She Says

Why not reading a book is a better form of protest than banning it

Freethinking invites critical evaluation.

 |  She Says  |  5-minute read |   08-12-2015
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It is hard to imagine a life without books. From gestation to death, books always remain in close vicinity of an individual, not only as instruction giving tools but also as the means to enlightenment. Without differentiating, they guide as well as serve. Books are the reservoirs of knowledge, questioning and free thinking. Reading is by far the simplest and the most effective way to develop free thinking.

The problem arises when people try to measure freedom of expression. How much of one's expression is free? Perhaps till one’s expression and its mode remain within the boundary that society and law has created, one can consider oneself as free. Digress a little and bam! You are challenged, or in the worse case, banned.

Few days back at the Times Litfest, former finance minister, P Chidambaram said, "I have no hesitation in saying that the ban on Salman Rushdie’s book was wrong." In October 1988, under the Rajiv Gandhi government, India became the first country to ban Rushdie's Satanic Verses for its blasphemous references. Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa against Rushdie, ordering Muslims to kill him. While the succeeding government no longer supported his killing, many scholars and writers in India suffered a different fate. M M Kalburgi and Narendra Dhabolker weren’t as lucky to survive.

The politics of ban is rooted in practicality. A government finds it easy to subdue one voice than to handle hundreds and thousands of people outraging against it. Sometimes the anger against the writing and the writer turns violent, disrupting peace and harmony. Anything that poses a threat to the smooth functioning of the law and order in the state is nipped in the bud. The government also gets to score brownie points by banning a book that offends a particular section of the society thereby generating a vote bank for future elections. All and all, it turns out to be a lucrative venture.

Like Satanic Verses, The Hindus: An Alternative History, by Wendy Doniger was banned for portraying Indian gods in a humorous manner. Understanding Islam through Hadis, by Ram Swarup was found harsh towards Islam. The Ramayana, as told by Aubrey Menen was banned for satirising the Ramayana. Rangila Rasuls publisher was murdered for bringing out a book that spoke of Prophet Muhammad’s relationship with women. These books are a fine example of how religious fanaticism strangulates freedom of expression. Does any religion in the world have a cover so huge that can stifle imagination?

Also read: 8 most controversial quotes from Wendy Doniger's The Hindus

When writers sits down to write, what should they do? Keep the thoughts flowing onto the page or set filters in the mind that would immediately keep out words that might be labelled as "blasphemous". By this logic, writers should keep several filters to their use, keeping the religion filter and the sex filter on high priority. But will it do justice to imagination and freethinking?

Like religion, books considered sexually explicit are targets of being challenged or banned. Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D H Lawrence is the first book that comes to mind. Banned on the grounds of obscenity during the British rule, it is still banned even after the Britain lifted the ban in 1960.

Sexuality does not come from the body, but from the mind. And like most other traits, it is relative. What is sexually explicit for one, might be perfectly acceptable another. Erotica as a genre is in the ruins. (When I say erotica, I do not mean pornographic content). The nation that gave the world Kamasutra cannot allow readership of books that have one of the most natural aspect of the human body and mind- sex.

Apart from religion and sex, we also have a range of taboo subjects. Homosexuality, incest, filicide, matricide and patricide are only a few names.

Ever thought if Plato had put those sexual filters while writing in The Symposium that the highest form of love is the one that procreates ideas and such love could never be found in heterosexual alliance? What if Euripedes had put a filter that prevented him from writing Medea? What if Sophocles never wrote The Oresteia, the tragic trilogy based on which Carl Jung postulated The Electra complex in psychoanalysis? What if Shakespeare never wrote the sonnets for his homosexual lover?

Too much would have been lost. The treasure is preserved because the writer dared to think beyond "the normal" and in doing so redefined what is normal and acceptable for both the writers and readers. It is the "normal" that needs constant evolution and to bring this change, the writer has to stretch the imagination and its expression to unseen skies and unfathomed depths even if it means tearing apart the social fabric that tries to cover it under the garb of norms and normativity.

Freethinking invites critical evaluation. If a book offends a particular group's beliefs or norms, it should be just left unread. Leaving the writing and the writer alone when we cannot accept them is the biggest form of opposition. Not finding readership is the greatest curse that can fall upon a writer. It is also the most peaceful form of protest.

Rushdie’s tweet is not only a befitting reply to Chidambaram's statement but to everyone who supports banning of books on any ground, "This admission just took 27 years. How many more before the "mistake" is corrected?"


Ruchi Kokcha Ruchi Kokcha @ruchikokcha

Author is a writer and a poet. Her debut book, Obsessed, a romantic thriller, has been published by HarperCollins India.

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