star in Netflix’s adaptation of Kent Haruf’s incredibly magnificent book Our Souls at Night
    4. Saikat Majumdar says “Exciting news for 2017! #TheFirebird, due out in paperback this February, will be made into a film by #BedabrataPain, the National Award winning director of Chittagong, starring #ManojBajpayee and #NawazuddinSiddiqi. As the writing of the screenplay gets underway, we debate the ideal language for the film. Hindi, Bengali, English? A mix? Dubbed? Voice over?
    5. 7-hour audio book that feels like a movie: Julianne Moore, Ben Stiller and 166 Other People Will Narrate George Saunders’ New Book – Lincoln in the Bardo.
    6. Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson on creating those jaw-dropping visual effects

New Arrivals ( Personal and review copies acquired)

  • Jerry Pinto Murder in Mahim 
  • Guru T. Ladakhi Monk on a Hill 
  • Bhaswati Bhattacharya Much Ado over Coffee: Indian Coffee House Then and Now 
  • George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo 
  • Katie Hickman The House at Bishopsgate 
  • Joanna Cannon The Trouble with Goats and Sheep 
  • Herman Koch Dear Mr M 
  • Sudha Menon She, Diva or She-Devil: The Smart Career Woman’s Survival Guide 
  • Zuni Chopra The House that Spoke 
  • Neelima Dalmia Adhar The Secret Diary of Kasturba 
  • Haroon Khalid Walking with Nanak 
  • Manobi Bandhopadhyay A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi: A Candid Biography of India’s First Transgender Principal 
  • Ira Mukhopadhyay Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth & History 
  • Sumana Roy How I Became A Tree 
  • Invisible Libraries 

14 February 2017 

Tamil author Perumal Murugan stands tall, Bookwitty

(My article on Perumal Murugan and the magnificent judgement delivered by Madras High Court Chief Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul on 5 July 2016. It was published on the wonderful European literary website Bookwitty.com on 2 August 2016. Here is the original url: https://bookwitty.com/text/tamil-author-perumal-murugan-stands-tall/579a0b24acd0d01df04c6447 . As an addendum to the published article I am adding three very significant quotes provided by eminent historian Romila Thapar, lawyer Lawrence Liang and Prof. Venkatachalapathy. Unfortunately due to lack of space these could not accommodated in the original article. Read on.)

 

 

Last July the Madras High Court made a landmark judgement about a book that was under threat of censorship. This had led to its author leaving his home and ceasing to write. At the judgement, Chief Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul stated: “the choice to read is always with the reader. If you do not like a book, throw it away. There is no compulsion to read a book…the right to write is unhindered.” Using Biblical imagery he continued: “Let the author be resurrected for what he is best at, to write.”

It was the end of a two-year trial that was a sobering reminder of how easy it is to conduct a witch-hunt in modern times.

The author in question is the award-winning Perumal Murugan and the book is Madhorubhagan or One Part Woman, ( published by Kalachuvadu) set about a century ago in Tiruchengode, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Murugan, a teacher at the local government college, has a doctorate in Tamil Literature and is a highly respected chronicler on the Kongu region. One Part Woman is the story about Kali and Ponna, a childless peasant couple. It is an open secret that families on both sides are encouraging Kali to marry a second time, an idea he is deeply unhappy about. Meanwhile Ponna is persuaded by her family to participate in the Vaikasi Visakam chariot festival misleading her into believing that Kali would approve.

When the English translation by Anirrudhan Vasudevan was published, a growing buzz ensued because the crux of the novel focuses on a local practice that allowed for childless couples to participate in a carnivalesque gathering and on the 14th night have consensual sex with anyone under the cover of darkness. Children conceived on this night were considered to besami kodutha pillai or God-given children. This ancient tradition apparently had social sanction.

Ironically, the backlash against the novel began four years after it had been published in Tamil, demonstrating the impact a translation can make. It was the publication of the English edition that concerned the petitioners more for “a foreigner or people from other places who read this novelized history get a wrong notion that Tamil culture is lascivious and that a sexual orgy festival as portrayed in fact takes place in Arthanareeswarar Temple. The novel is thus alleged to be offensive and scandalous, and unless curtailed, would lead future generations to think that the events narrated in the novel are true.”

In late 2014 Murugan had just returned from a literary retreat in Bangalore where he had gone to work on the sequels to One Part Woman. A nightmare was to begin for him: abusive anonymous callers harassed him over the phone, accusing him of being a Christian, anti-Hindu, and anti-Kongu Vellar. A few days later, copies of One Part Woman were burned. Despite lodging a complaint with the police on the night of the book-burning incident, no action was taken. Muragan even issued a long clarification the next day explaining his art and promising to revise his text in all future editions and to scrub out all references to Tiruchengode.

But Hindu fundamentalists remained furious, arguing that Tiruchengode is a historical temple town and that writing about real places “relating it with unreal sexual orgy” is disrespectful to women, suggesting they are prostitutes. A ban of the novel was thus sought on three primary grounds: obscenity, defamation, and that it was derogatory and hurtful to the religious sentiments of the Hindus. A court case was filed against the author. Murugan fled with his family to Madras from where he issued his now famous “obituary”.

The case was then fought for more than a year in the Madras High Court.

In AR Venkatachalapathy’s article “Who Killed Perumal Murugan?” included in Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, an anthology on censorship and free speech edited by renowned poet K Satchidanandan, he writes that from a modern perspective Muragan’s description in One Part Woman of conceiving children may be considered exotic or even immoral but “Such practices are by no means unique. Any anthropologist would attest to similar practices in many pre modern societies with no access to assisted conception. Classical Hindu traditions refer to this practice as niyoga—it’s even termed niyoga dharma, an indication of its religious sanction.”

The recent Madras High Court judgement also documents how the hate campaign against Murugan included circulating eight pages extracted from the novel without any context. Furthermore, it lists sufficient literary evidence to prove many elements of One Part Woman are based upon folklore and older.

After the case was ruled in his favour, Murugan applied for a transfer back to the college where he had been teaching. And within three weeks his short story, Neer Vilayattu (The Well), newly translated by N Kalyan Raman was released for free by Juggernaut Books on their app.

Of the outcome, journalist and Chair of Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International, Salil Tripathi concluded: “The judgment is terrific in stating clearly what common sense should have dictated all along. This isn’t surprising; after all Sanjay Kishen Kaul had written the wonderful judgment defending the late M.F. Husain’s right to paint. That judgment, and this, together are part of India’s jurisprudence defending the right of any creative person to imagine and create art. After all, art challenges our thinking and may even offend; the way to deal with it is to respond by countering it through argument, through expression (and not violence or intimidation), and even by choosing to avoid seeing it or reading that book. What Husain experienced in his last years was tragic; it is good that Perumal Murugan has received justice – it is now for the state to defend his right to express himself freely.”

Perumal Murugan’s large-hearted response to the judgement was “I will get up. It is just that my mind wishes to spend a little time in the joy of this moment. My thanks to friends who stood by me. My thanks also to friends who stood against me.”

***

Here are what some of the eminent academics, lawyers, historians and journalists I spoke to said. The following quotes could not be accommodated in the original article but I have reproduced them for their significance.

Emeritus Professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, a Fellow of the British Academy and a recipient of the prestigious Kluge Prize of the US Library of Congress, Romila Thapar said “It was a good judgement in support of the right to freedom of expression for writers. It can also be quoted as a precedent in future cases involving attempts to silence writers. As has been pointed out by others, we as citizens must also create public opinion in support of free speech and not leave its defence only to the judiciary.

Prof Venkatachalapathy wrote“… it’s also worrying how everything hinges on the judge. A reactionary judge could have, in the same legal language, upheld all the charges against Perumal Murugan.” He went on to caution that non-state actors who enforce censorship do not respect such judgement so “while such judgments strengthen democratic and liberal forces we need to keep vigil.”

Lawrence Liang adds:

So I see the judgment as belonging to a series of very good high court judgments (some of which are also cited in the PM judgment) including the Husain judgment by Sanjay Kaul, Justice Muralidhar’s judgment in the Kabir case (Srishti Design School)- all of which provide relief in the specific instance, while laying out a wider jurisprudence of free speech for future cases. The reason I point out to the fact that this is a high court decision is that we often rely only on Supreme court decisions (by nature of their binding value) and often in the  terrain of free speech, a lot of the SC judgments were laid down in the fifties and sixties. Further they were large benches which makes them difficult to overrule, so lower courts have to maouevere their way around the thicket of bad precedents.
In the specific case of the PM judgment
1. The court dismisses the argument of causing offensive to communities and explicitly states that any kind of contrarian opinion is met with the accusation that it offends
2. The court recognises the chilling effects principle (laid down in Shreya Singhal) by acknowledging harassment of writers as a threat to free speech
3. The court uses the idea contemporary community standards in concluding that the work is not obscene
For all the reasons cited above, it is a very welcome addition to free speech jurisprudence, and had there not been relief in a case like Perumal’s where an author was driven to the point of relinquishing writing, it would have been both a legal as well as grave literary injustice if the courts did not respond in adequate measure.
3 August 2016

 

 

Salil Tripathi, “Detours: Songs of the Open Road”

Detours( Noted London-based Indian journalist Salil Tripathi’s third book, Detours, is a collection of his column/essays on travel writing. This book is meant to be savoured. I was able to read one, maximum two, essays at a time. There was so much to absorb and appreciate in each essay in terms of the rich cultural experiences, the noises, colour, smells, details about the landscape, socio-political characteristics of the places he visits at that particular time with some history deftly blended in. Every single element seems to have his attention for detail. For instance, each chapter heading is carefully selected, it is appropriate for what follows in the essay but also resonates with the reader at many levels. It is rare to find such craftsmanship in a book today. Salil Tripathi has been a man of letters for some decades giving him immense practice in relying upon words to share, comment, dissect and analyse an experience but he does so without ever being dull. So reading Detours is infinitely pleasurable since not for a second does one miss the lack of photographs, sketches or any other form of illustration to support the travelogue. Just focus on the man and his words. This is armchair tourism at its finest!

I am posting an extract from the introduction reproduced with permission from the publishers.) 

As I started working on the essays, I looked back at the great travel writing I had read—Mark Twain, Eric Newby, Salil TripathiPaul Theroux, Ian Buruma, Pico Iyer, and William Dalrymple are among the writers through whose words I began to look at the world differently. I had also read many entertaining accounts, of an American or British writer abroad—like S J Perelman or George Mikes—and enjoyed the tragicomedy that followed. But getting off the beaten track and travelling on roads not taken to reach quieter places seemed so much more enticing. I also read many accounts of the outsider looking in at India, the western gaze trying to make sense of the mysterious east. Mine was an attempt to look at the world through Indian eyes—not as if it was an empire-striking-back, for that would be too presumptuous: how can anyone born in India claim to speak on behalf of a billion people? Rather, mine would be an attempt to look at the world through a sensibility that had been shaped by India and later tinged by other cultures.

I hadn’t left India until 1975 when I was still thirteen, on a tour organised by my school to Nepal. In 1979 I spent a few weeks in Scotland on a student exchange programme. In 1983 I went to the United States to study and returned home in 1986. I moved abroad in 1991, when I left for Singapore, and then in 1999, for England. Each journey affected in some way how I saw the world. My work—as a correspondent first, and later, as a researcher/advocate for human rights organisations—has taken me to fifty-five countries (including India). I’ve learned something new from each visit; I’ve made lasting friendships in many cities and towns around the world. It is impossible to write down each experience. This book attempts to reveal the world I have seen.

The book is divided into three parts: War & After, Words & Images, and Loss & Remembrance. The first section, War & After, deals with places that have been deeply affected by armed conflict or have had human rights challenges—Bogotá, Jakarta, Berlin, Yangon, Mostar, Phnom Penh, Cape Town and Johannesburg, Singapore, Lagos, and Istanbul. In the next section, Words & Images, I write about places that I have understood better because certain writers or artists have made those places more vivid: Bombay (now Mumbai), Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Nairobi and Naivasha, Arusha and Kilimanjaro, Granada, Valparaiso and Isla Negra, Kyoto, Srimongol and Shilaidaha, Shanghai, and New York. The third section, Loss & Remembrance, is the most personal; it is, in a sense, about Karuna Sirkar, my wife who died in 2006. I have written about the places I had travelled with her in the two decades we were together, or where I could feel her presence on later visits; or the places where I went with my sons Udayan and Ameya after her passing, as the three of us tried to pick ourselves up to understand the meaning of our shattering loss: Ludlow and Proctersville, Collioure, Geneva, Stockholm, Venice, Beachy Head, Ålesund and Oslo, and San Francisco.

Salil Tripathi Detours: Songs of the Open Road Tranquebar Press, an imprint of Westland Ltd., 2016. Hb. pp. 380. Rs. 695 

16 Feb 2016

A. C. Grayling “The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times”

A C Grayling3 May is World Press Freedom Day.

3 May 2015 is also when the unfortunate hashtag #GoHomeIndianMedia is trending on Twitter. The people of Nepal are hugely disappointed with the journalists from India covering the horrendous earthquake. Ironically they seem to have support from many others across the Indian subcontinent. For instance, http://scroll.in/article/724851/your-media-are-acting-like-they-are-shooting-a-family-serial-nepalis-trend-gohomeindianmedia .

Later this week, on 5 May 2015, PEN American Center will be honouring the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo with the PEN/ Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. It has resulted in six prominent authors dropping out of the PEN Gala, with more than 145 authors distancing themselves from the event. The six authors are Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Taiye Selasi, Teju Cole, Francine Prose and Rachel Kushner. Many opinions have been offered in the press. For instance, Andrew Solomon, President, and Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director, of PEN American Center wrote on 1 May 2015, “Why we’re honoring Charlie Hebdo” ( http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/02/opinion/why-were-honoring-charlie-hebdo.html?_r=0); Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, 30 April 2015, “PEN Has Every Right to Honor Charlie Hebdo”   (http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/pen-has-every-right-to-honor-charlie-hebdo ); Masha Gessen in Slate.com on 1 May 2015, ““Paying Attention and Paying Respect Is All That Writers Can Do: Why PEN is right to honor Charlie Hebdo.” (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2015/05/pen_and_charlie_hebdo_why_the_foundation_is_right_to_honor_the_magazine.html) ; Katha Pollit in The Nation on 30 April 2015 ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Deserves Its Award for Courage in Free Expression. Here’s Why.” ( http://www.thenation.com/blog/205897/charlie-hebdo-deserves-its-award-courage-free-expression-heres-why); Salil Tripathi, Writer and former co-chair, English PEN Writers-at-Risk Committee wrote about the courage it takes to write without fear and importance of freedom of expression. ( http://www.pen.org/blog/courage-continuing); Garry Trudeau’s speech in The Atlantic, 11 April 2015, “On the abuse of satire” ( http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/04/the-abuse-of-satire/390312/);  Susan Bernofsky on 1 May 2015 in Translationista”Why I signed the PEN protest letter” ( http://translationista.net/2015/05/why-i-signed-the-pen-protest-letter.html) and Joe Sacco in the Guardian on 9 January 2015, “A response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks” ( http://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2015/jan/09/joe-sacco-on-satire-a-response-to-the-attacks).  

Closer home, in India, we have for the past eighteen months had innumerable instances of muzzling of voices, authors such as Perumal Murugan, being coerced in such a manner that he has vowed to give up writing. Here is an excellent speech given by noted historian Romila Thapar on religious sentiments and freedom of expression, published in the Hindu on 13 March 2015, “The Real Reasons for Hurt Sentiments” (http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-real-reasons-for-hurt-sentiments/article6987156.ece). Like him, there are many more sad examples.

In this context it is worth reading a brilliant essay, “Free Speech” by British philosopher A.C. Grayling. I am reproducing extracts of it below but the entire essay can be read in A. C. Grayling “The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times”, published by Bloomsbury. Many of the essays originated in places as various as Prospect magazine, the Guardian, Observer, Times, New Statesman, New York Review of Books, talks on the BBC, chapters in edited collections, and elsewhere. Unfortunately there are no dates given for the published essays, so it is impossible to gauge the time they were written in. Yet, the essay under discussion seems pertinent even today. 

…though liberty is indivisible, regimes of liberties have a structure. The keystone of the arch is free speech. Without free speech one cannot claim other liberties, or defend them when they are attacked. Without free speech one cannot have a democratic process, which requires the statement and testing of policy proposals and party platforms. Without free speech one cannot have a due process at law, in which one can defend oneself, accuse, collect and examine evidence, make a case or refute one. Without free speech there cannot be genuine education and research, enquiry, debate, exchange of information, challenges to falsehood, questioning of governments, proposal and examination of opinion. Without free speech there cannot be a free press, which although it always abuses its freedoms in the hunt for profit, is necessary with all its warts, as one of the two essential estates of a free society ( the other being an independent judiciary). Without free speech there cannot be a flourishing literature and theatre. Without free speech there are limits to innovation and experiment in any walk of life. In short and in sum, without free speech there is no freedom worth the name in other respects where freedom matters.

The principle of freedom of speech promiscuously allows bad free speech, ranging from the stupid to the malicious and dangerous. If it is genuinely dangerous to life, as for example in direct incitement to murder, it invites a case-specific limitation. But generally the remedy for bad free speech is better free speech in response. In the case of libel and slander there is, as an instance of this, the post facto remedy of the courts. True, malicious mud-slinging is damaging even if a libel action is won, but free speech does not come free, and in a mature society we have to recognise that benefits carry costs, and this is one of them. So vital is free speech to the health and liberty of a society that the plea of ‘feeling offended’ by what people say about one’s choices and beliefs is not and can never be a reason for limiting free speech…. .

…The assault on free speech is well under way: it is the time for defence of it to get well under way too. ( p. 172-174)

A.C.Grayling The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times Bloomsbury, Great Britain, 2015. Pb. pp.300 Rs499

( This blog post was updated on 4 May 2015 to include a few more links on Charlie Hebdo.)

#GoHomeIndianMedia

#GoHomeIndianMedia

Kiran Nagarkar, “Bedtime Story”

 
Bedtime Story coverDraupadi: You have all gone stark, raving mad. You’re going to share me just because Mummy said so? And you expect me to turn myself into a five-day roster to please you? I’m supposed to divide myself into five portions? Listen to me, Arjun, and listen well. If I stay here, I stay as your wife, not as the mistress of five brothers. Are you coming with me or aren’t you?  ( p. 38) 
 

Kiran Nagarkar’s Bedtime Story is a play in four acts. Each  of the acts is based on a well-known episode from the Mahabharata. These are of Eklavya cutting off his thumb for Dronacharya as guru dakshina; the swaymvara of Draupadi where every suitor had to try and shoot an arrow in the eye of a fish overhead that revolved from a high pole — not looking at the target directly but at its reflection in a cauldron of oil; the infamous dice game where the Pandavas lost their kingdom to the Kauravas and they attempted to disrobe Draupadi, if it were not for Krishna who miraculously restored her garments to save her from shame and finally, on the eve of the battle between Kaurava and Pandavas, when Lord Krishna preached the doctrine of dharma to Arjuna which is enshrined in the most famous of Hindu texts, the Bhagvad Gita. This last act also has a conversation between Gandhari, mother of the Kauravas and Krishna.

Bedtime Story was written soon after the Emergency ( 1975-77), but it has been published for the first time, thirty-seven years later in 2015. The first time there was an attempt to perform it was actor and theatre director Dr Shreeram Lagoo. As Kiran Nagarkar writes in the introduction:

He [ Dr Lagoo] realized that the play was provocative and controversial material. He invited all the experimental theatre groups in Bombay for a reading in 1978 because he wanted the whole amateur theatre movement behind the play. In the meantime, the play had been sent to the censor board for certification, as the law in Maharashtra demands. It came back with seventy-eight cuts, some of them a page long, so that barely the jacket-covers were left. Eminent academics, M.P. Rege, Pushpa Bhave, and a couple of others argued the case for Bedtime Story at a meeting of the censor board. Many of the excisions the board demanded were risible ( e.g. drop the names of the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi), some questions did not make any sense (e.g. why are you distorting the original myths?). I must admit I was hoping that the board would have at least some members from the Marathi literary elite who would have understood the thrust of the play. But I soon realized that I was deluding myself. The board was convinced that the play was a stain on our culture and needed to be severely sanitized. …When the director of the play finally got a letter from the board, the cuts had been reduced to twenty-four. But by then almost all the actors had withdrawn from the rehearsals because fundamentalist Hindu parties and organizations in Bombay, as it was known then, threatened the director, producer, actors and me, and even the first rehearsal was not allowed to take place. It helped enormously that none of these vociferous guardians of our culture had read Bedtime Story. ( p 6-7) 

The play was finally staged in 1995 by Rekha Sabnis’s theatre group, Abhivyakti, directed by Achyut Deshingkar. But it ran for only twenty-five performances. “The actors had such fun with the firecracker dialogue and the energy within the play and the difficult questions it raised that they pooled their money and revived the play two years later, this time in Hindi, and it had a few more performances. Sometime later, Vasant Nath staged the play in Cambridge, UK, and at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh.” ( p.7) Noted journalist, Salil Tripathi wrote an excellent piece in The Mint about his first encounter with Bedtime Story. ( Salil Tripathi, “When Kiran Nagarkar said the unsayable” 28 February 2015, Live Mint, http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/2izXvQjOpQm0hFGPz0vdIK/When-Kiran-Nagarkar-said-the-unsayable.html)

I first came across Bedtime Story in 1982. The Emergency was still fresh in our minds, and the collapse of the Janata administration in 1979 and the triumphant return of Indira Gandhi in 1980 had chilled the mood, crumbling the illusion that the Janata years had represented, of being the harbinger of a cultural renaissance. Nagarkar’s play was drawn from the Mahabharata, “the living epic in the subcontinent”, as he describes it, because the epic became the “medium to drive home my point about the malaise from which most of us suffer: apathy.” The play shows how the good guys—the Pandavas—are weak and subject to human follies, and the bad guys—the Kauravas—are no better. The choice is between dark and darker. …. 

I saw the play in 1982—or heard it, that’s more like it—at a private reading at the home of Rekha Sabnis, the actor (her group Abhivyakti would later stage the play, directed by Achyut Deshingkar in 1995, and it would have a limited run of 25 shows). But that Sunday morning at Sabnis’ home, we were spellbound as she read the script, along with writer and artist Manjula Padmanabhan, researcher Tulsi Vatsal, and Nagarkar himself. I was young then, fresh out of college, but I realized what it must have felt like in Eastern Europe, where samizdat performances of cutting-edge, political plays took place just that way. I wrote about it a week later in the now-defunct Sunday Observer.

Even though it is the twenty-first century, it is commendable this play has finally been published, given as Romila Thapar points out that India is, “…a highly patriarchal society such as our present-day society”. ( Romila Thapar, “The Real Reasons for Hurt Sentiments”, 13 March 2015 http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-real-reasons-for-hurt-sentiments/article6987156.ece ) In the recent past there have been innumerable instances of attempts censor literary works that can only be attributed to plain bullying by fundamentalist groups and the muzzling of free speech by powers that be, actions that are unacceptable in a thriving democracy like India. 

A play like Bedtime Story must have been revolutionary in its ideas when it was first presented in the mid-1970s. All though in 1975 the first Committee on the Status of Women in India had brought out the path-breaking report on the condition of women in the country, Towards Equality: The Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, written by legendary feminist-activists such as Vina Mazumdar and Latika Sarkar.  Yet the notion of having women in the play like Draupadi and Gandhari questioning the men’s actions and asserting themselves, rather than meekly accepting decisions made on their behalf could not have gone down easily with many people in 1970s. All the women portrayed in the play come across as strong women, who are on an equal footing with the men. The men, whether they are princes, kings or even gods, are strong too, but have their fair share of faults too. Such ideas continue to generate a debate among men and women, but at least these ideas are no longer uncommon or unheard of. Plus, after the hugely commercial success of books such as Chitra Divakurni’s Palace of Illusions, a fabulous retelling of the Mahabharata from the point-of-view of Draupadi, a play like Bedtime Story will be more than acceptable to the reading public. All though the recent furore over the telecast and ultimately imposing a ban of Leslee Udwin’s documentary, “India’s Daughter” shows that these patriarchal notions  of how much space, identity and freedom can a woman be given are deeply entrenched in this society, it will be a long while before the idea of equality between men and women become reality in India.

Bedtime StoryIt is befitting then that the first launch of this book was by noted feminist-activist-publisher, Urvashi Butalia in New Delhi on 11 March 2015, three days after Women’s Day.

Buy this book now. Who knows, a few months or years down the line Bedtime Story will be banned again. We live in uncertain times. If it comes to pass that this play too is pulled off the shelves, it will not be the first time. Just as was done with Perumal Murugan’s novel, One Part Woman, which was withdrawn by the author after being intimidated by fundamentalists, nearly two years after the English translation and four years after it had been published in Tamil. And many other authors/texts in recent Indian publishing history.

Buy it also for the fantastic dust jacket. It is stupendous. The cover concept is Kiran Nagarkar’s and the cover design is by Prashant Godbole.

Kiran Nagarkar Bedtime Story and Black Tulip Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Noida, India. Hb, pp. 300. Rs. 695 

16 March 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 

<strong>Mind your words: Who decides what we should read?</strong>

Mind your words: Who decides what we should read?

Mind your words: Who decides what we should read?

The Jaipur Literature Festival 2012 did not slink by unnoticed. It is a literary extravaganza which reaches out to the masses, rather than being reserved for the upper echelons of society or the intelligentsia. Everybody is welcome to mingle and rub shoulders with the glitterati of literature. It is easy to spot Gulzar, along with Tom Stoppard or as this year proved, even Oprah! The one event that overshadowed the entire festival and its rumbles continue to be heard even now, was the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s presence — will he, won’t he come was the question on everyone’s lips. What were the legal repercussions for the four writers—Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil, Hari Kunzro and Ruchir Joshi — who attempted to read out passages from Satanic Verses? When it was finally announced that Rushdie will not attend in person, but will address the gathering via a video conference, it was little consolation. But then that too was scuttled, leaving a fuming Rushdie having to address a television audience later that evening, via a link up with NDTV.

Curiously the ban on Satanic Verses is a customs ban that does not allow the book to be imported into the country. The larger question then left for everyone to tussle with – was this a form of censorship? Are we not at a liberty to read what we like? Do we have the freedom to read what we like? Or shall there be those who sit in judgment upon what we can or should not read? Questions that are not always easy to answer. It has spawned various forms of protests, signing of online petitions to most notably “flash reads” which included reading passages from works on 14 Feb – the day, 23 years ago, when the fatwa against Rushdie was announced. Plus a day in that has in recent times become synonymous with the harassment inflicted upon young lovers by vigilantes, based upon the absurd argument that Valentine’s Day is a Western intrusion upon Indian culture. According to Salil Tripathi, one of the participants of flash reads, it was organized “at different locations in five cities, Bangalore, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi, about a hundred people—readers, writers, artists, engineers, lawyers, professionals, students, and consultants—came with sheets filled with words and ideas that someone somewhere wanted suppressed. We were at Lodhi Gardens, on the bridge overlooking the duck pond, in the shadow of the ruins of another era, where writers who defied the state and those in power often met a ghastly end.”

But bear in mind the reception to a book in different countries. In Germany, more than sixty years after World War II is over, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a banned text. It is not available in bookstores. If anyone wishes to read it, it can only be accessed by special permission, providing a valid reason, from a library. Unlike in India, where for many years it is a bestseller. It is always amongst the most popular titles in pirated editions, and only recently has begun to be visible in bookstores. It is available in English and other regional languages.
Today, India is the largest democracy in the world, but it is also considered to be a large book market, with a voracious appetite in print and electronic formats and in any language, not just English. Controversies like those surrounding Satanic Verses open larger debates like pertaining to censorship, how far can one go without hurting the religious sentiments of another group, the impact of such an action on institutions and of course being responsible for the consequences of one’s action — is it to be those who are the catalysts of such change or the festival that inadvertently provided a platform for these readings? With the Internet, many of these bans become counter-productive as exemplified by Oscar-nominated director Ashvin Kumar who uploaded his latest film, Inshallah, Kashmir: Living Terror, on 26 Jan 2012, within 24 hours, he struck 50,000 views. In Dec 2011, it was estimated that India is the third largest Internet user population in the world, with over 120 million users. So it is ironical there is such a hullaballo around Satanic Verses being read in public, since the entire text is available online.

(This article was first published in Books & More, April-May 2012, p.58

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing and literary consultant. She may be contacted at jayabhattacharjirose@gmail.com Her twitter handle is @JBhattacharji