Stephen Alter - The right of the reader

Where is the political, judicial leadership to stand up to attempts to silence the writer?
It is hard to believe that one could feel sickened by the simple act of taking a book off a shelf. But when it means that this book is going to be shredded and pulped, the consequences make my stomach turn. If self-appointed custodians of faith and culture can use outdated laws to intimidate publishers and silence a writer, it is time for us to ask whether India, as a modern democracy, has the kind of political and judicial leadership that can make these irrational attacks a thing of the past. Surely, there are much more important issues in our country than protecting the feelings and sensitivities of fringe groups who are afraid of honest scholarship and discourse.

Dina Nath Batra, convener of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, has successfully forced Penguin Books India to withdraw and destroy Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. He claims that her book is “written with a Christian Missionary Zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in poor light”. Though I have never had the pleasure of meeting Doniger, I know for sure that she is not a Christian missionary. And nobody dedicates her career to interpreting classical works, as she has done, with the intention of ridiculing the very traditions she reaffirms and celebrates. As a translator of Sanskrit texts, from the Rig Veda to the Kamasutra, Doniger has done an enormous service to Indian literature and philosophy by making these texts accessible to contemporary readers of English, many of whom live right here in India today.
Most troubling of all is the fact that isolated passages in a book can be twisted into controversial claims that are usually exaggerated, almost always inaccurate and invariably motivated by ignorance rather than any genuine concern for cultural integrity. India is too great a country to be dragged down by voices of prejudice and defensive alarm. Whose sentiments are really being hurt? Are we going to stagnate as a culture that continually touches the feet of intolerance? Are we going to surrender our ideals of free speech to a limited number of individuals who happen to have the time on their hands to file frivolous yet malicious lawsuits against legitimate authors, all in the name of dogmatic purity and pious sanctity? Surely, our many gods, if they are as omnipotent as many of us believe, can easily defend themselves against occasional blasphemies and heretical critiques? Why do human devotees need to intervene on behalf of immortal deities, who can destroy the world in the blink of an eye or create the cosmos in their dreams?
Much has been made of Doniger’s focus on sexuality in Hindu tradition. She is accused of perverse and prurient interpretations of ancient stories, art, rituals and beliefs. Yet I remember reading her masterful translation and commentary on the Kamasutra, co-translated with Sudhir Kakar, and thinking that this was one of the first renditions that elevated it above the level of archaic porn and exotic smut. Dozens of other crass rip-offs of Vatsayana’s classic, mostly available in airport bookstores, reduce it to a level of vulgarity that might titillate a curious adolescent but hardly shocks anyone above the age of 16. So, let’s get over our inhibitions, please, particularly when it comes to erotic mythology. Coital metaphors, whether they motivate demons, kings or Bhakti saints, lie at the heart of our human yearnings.
In an age when books are already threatened by new technologies that promise to digitise our words and disperse them throughout cyber space, it is remarkable that so much anxiety and anger is expended over ink on a page.  When I read about attacks like these, against perfectly balanced and commendable books, I believe that in addition to the annual Padma awards, which bestow the glory of the holy lotus on those who make India proud, there should be a parallel set of awards for others who bring shame to the nation. With all due respect, I propose that the “Besharam Booti” awards be given to individuals who vandalise good literature, alongside corrupt politicians, odious godmen, match-fixers and other specimens of human depravity.
A religion and a culture that has flourished for more than three millennia does not need apologists or champions of orthodoxy. Those who take offence at academic and literary freedom are only demonstrating their own intellectual inadequacies. Both as a writer and as a reader, I am deeply offended that anyone should dictate what I may read or write. As an author born in India, and after living here for most of my life (albeit with a name that, like Doniger’s, marks me as a foreigner), I am fully aware that some readers may be suspicious of my knowledge and approach to subjects such as the mythology of the Ganga, the religious significance of elephants in India or even Bollywood films. But I am also fully aware that nobody is being coerced into purchasing and reading Doniger’s writings or mine.  Penguin books cost good, hard-earned money and if you do not like them, you can save yourself several hundred rupees by simply leaving them on the shelf for someone else to buy and read.
Alter is the author of 16 books of fiction and non-fiction. He lives and writes in Mussoorie

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