The notion of obscenity in literature is a delicate one. What constitutes obscenity? Legally speaking, it must be prurient in nature; completely devoid of scientific, political, educational, or social value; and it must violate the local community standards. Coming from the Latin word obscenus, meaning "foul, repulsive, detestable", obscenity is that which offends the prevalent sexual morality of the time, is a profanity, or is otherwise taboo, indecent, abhorrent, or disgusting, or is especially inauspicious or ill-omened. The definition of obscenity differs from culture to culture, between communities within a single culture, and also between individuals within those communities. So, my idea of obscenity may not be yours, and vice versa.
Many cultures have produced laws to define what constitutes obscene, and censorship is the preferred tool to suppress or control things that are obscene under these definitions. However, the parameters of obscenity change with time. For instance, DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), banned for obscenity, would fail to raise any eyebrows today. Neither would James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934), John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939), or George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). Clearly, what constitutes obscenity today may or may not do so tomorrow.
In India, a collection called Angaaray (1932) unleashed a storm of controversies as much for hurting religious sensibilities as for its overt sexual references. Fatwas were passed against its four young contributors (three men and a woman) who were accused of using pornography as a tool for sedition.
Yet its English translation, published more than 60 years later, is hailed as a milestone in radical writing in India, as a pioneering protest against established notions of patriarchy, masculinity, excessive piety, as an "important" book regardless of its literary merits. No one sees it as a "bundle of filth" or even as a "dirty" book; if anything, those who read it in its English avatar rejoice that something like this was possible all those years ago. Evidently, not just time and circumstance but a new readership in a new language too makes a difference.
With so many variables in its definition and constitution, how does one deal with the idea of obscenity in literature? Does one leave it alone and expect it to go away with time as social mores change and literary sensibilities evolve? Or, does one turn the page, as it were, and move on? Or, does one allow the government to intervene in the only way it knows: by banning? Perhaps the answer lies in having systems in place to deal with specific issues that come up, issues that may be debated from writers’ platforms by writers themselves.
A story from the past may well show us the way forward. At an All-India Urdu Progressive Writers’ Conference held in Hyderabad in October 1945, a core group of progressive ideologues – Sajjad Zaheer, Abdul Alim and Ehtesham Husain, all hard-core Marxists incidentally – wanted to pass a resolution "against" obscenity. They had in mind three writers in particular – Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai and the poet Miraji – who they felt needed to be reprimanded for their continued obsession with bodily matters.
Given their stature, the progressive lobby may well have been successful in getting the motion passed were it not for the maverick Hasrat Mohani, the eternal dissenter, who insisted that if the motion was passed he would propose an amendment. While Mohani agreed that obscenity per se should be condemned, he had no objection to a literary portrayal of latif havasnaki ("refined sexual desire"). Literature, he believed held up a mirror to society – especially socially-engaged, purposive, progressive literature – and sexual matters were as much a part of society as any other and therefore deserved to be included in literature.
The proposal of the liberal, secular, progressive ideologues was scuttled because one man – a bearded shervani-topi clad Maulana - rose to speak up against it. The above incident illustrates the importance of dissent and how dissent can come in any guise from any direction. But for writers, it is important that it comes from one of their own.