deepad: black silhouette of woman wearing blue turban against blue background (Default)
[personal profile] deepad
Before going off to the Jaipur Literature Festival, I had joked about wanting to heckle Salman Rushdie but deciding that avoidance was the better part of valour. Of course, once I reached the festival, the man's name became almost impossible to avoid, since the event was overshadowed by the controversy of his non-attendance.

I was able to escape the larger part of panels being hijacked so that solidarity could be displayed via soapbox by focussing on the Indian language-centric panels. Nonetheless, I ended up watching Ruchir Joshi and Jeet Thayil read out loud from Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, an act for which they were later 'uninvited' from the festival. I also sat through an otherwise delightfully moderated panel by S. Anand, where he read another little bit from Rushdie, and then called out the festival's organisers for their 'pusillanimity'. Namita Gokhale, one of the two festival directors 'happened to be passing by', and interrupted the session to make a defence of their policies, leading to an interjection from Nilanjana S. Roy from the audience, and a few minutes of entertaining, if completely off-topic, exchanges about whether those authors were really 'told to leave'. (Last year Namita forbade an author from reading anything 'scandalising'.)

The hoopla culminated on the last day with a last-minute cancellation of Rushdie's video chat, leading to an impromptu panel discussion that I ended up catching the tail-end of. Watching Tarun Tejpal, Shoma Choudhury and Javed Akhtar all dogpile Salim Engineer was one of the most distasteful public events I've had the displeasure of witnessing. (Then again, I wasn't there when protesters apparently shoved school kids off their chairs, which would have been intolerable to be a silent witness to.)

Depending on which hyperbolic end of the spectrum you prefer, the imbroglio was either proof of 'the cravenness of our literary culture' or a sign that 'India cannot call itself a democracy'.

Personally, I thought it was a microcosm of the cognitive dissonance between the (relatively) privileged and the (relatively) oppressed. No category is absolute or impermeable, of course; to have death threats publicly uttered against you is an act of oppression. And yet, Salman Rushdie has lived in relative affluence, his physical safety ably defended by the nation-state of his choice. His body bears not a single mark of violence inscribed on him as punishment for his words. Amitava Kumar and Hari Kunzru removed their bodies from any threat of incarceration by flying out of Jaipur and India to their homes in the U.S. the morning after. (It is worth noting that state action against novelists and fiction writers in this country as been restricted to book banning. Journalists and non-fiction writers have had to deal with the charges of sedition, spying, and terrorism being thrown at them.)

Meanwhile, in a panel titled 'Creativity, Censorship and Dissent', moderator Shoma Choudhury assumed that poet Cheran was from Tamil Nadu, and after he corrected her, did not even bother to apologise for her mistake. To put this into context, Cheran is a Sri Lankan Tamil poet living in exile, who talked about his workplace in Sri Lanka being bombed, and called out the Indian government as complicit in the Sri Lankan Tamil genocide, despite the repercussions it might have on his getting a visa to India the next time around.

In the same panel, the Tamil writer Charu Nivedita talked about living in Tamil Nadu where no publisher would print his works, while they achieved acclaim only in Malayalam and English translation. He wrote a play called Midnight Sun which some self-appointed censors found so offensive that they physically attacked the production of it. Charu Nivedita lost a couple of his teeth in the attack.

There was another session called 'Prison Diaries'. Iftikhar Gilani, Anjum Zamarud Habib and Sahil Maqbool--all Kashmiri Muslims who had been imprisoned under false charges by the Indian government, and who had written chronicles of the ordeal. All were tortured. By the police, that state-approved arm of the democratically elected government whose protection was sought for so stridently by the organisers of the JLF.

There were other panels, like the 'Dissent and Democracy' one where journalist Dayamani Barla talked about the police harassment she faced, or the 'Ardha Satya: Kuch Ankahi Kahaaniya, Maowaadi Guerilley aur Bhartiya Ganrajya'* panel, where Kavita Srivastava, Rahul Pandita and Neelabh Ashk brought up the ongoing case of Soni Suri--an adivasi school teacher. The Indian government rewarded the police officer responsible for her sexual torture in custody with a gallantry award on Republic day.

There are people in this country who can measure freedom by how much energy, inclination and ability they have to still speak out after the State--representative of the majority of the Indian citizenry--has chosen violence to physically silence them.

There is this horrible game we can play, a flip-side of oppression olympics, which is--you have one brief moment to make your point. To speak in front of readers and reporters. Which cause do you choose? Whose words do you choose to turn into your symbol? By adding your power to a spotlight, what other people get relegated to the deeper darkness of non-discussion?

There were so many words spilled over the Rushdie row after Jaipur that I thought there was no point in adding my own. But then I saw Nilanjana S. Roy had posted a call to observe 14th February as flashreads for free speech.
THE IDEA: To celebrate free speech and to protest book bans, censorship in the arts and curbs on free expression
WHY FEBRUARY 14TH? For two reasons. In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa [on that date] ordering the death of Salman Rushdie for writing the Satanic Verses. In GB Shaw’’s words: “Assassination is the extreme form of censorship.”
February 14th or Valentine’s Day has also become a flashpoint in India, a day when protests against “Western culture” by the Shiv Sena have become an annual feature. In Chandigarh, 51 Sena activists were arrested by the police after V-day protests turned violent in 2011. Our hope is to take back the day, and observe it as a day dedicated to the free flow of ideas, speech and expression.

As totemic binaries go, Valentine's Day vs. right wing religious fundamentalists is just about as irksome as Salman Rushdie vs. right wing religious fundamentalists. I saw Valentine's Day being cooked up in India as I was growing up along with Archie's Gallery and the desire to market greeting cards; it's an festival imported by capitalist marketeers that is embarrassing in its conspicuous display of materialistic measurement of heterosexual conventional romantic relationships.

Of course no one should be stoned for wanting to flaunt pink heart-holding teddy bears. (Of course, Salman Rushdie should not be threatened by bombings of his hotel.) It's just a little wearying, though, to be asked to make Valentine's Day a symbol, when having a conversation about gay rights, or honour killings, or polyamorous relationships, or marital rape with the average person who wants to buy a greeting card for their sweetie is an exercise in verbal violence more often than not. And Salman Rushdie, defender of rapist Roman Polanski and U.S.'s war against Afghanistan, advocate of declaring Pakistan a terrorist state, and disparager of all post-colonial vernacular writing is hardly a poster child for the virtues of a self-righteously unrestricted tongue.

One of the posters designed for flashreads has a quote by Salman Rushdie: "Free Speech is the whole ball game. Free Speech is life itself."

The hubris of such a sweeping statement does not appeal to me, not when people are fighting to liberate their bodies from physical violence, not when they weigh their words against the impact it will have on their life, and choose silence, or obfuscation, or tempered disagreement because they know that death of words is not actually the same thing as death of a living, breathing body, whether that is of a loved one or one's own.

And equally, when we talk about intolerance, how integral to the philosophical discussion is the problem of what we tolerate, and why? Nilanjana's post cites some texts that are legally banned by the central government of India, but also texts like Rohiton Mistry's Such a Long Journey and A. K. Ramanujan's Three Hundred Ramayanas that have been removed from college syllabi. I vehemently disagree with the arguments put forth for their removal. But when we start talking about whether a book should be taught when it spreads ideas we think are harmful...

Well, in that case, let me bring up the end of the 'Afropolitans' panel at JLF, where Ben Okri and Teju Cole had a heated debate about how to deal with the terrible legacy of canonising Heart of Darkness. Teju Cole wanted to just stop talking about the book, whereas Ben Okri was passionate about the need for criticising it and verbalising the harm it was doing. It was a great discussion, fierce and articulate and important. And then when the floor was opened up to audience questions, one lady made a comment about how she had been teaching Heart of Darkness for years, and was still moved to tears every time by how wonderful it was, and how dare they disparage it like that.

And oh god, the violent desire in me to see that book consigned to the dustbin of history, to have it deliberately unread until it disappears, to never again have to hear anyone, most especially an Indian-origin author like Rohinton Mistry cite that book, of all books, as something a book-censoring bigot should read "in order to consider the options: step back from the abyss, or go over the edge".

For the past couple of weeks Nambe Pueblo literature academic Debbie Reese has been blogging about a law passed in Arizona, USA that has led to books being banned from school curricula. It's depressing and infuriating to read about how white fears about being termed racist can morph into forbidding Mexican-American literature. I began following Debbie Reese's blog, though, because of how dedicatedly she deconstructed books about Native Americans that were written by white writers, and how clearly she spelt out the damage caused to children who were taught those books. I have never thought of her as someone who would advocate a legal or state-enforced ban on a book. I would assume her, however, to be deeply sympathetic to the 'censorship via socially-agreed selection' argument, where parents, teachers, librarians, book reviewers, readers, determine to not read or promote a book that they find ideologically harmful.

Censorship is not the appropriate word, actually, for this sort of thing, for the swathe of negatives that range from my saying "don't read this, you're going to hate what they do to the dog", to my school library buying tonnes of Gerald Durrells and P. G. Wodehouses but not a single Katha or Sahitya Kala Akademi translation, to YA editors making writers remove 'controversial' references to condoms, to publishers rejecting a manuscript for being 'good but unsellable', to livejournal kink memes setting up rules about the sort of content they will forbid. Neither is intolerance a good word for non-violent expressions of disgust, outrage, or contempt.

Of course, I am against physical violence, and the threat of it, being used to silence writers and their words. But equally, I cannot talk about absolute freedom of speech without talking about the ideological and cultural violence that books and the words within them have done, and are doing, and will continue to do unless we resist them (with verbal violence alone).

By serendipitous chance I saw that the 14th of February was also being promoted as International Book Giving Day. Book blogger Amy Broadmoore who came up with the idea, says:
Last year, [my son] Jack (with the encouragement of my brother) invented book giving day because he wanted an exciting holiday to celebrate between Christmas and Easter. Last year, Jack picked out books for friends and family members, and he received a couple from his grandparents. This year, recognizing that we are blessed with books, we are making the holiday about getting books in the hands of kids who don’t have books.[...]While I am waiting for final approval, it sounds like we will be having a book drive at the church to collect books to donate to Books for Africa.

Ah yes. The benevolent white USian church ladies who feed the starving children in 'Africa'. From the book donation guidelines at Books for Africa and The Book Bus, it seems that there is a pressing need to send books written in English and published in the U.S. and U.K. thousands of miles across to those deprived, needy children, though nothing says that maybe what those books say about race, and class, and nationality and normativeness is really important to think about.

I've known what it's like to be yearning for books, but I've also known what it is like to yearn, while surrounded by books, for ones that represent people like me. I can't speak for the child I was, but the adult I am is happy to have not been exposed to some of the more virulent books I know about now, back then when I was more desperate and less discerning.

There was a family friend who visited each summer from the U.S. and who left behind books he had finished reading. His generosity came with an ease I envied; parting from books was painful for me, given that I acquired maybe one or two new ones a year, as the birthday gifts my brothers and I spent agonising hours picking out. I tried to reciprocate so as to establish an equality between us, and I remember how proud I was to pass on books by Sigrun Srivastava and Subhadra Sengupta--books that were not available in his country. When I gave him my well-read copy of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I felt such a sense of validation at being able to give a book that was GOOD, and about INDIANS and set in MY WORLD to that sophisticated reader from abroad (and with a pretty cover and affluent First World print and design quality). It remains my favourite among the Rushdie books I have read, though I admire Midnight's Children and enjoyed Ground Beneath Her Feet.

This friend was the one who gave me a copy of The Satanic Verses. I was very much the rebellious teenager when I got it, and I took the thick, paperback copy with me on the train from Delhi to Pune, hoping to be challenged for my daring act of reading a banned book, and prepared to defy all challengers with the romantic zeal of a wannabe hero. To my disappointment, it seemed that I was alone in my taking note of the titles of books people read around me. Later on, as I lugged the book around my grandparents' house, I discovered that no one cared.

When I read the plot summary of the book now in preparation to writing this post, I was surprised by how much I had forgotten about the book. It was not terribly memorable, though in part that was the fault of having read it a trifle young, without literary context to grasp all the themes, or appreciate some of the nuances. What I do remember with vividness though, is reading, almost 10 years later, Martin Ling's biography of the Prophet Mohammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, and being shocked by how much fantasy I had assumed to be fact due to unquestioningly accepting the Mahound narrative in Rushdie's book.

It's not Rushdie's fault or responsibility that growing up in a Hindu-dominant culture reading mostly English, I had not been exposed to any writings about early Islam and the Prophet's life. Nor is it his fault that while cultural osmosis around me gave me sympathetic factoids and apocryphal anecdotes and reverent narratives about Krishna and Buddha and Mahavir and Nanak and even Jesus, so that I could understand how they fit into the context of religious veneration--the anti-Muslim bigotry around me was insidious and pervasive enough so as to strip any such dignity or familiarity away from Mohammad.

I was lent Martin Ling's book by a Muslim friend at a time when I was just beginning to unpack how very communal and anti-Islam the default culture around me was. We discussed The Satanic Verses briefly; it was an emotional experience for him to try to explain his dislike of it. I am better equipped to empathise now, after having been exposed to how a wider world chooses to talk about and treat the gods and mystics that matter to me.

I defend the rationality of being offended by a misrepresentation of what one holds sacred. I defend the right of those in the marginalised, threatened or oppressed position in a hierarchy to challenge and question and reject those ideas and stories that reinforce the injustice being done to them.

But no matter how much value I may want ascribed to non-physical violence--be it economic, ideological, legal or cultural--I do not wish to downplay my rejection of physical violence. In the hours it has taken me to write this, I scroll up and compare my knee-jerk irritation at the JKF Rushdie imbroglio to the aching empathy I felt for Rashid in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, exiled from the source of his stories. Free speech and its consequent debates around book banning, censorship and the like is one thing. But bodies imprisoned or exiled because of threat of violence, translators stabbed, defenders beaten**--this is wholly more absolute injustice.

I consider the written word sacred enough that though I have felt the desire to do damage to a book, I could never imagine ripping, or burning or physically harming even the most loathsome text. How much more sacred then, is even the most antagonistic human soul, the source for those words, enshrined in a fragile and totally irreplaceable body.

A banned book may be resurrected to be argued with or reinstated, a dead person cannot be.

For all my reservations, minor and major, with the various champions of these various causes, I don't want my doubts and disagreements to negate my fundamental support of people speaking out against what they (and I) see as injustice.

So here - for #flashreads (and International Give a Book Day):
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (free epub readers)
For historical context, read:
Mohammad: His Life Based on Earliest Sources by Martin Lings (epub, mobi, pdf, html, txt)
For literary perspectives, read:
Notes for Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses by Paul Brians (html)

Also, here is Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation by A. K. Ramanujan, the essay that was dropped from Delhi University's Ancient India course readings.

Finally Lihaaf, a short story by Ismat Chugtai, was banned in 1944 under charges of being obscene.
Here's the story in Urdu, in Hindi, and in English translated by Syeda Hameed or by M. Asaduddin.
Here is the author's account of her trial: An Excerpt from Kaghazi Hai Pairahan (The “Lihaf” Trial) by Ismat Chugtai, translated by Tahira Naqvi and Muhammad Umar Memon.

Dear Reader, she won.

Inshallah someday we might be able to say that for more of the people who choose to fight with words against those who would silence them with weapons.

*Not all the session videos are up at the JLF website. I find it suspicious that the more controversial ones are missing, but have no information regarding their absence.
**This article has a huge anti-Islamic bias, but it was the closest I could find to a source with some citations.

(no subject)

Date: 14/2/12 12:17 am (UTC)
dolores_crane: Harry and Snape looking happy with text 'OTP' (Default)
From: [personal profile] dolores_crane
Thank you for this post. I'm writing a book on reading (I'm actually reading DW to procrastinate from planning the chapters out) and this was a very timely reminder of what's important.

(no subject)

Date: 14/2/12 12:30 am (UTC)
willow: Red haired, dark skinned, lollipop girl (Default)
From: [personal profile] willow
have fever. just wanted you to know that I read, and took note of the links for later. and have thought about 'shunning' for books and ideas, etc (social purposeful ignoring vs 'censorship') etc.. Aka the other side of free speech (ie, the response to it).

Am a little woobly right now though.


(no subject)

Date: 14/2/12 01:32 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] nh4ever
Never do you give an answer, but oh how well you make me see the other side!
“I could never imagine ripping, or burning or physically harming even the most loathsome text. How much more sacred then, is even the most antagonistic human soul, the source for those words, enshrined in a fragile and totally irreplaceable body.”
p.s i was looking for the 3 hundred and the martin lings :)

(no subject)

Date: 14/2/12 01:42 am (UTC)
kate_nepveu: sleeping cat carved in brown wood (Default)
From: [personal profile] kate_nepveu
Thank you; in particular I have dl'ed Lings' book.

(no subject)

Date: 14/2/12 03:08 am (UTC)
lilacsigil: 12 Apostles rocks, text "Rock On" (12 Apostles)
From: [personal profile] lilacsigil
Thank you for this post, and the reminder of who gets hurt in the fight for "free" speech.

I have DLed the Lings book (I have it in hardcopy but my vision is making e-reading the way to go for me at the moment.)

(no subject)

Date: 14/2/12 05:32 am (UTC)
la_vie_noire: (Jean-Clare)
From: [personal profile] la_vie_noire
Thank you! Great post.

(no subject)

Date: 14/2/12 05:44 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] sajia_kabir
Thank you for an amazing post.

(no subject)

Date: 14/2/12 06:53 am (UTC)
aris_tgd: Wheelchair Ballroom, text: "Dance" (dance)
From: [personal profile] aris_tgd
Just want to add to the chorus of "thank you for this".

(no subject)

Date: 14/2/12 09:22 am (UTC)
fightingarrival: (Default)
From: [personal profile] fightingarrival
thanks for this.

(no subject)

Date: 14/2/12 02:42 pm (UTC)
marina: (Default)
From: [personal profile] marina
Thank you for this post.

(no subject)

Date: 14/2/12 03:39 pm (UTC)
dorothean: detail of painting of Gandalf, Frodo, and Gimli at the Gates of Moria, trying to figure out how to open them (Default)
From: [personal profile] dorothean
Thank you so much for writing and posting this.

(no subject)

Date: 14/2/12 04:44 pm (UTC)
kairia: Castiel, a character from Supernatural, smiling with his eyes closed (Castiel - bent and broken)
From: [personal profile] kairia
Thank you for this post especially the Three Hundred Ramayanas and the Urdu version of Lihaaf.

(no subject)

Date: 14/2/12 05:18 pm (UTC)
al_zorra: (Default)
From: [personal profile] al_zorra
Another one here thanking you for the link to Ling's book.

Also for your account of a major book festival in a nation not my own, the issues and the authors, how these are perceived by your/themselves, rather than reported from the "outside."

Love, C.

(no subject)

Date: 14/2/12 09:24 pm (UTC)
phosfate: (Bollocks! Hamster)
From: [personal profile] phosfate lady made a comment about how she had been teaching Heart of Darkness for years, and was still moved to tears every time by how wonderful it was, and how dare they disparage it like that.


(no subject)

Date: 15/2/12 11:11 am (UTC)
thedilettante: (coat and hat)
From: [personal profile] thedilettante
Did our entire row facepalm in tandem at that moment? I thought you were trying to crawl under your chair at one point.

(This is Aishwarya, btw. Hello!)

(no subject)

Date: 16/2/12 09:20 am (UTC)
thedilettante: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thedilettante
Whereas I don't have your email address! Sigh. I will demand it of one of our mutual friends.

(no subject)

Date: 14/2/12 09:43 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Malyali? Malayalam would have been fine! At least MalAyali.

(no subject)

Date: 15/2/12 12:41 am (UTC)
metonymy: Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, smiling. (Default)
From: [personal profile] metonymy
Thank you for this post, and for the links.

(no subject)

Date: 15/2/12 10:10 pm (UTC)
bossymarmalade: rose petals falling on crowd in rajasthan (grant me this boon)
From: [personal profile] bossymarmalade
Chiming in as usual. *g*

I think we've talked in the past about the varying levels of "insider status" attributed to books with Indian themes depending on if they're written by sourcelanders or diasporans, and this essay -- the direct overlay of books upon bodies, and the words contained therein -- really adds another set of dimensions to that notion. How our bodies/books, sourceland and diaspora, are used to speak against and negotiate with oppressions and violence; how our bodies/books represent us (that broad, general, marginalized "us") to the privileged, to the colonizers. The anxiety behind sending those bodies and books out into the world, because what we find so precious might be seen as worthless by white people.

As always, you gave me lots to think about.


deepad: black silhouette of woman wearing blue turban against blue background (Default)
Deepa D.

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