Farce of the Penguin

Feb 15, 2014, 07:17 IST | Rohan Joshi

Earlier this week, the publishing house Penguin agreed to pulp all Indian copies of Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, after pressure from a conservative (is there any other kind?) Hindu group. This has sparked much outrage from all twelve Indians who read books. Eleven of these people blame Penguin for buckling under pressure instead of standing up for freedom of speech. I’d like to disagree.

Pulp fiction: Penguin agreed to pulp all Indian copies of Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, after pressure from a conservative Hindu group

The first argument against Penguin is that the book wasn’t officially banned, which implies that Penguin blinked out of fear. And while it is a publisher’s responsibility to fight the good fight, even the staunchest have a point at which they go, “This is not worth the trouble.” And if the honchos at Penguin looked around their office and thought “We’ve spent too much money on that new glass door to have a brick hurled through it”, I can respect that. Because that actually says more about the environment in India right now than it does about Penguin’s commitment (or lack thereof) to ideals.

On a normal day, Penguin’s argument might seem paranoid. But, two months before a general election that looks like it may go the right-wing way? Two weeks after the SC refused to review Section 377? And one week after the Shiv Sena ransacked a Mekaal Hassan Band press conference just because they’re Pakistani? The temperature in this room is Mega-Hindu degrees centigrade right now, and Penguin just didn’t want to get burned.

Indians have institutionalised the fear of alternative narratives in spectacular fashion. I spent my entire school life learning, rather simplistically, that Mahatma Gandhi and Shivaji, for example, were great men. And make no mistake, they were. Entire civilisations bent to their will. But, when I got to college, their narratives became a little more layered.

Not because the books we referred to were that way, but because I was lucky to have teachers who could tease doubt and moral complexity out of them. Even those questions were only hinted at, and I had to go all the way to a left-leaning journalism post-graduate school to truly question these idols. I had to wait until I was in my twenties just to acknowledge the thought that Gandhi may have been a less than ideal father to his children, or that there may have been other routes to freedom, or the idea that Shivaji had some pretty complicated politics.

Conservative groups operate under the assumption that acknowledging a different narrative or facet of their idols destroys them. If anything, I’m more in awe of Mahatma Gandhi and Shivaji when I’m allowed to contemplate them as people, not one-dimensional ubercaricatures. And the same logic applies to any faith, be it Islam, or Hinduism, or Christianity. I’d engage with faith more, if I were allowed to recognise it as something whose ideals were corrupted at various points in history by individuals who co-opted it.

Of course the weird thing is, I’m now more likely to read Doniger’s book. I probably wouldn’t have earlier. I mean the title is terrible. The Hindus: An Alternative History makes it sound like the second I close the book, a teacher is going to kick my door in and fail me at something. She could have at least made an effort with ‘The Brahminchi Code’ or something. But, now I’m going to read it, just because. Look what you did conservative groups; this is how the terrorists win.

Rohan Joshi is a writer and stand-up comedian who likes reading, films and people who do not use the SMS lingo. You can contact him on www.facebook.com/therohanjoshi

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