In Defence of the Writer
The recent Chennai High court judgment concerning the writer Perumal Murugan is a requisite addition to the Indian jurisprudence as it underlines the relationship between the writer and society, which has lately suffered from grave confusion.
Perumal Murugan was hauled up in the court of law for describing a cultural practice of Tamil Nadu through a novel Madhurobhagan, published in 2010 and translated as One Part Woman in English in 2013. The advocates of ban accused him of causing hurt and insulted him to the extent that he renounced writing and rightly declared himself dead.
The advocates of the ban of the novel failed to show a modicum of common sense that so long a book does not preach hate which incites or has the potential to incite hate and violence; it falls in the realm of creative freedom of a thinker and writer.
The determining power whether a book has caused or has potential to cause violence must remain with an independent judiciary in a democratic society, not with an unruly mob. Furthermore, a motivated crowd cannot first create mayhem and then say that a book has caused disorder or violence. That is what happened in Tiruchengode and surrounding areas of Tamil Nadu.
The Chennai High Court ruling has tried to foster the sensible assertion that a mob will not judge the merit of a book.
In a way, the Chennai High Court judgment has recaptured the spirit of the Supreme Court judgment in K.A. Abbas v. Union of India (1970) case. In that case the court had observed, “our standards must be so framed that we are not reduced to a level where the protection of the least capable and the most depraved amongst us determines what the morally healthy cannot view or read.”
In past too the books have been banned and writers treated unfairly. However, time has always proved them right. When Arthur Koestler wrote The Lotus and the Robot in 1960 it was immediately banned in India as it attacked ‘Bapucracy’ – a godly conversion of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who was put on too high a pedestal- in post independent India, much to the disbelief of the thinker.
The government of India considered Koestler’s ideas blasphemous and tried to shut his voice by banning the book. But Koestler must be smiling in his grave today as some of the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi are being snubbed in political governance of the country and others are questioned by the dalits and marginalised sections of the society who accuse him of patronizing them into disempowering silence.
Without learning from past , in 1988 the government of India banned Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Versesfor blasphemy on the insistence of those who may not have even read the book. Even though some people found the book blasphemous, banning the book was based on a flawed reasoning.
Doris Lessing, in preface to second edition of The Golden Notebook wrote that “a book is alive and potent and fructifying and able to promote thought and discussion only when its plan and shape and intention are not understood’’. She further noted that a book may mean different things to different people illustrating that her readers could not agree amongst themselves whether The Golden Notebook was about sex, war, politics or mental illness.
However, after the ban on The Satanic Verses, unruly crowd began to set norms of writing in the Indian subcontinent for the writers. Taslima Nasrin, noted Bangla writer, was hounded out of Bangladesh and later from West Bengal for writing Lajja (1993) describing plight of a family in a communal riot. It is telling that over two decades back Taslima Nasrin could foresee that the Bangladesh was moving towards violent religious fanaticism.
The writer is the conscience of a society. He/she has a deeper vision. Arthur Koestler calls him even a seer, who sees more than what the others can’t see. He is someone to point to the sore spot in a society not necessarily to advocate precise solutions for it. That is why it took a Nayantara Sahgal and Udai Prakash, to point out that, there is an atmosphere of intolerance in the contemporary Indian society. And one can safely vouch that it is a prevailing social experience and thinking.
The Chennai High court’s observation that if you do not like a book then shut it or throw it away, is a simple, civilized and legal way of dealing with a book. Banning the books and condemning writers is historically, politically and constitutionally unjustified. A society may insist doing so only at the risk of intellectual poverty, mental slavery and social regression.
Koestler, Arthur (1977): The Author Speaks: Selected P.W. Interviews 1967-76, R.R. Bowker Company, New York.
Lessing Doris (1972, second edition): The Golden Notebook, Harper Perennial, London.
Pushkar Raj is Melbourne based writer with an academic background in political literature. Formerly, he taught political science in Delhi University and was the national general secretary of PUCL.