The first was the book called The Hindus: An Alternative History from Penguin Books India, published nearly four years ago. I hear that the organization called Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti has been campaigning to pull it down ever since then, and in February 2014 they succeeded. SBAS (and its representative Dina Nath Batra) has promptly gone and petitioned against On Hinduism, another book by Doniger, this time published in India by Aleph Book Company. Not being in India, not even being at any particular city centre where conversation about Indian writing goes on (say London), not having any particular resource into the Indian publishing scene any more, besides having been physically ill for a long time, I have not participated actively in the discussion. More knowledgable, more experienced people were speaking, so I kept quiet and read. I also read a lot of comments by the public on the Internet – in the comment section of the Change.org petition, on Reddit and other places. Someone also put up The Hindus for download on a blog, making it accessible for everyone who wanted to read the book before they talked about it.
I downloaded the book from the blog but haven’t managed to read it. Hinduism is not my area of scholarship. I was born into a Hindu family and haven’t changed my religion, but most of my knowledge about Hinduism come from mother and grandmother, the occasional temple visit, a Sunday column on the Mahabharata written by Nrisinghoprosad Bhaduri in Bartaman in the late 1990s… all in all, nothing that makes it an expert opinion. Reading one book out of the blue wouldn’t have made my opinion relevant in any larger scheme of things. I may be Hindu, but I’m not an expert on Hinduism. Notice the difference.
Who is an expert on Hinduism that you should listen to? Unlike people under different sects of Christianity or Islam, most Hindus I know seem to be brought up under very different traditions. Wedding rituals vary in detail from family to family, besides varying widely from community to community, usually to gentle confusion and overall amusement. In Calcutta, where I grew up, no one was vegetarian, not even the Brahmins. (Pledging to sacrifice a goat at Kalighat if a wish was fulfilled was quite a common practice among the faithful.) We all gave aaroti at Durga pujo – the biggest religious event on the calendar – and we all did Lakshmi pujo and Saraswati pujo at home. Some of my friends’ parents also did Biswakarma Pujo at home, and Ganesh pujo during Haalkhata in April, but my mother had explained to me that you only did those if you were into business, for Biswakarma was the god of craft and Ganesh presided over industry. (Both of my parents were into professions.) That was Hinduism enough for them, and for most people around whom I grew up. They never thought of themselves as anything but faithful Hindus. Growing up, I never felt encouraged to defy Hinduism, proclaim atheism or any other kind of thing that the conservatives decry. We were conservative, even though that was not the primary agenda of our lives.
This is the reason why I have always felt profoundly alienated by the uniform model of Hinduism that has steadily grown in strength over the last couple of decades. These radical, adrenaline-dripping, violence-threatening men in saffron. (In my childhood, the only men in saffron around were the monks of the Ramkrishna Mission, who ran schools and charities. The only ‘role model’ in saffron was Swami Vivekananda, who seemed to have written more or less reasonable things.) This whole controversy about the Ram Mandir, these demands for an apparently idealistic Ram Rajatya. (Ram was not even a deity we actively worshipped in Bengal. I’ve never stepped into a Ram Mandir.) These TV shows that build such huge deals out of Karva Chauth or Shiva Ratri, neither of which I have seen any of the women in my family celebrate, even though they were sufficiently religious and devoted to their husbands, probably to extents that a feminist wouldn’t approve. The condescending vegetarianism, the refusal to even touch a utensil that a non-vegetarian has eaten in. The caste distinction. This Hinduism has very little to do with my Hinduism. How much does it have to do with yours?
I can’t say I like The Hindus or any of Doniger’s work, not even read her ever. There is very little definitive that I know about Hinduism. I’m not sure if there is much definitive to know. If I judged solely by what my family has taught me, hey, even not giving aaroti at Durga pujo is offensive. (That’s the first step towards atheism, don’t you know?) But we don’t get offended if our friends from other communities don’t follow rituals that are absolutely essential in ours. We didn’t get offended by The Immortals of Meluha, filled with so much inaccuracy about history and religion, and read by such a large number of people who were gullible enough to take its narrative for truth. (This might not have been the author’s plan or intention, I agree.) Surprisingly, nor did these purveyors of eduction and religious correctness. On the other hand, how many of us had read The Hindus before this controversy broke out, even though it’s been around for nearly four years? How many of our religious feelings have been outraged? How much enmity promoted between different groups on the grounds of religion, etc?
You see, it’s really not a concern with the quality of a book, or the amount of misinformation in it, or the extent of its possible impact. That’s not the concern of the bringer of the petition, and that shouldn’t be yours when you choose to respond to it. It’s not about whether you like or dislike a certain book. It’s about resisting people who call it their right to dictate other people’s actions. If you’re not absolutely similar to those people (as most people in India, even Hindus, are probably not), one day they may object to one of your beliefs, and then you will be required to get rid of it. How would you like to stop eating your meat? What if one day Durga pujo or Pongal is declared to be incongruous with ‘mainstream’ Hinduism? (Kali pujo has already fallen out of favour. Everyone celebrates a sanitized, vegetarian, laddu-eating kind of Diwali now; there isn’t much craze for that dark, bloody, rapidly exoticizing form of goddess worship.) Section 377 has been reinstated. Raped woman are being officially accused of ‘having asked for it’. Is it so difficult to see the country fast being driven into a kind of militant, hardlined ‘Hindu’ dark age? Is it so far-fetched to be afraid of it?
The other conversation about Wendy Doniger’s books has been how easily the publishers have yielded to the threats. Both Penguin Books India and Aleph Book Company have withdrawn the books, without going to court or standing up to the threats in any other way. Criticism has been levelled especially against Penguin, which has a glorious history of supporting its controversial books, whether it was Lady Chatterley’s Lover or The Satanic Verses. A couple of years ago (and obviously on a different context), Chiki Sarkar, the publisher of Penguin Books India, had issued a statement about banned books. According to her, in India it’s possible for anyone to bring an injunction against a book, and from any part of the country, which would be effective nationwide; and which makes it that much harder to fight them.
I somewhat understand where Chiki is coming from. Book-publishing over the last decade or so has become a far more difficult business than it used to be. The cultural authority of publishers has diminished a great deal. This whole matter is another can of worms, but suffice it to say that increasing literacy, Internet and social media access mean that a lot more people today find it possible to call themselves authors, experts, critics, publishers etc without having arrived through the conventional channels. This makes the mix much more democratic, which means it also adds a lot of factors – both positive and negative – which makes it several times more complicated. Penguin Books India publishes more than 200 books a year. Aleph publishes fewer, but its parent company Rupa publishes nearly as many. As physical commodities, books are fragile, inflammable, easily destructible in several ways. Both companies have to depend on mass-market sales to survive, and the mass market is easily influenced by populist Hindu nationalism. The profit margin of books is low. Publishing houses, even the large ones, are nearly always short on manpower. Where are the time, money, people to fight these difficult legal battles?
It’s not as if legal battles were easier in an earlier generation. But they were somewhat more tenable because they still added to the image of the publishing house, and image was the cultural capital that converted to profit. These days, when the biggest profits of Rupa possibly come from the sales of Chetan Bhagat and the biggest profits of Penguin Books India possibly from Ravinder Singh, that old theory of cultural capital does not strictly hold true. (In simpler terms, the people who spend the most money on these publishers’ books are probably not the same people who would like to see/support the publishers in fighting for Doniger’s books. What’s worse, they may even lose some of these buyers if they choose to stand by her.)
On the other hand, I wonder if this wide reach of the social media can’t be used to the greater good in more innovative ways. We have already seen how more people downloaded and read The Hindus last month than they did in the last four years of its existence, even as Penguin Books India was recalling stocks from the bookstores. As of today, the Change.org petition has over 4,000 signatures. If each of these signatories could be persuaded to contribute a small amount of money – if we crowdsourced the funds, if one or more people with the legal expertise volunteered their time and skills – would Penguin or Aleph agree to contest these injunctions? Could that be done?