On Reading and Publishing Controversial Literature

A version of this article was published in the April 2014 edition of Kindle Magazine.

In the last two months, two books by the American scholar Wendy Doniger have come under fire in India – The Hindus: An Alternative History published by Penguin India and On Hinduism published by Aleph Book Company. I have not read either book. Hinduism or Indology is not my area of expertise. I was born in a Hindu family, but a practitioner ¬or a member of the community is not the same as a scholar. Doniger has studied Hinduism to a much greater depth than me, as have Dina Nath Batra, her challenger. My opinion on either of their views on Hinduism itself would count as little more than the uninformed layperson’s opinion. However, there are certain ideas that surround the banning of the two books that do not entirely concern with the content of them. In this article, I will try to discuss a few of them.

The first idea is about freedom of expression. Should all ideas be freely expressed, encouraged and disseminated, irrespective of whether they threaten to hurt certain individuals or groups? The answer to this is not a simple yes, which, of course, is the premise on which conservative lobbies like Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti exist. Even the most liberal of us have topics we have reservations about. Most of us will be squeamish about the freedom to express works glorifying child pornography or rape. The same can be said for our stand on controversial scientific research; debates are strong on topics like human cloning or advanced research in weapons of mass destruction. Freedom of expression and enquiry in themselves are not an absolute ideal. The delicate dance between freedom of expression and the need to protect, conserve, leave alone what’s good has existed since the birth of human civilisation.

This brings us to the second idea of “what’s good”; and who it is good for, and who decides. In the case of the books by Doniger, it is Mr Batra and SBAS deciding they’re not good for Hindu culture and community. As we can all see, this immediately brings up a number of problematic questions, especially if you identify as Hindu. Do you accept Mr Batra as a spokesperson for yourself? Does the version of Hinduism you, your family or your community practises conform with Mr Batra’s (right-wing, upper-caste, chauvinist, nationalist) version of Hinduism? Have your sentiments been hurt by the existence of these books, one of which has been around in India for about four years and another for at least one? Obviously, the idea of “who it is good for” is not as simple as it seems.

Now to the third idea of “who decides”. Of course, major socio-political decisions are not made by each individual but a person or group of people acting on behalf of the individuals. In a democratic system, each individual member has the choice to some extent in selecting the people who represent them. Because India is a constitutional democracy, we can hope to vote away our political leaders if we dislike them. No such measure of control or transparency exists over religious leaders or moral guardians, who are nearly always self-appointed. They are not exactly law-abiding or answerable to law. As such they pose an unquantifiable threat, since we cannot predict exactly what they like or dislike, or which precincts they will not hesitate to violate for their convictions. They dismantle the very framework of democracy that allows them a voice and veneer of reason.

*

Much criticism has been aimed at Penguin India for giving up The Hindus too easily to the threat of SBAS. The voices have probably been harsher because it is Penguin ¬– part of the largest publishing conglomerate in the world (now Penguin Random House), besides being the publisher with an illustrious record of defending banned books, from Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence to The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Authors and intellectuals, most notably Arundhati Roy, have been shocked and offended by the apparent cowardice of Penguin India. What we forget when we make these accusations is that publishing is, eventually, an industry.

Certainly, it is an industry with a very unique position. Books, unlike cement or mobile phones or processed food, are a “cultural product”. They don’t just satisfy a physical or material need; they educate, instil opinion, construct taste. Cinema or music are cultural products as well, but they are accepted to be much more populist products than books. Even in their mainstream (i.e. most populist) avatar, books are perceived as more serious business than cinema or music, never entirely mere means of entertainment. Avid readers are a discriminating lot, always complaining about their more frivolous counterparts, always lamenting the erosion of quality or taste in reading as a whole; in a way that a patron of avant-garde cinema, for instance, does not identify with a person who enjoys David Dhawan’s films. The “literary field”, as Pierre Bourdieu calls it, is a space of very specific beliefs and proclivities.

Writing in the 1980s, Bourdieu correctly observed that profit in the field of cultural production is not a direct calculation of numbers. “Symbolic capital” is as important as economic capital, and manifests in such forms as prestige, authority and overall perception in the literary field. Economic profit can only be made by projecting a certain “disinterestedness” in economic profit – by publishing books perceived to be “good” even if they don’t return the investment made in them; by not publishing too many “low-quality” bestsellers that reduce the prestige of the publishing house; by propagating and supporting certain ideas, beliefs and notions perceived to be culturally valuable. But then, most “trade” publishing houses in the world are capitalist businesses ¬– i.e. they are sustained by their profits from sales and not by charity, public money, grants from individuals or larger institutions – so the interest in keeping an economic margin cannot be entirely dismissed. It is a very fine line to tread.

The line has become more elusive in the 21st century with the literary field having taken a serious blow from the spread of the Internet and the rise of major online businesses like Amazon, Google and Apple. While part of the literary field ¬– especially the discriminating readers and critics – remain as merciless as before, the publishing industry has diminished significantly in power and authority over the last decade or so. When we argue for the worldwide resources of a company like Penguin, we must also take into account the scale of challenges that such a company now faces worldwide. Publishers are no longer considered as sacrosanct as they were once. Increasingly, authors choose to bypass them entirely, self-publishing books that often become bestsellers and also receive literary appreciation, making their place in the literary field. On the Internet books are pirated more freely, or sold cheap at very little profit to the publishers. If nothing, the fact that Penguin has merged with Random House only a few months ago should tell us about the state of the company’s power in shaping culture in today’s world, as well as the state of the power of the publishing industry overall. If we have arrived at an age that relieves publishers of their role as cultural “gatekeepers”, we must also choose the option of either leaving the gates wide open or finding new means of gatekeeping.

The risks of such gatekeeping have also become incalculably high because of the unquantifiable threat of religious extremism, which has escalated through the second half of the 20th century and continues to the day. When Penguin UK decided to keep The Satanic Verses in circulation in 1989, no one had foreseen the scale of reaction that Ayatollah Khomeini’s injunction against the book would trigger. The fatwa – issued in a country different from that of the book’s publication and therefore not even legally tenable – resulted in book burnings across the world, bombing of bookstores, bans in twelve countries, life threats to the author and everyone involved in the production and distribution of the book and the assassination of its Japanese translator in his own country. Such an injunction, it is easy to see, cannot merely be countered with economic or even symbolic capital, such as one may demand a company like Penguin to invest. (Freedom of expression or the life of an innocent employee? You choose.) And while Hindutva extremists has not yet achieved the scale of global Islamic terrorism, one cannot perhaps rest assured today that they don’t have the willingness or resources to do so.

I will try to end on a positive note. The Internet, while it has dealt a serious blow to the traditional literary field, has also opened up new ways of communication and mobilization, and I wonder if some of these cannot be used to greater extent against censorship. Soon after Penguin India accepted the ban on The Hindus, someone put up a blog with links for the book to be downloaded, which soon went viral both among supporters and detractors (most of whom, ironically enough, had never heard of the book before). Two petitions on Change.org have collected more than 4,000 signatures. Articles and blog posts have been written; social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit have been abuzz with discussion on the subject. More people have read or talked about The Hindus in the last two months than the four previous years of its existence. I doubt that it’s ever truly possible to ban a book (or an idea) in the Internet age. But this is not the publisher’s war to fight. We can no longer depend on gatekeepers to herd us towards this moral direction or that – as a culture, we have outgrown that state of innocence. Let us ditch the clichés and look for new ways to exercise our freedom of expression. There has never been a better time.

 

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