In September Indian-born Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry found himself embroiled in controversy with political group Shiv Sena over his novel “Such a Long Journey”. Disturbingly enough, Mumbai University caved in to the fundamentalists and banned the book from its syllabus. Now he’s spoken out, and he’s spitting mad. By VRINDA MAHESHWARI in Delhi.
It all kicked off in September, when the Shiv Sena, a fundamentalist group based in Maharashtra, India, demanded that one of Mistry’s three Booker-shortlisted books, “Such a Long Journey”, be removed from the syllabus of Mumbai University. Their grounds? That it negatively portrays their political party. Par for the course for political agitators. But Indian civil society groups are dismayed that the university’s board of studies elected to remove the book. While Shiv Sena’s antics are nothing new, it is regrettable that an esteemed educational institution is toeing the line of an extremist, communalist party.
Now Mistry himself has inserted himself into the debate. On Monday he denounced Mumbai University for bowing to “threats and intimidation” by the group, lamenting the “sorry spectacle of book-burning and book-banning”.
“Such a Long Journey” has been part of the undergraduate English curriculum for about four uneventful years, but a discussion of the profanity and slang usage in the book apparently sparked the interest of a young leader from Shiv Sena, Aditya Thackeray, who expressed a desire to “defend the dabbawallas” (dabbawallas are tiffin delivery men in Bombay who provide meals to millions of office workers daily). The passage that caused offense describes a character’s irritation at having to stand close to a dabbawalla on the train.
The dialogue reads: “What to do with such low-class people? No manners, no sense, nothing. And you know who is responsible for this attitude – that bastard Shiv Sena leader who worships Hitler and Mussolini.” The party recently mobilised a mob to burn the book on the campus. While the state government has promised to investigate the book burning, as well as its removal from the syllabus, the damage has already been done.
But the incident is about much more than a book. It’s about the rise of Aditya Thackeray, a 20-year-old BA student, who is following in the not-so-illustrious footsteps of his grandfather, Bal Thackeray. While the elder Thackeray has long been associated with the hardline nationalism of the Shiv Sena, young Aditya Thackeray has only recently been launched into the world of politics, and needed to make his mark by starting a suitably loud campaign. (We’re not mentioning any names, but this tactic is familiar in South African politics as well. – Ed) On Sunday he was appointed leader of Yuva Sena, the party’s youth wing. And the party proper supports his antics as “convincing” and enjoying popular support too.
The Shiv Sena was initially a radical regionalist party, which used to focus on the issue of interstate migration within Maharashtra, its home state. Over the years, it has become more and more radical, and though it hasn’t been in power recently, the party holds considerable sway over the local population. Its conservative, right-wing stance has been controversial and its members have often been accused of violence. The Shiv Sena is notorious in India for wanting to ban Valentine’s Day, Shah Rukh Khan’s film “My Name is Khan”, some communities on social networking site Orkut and numerous other “modern, Western institutions”.
The Shiv Sena recently announced that it wanted the burqa banned in Mumbai, because a lady clad in a burqa stole a baby from a hospital. Instead of looking at hospital security, the group used the incident to praise France’s recent burqa ban, and stir up feeling about the issue closer to home.
But while Shiv Sena’s politics may seem laughable, they are indicative of a much more unsettling culture. The caste-ist, communal and regional line that is taken by the party for its own ends, leads to violence and pain for a large number of people. The biggest victim is, of course, civil society and notions of free speech in a democracy.
Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451” comes to mind when one considers the disturbing tendency of political parties to censor the public’s reading material, and it’s not as if book banning (not to mention burning) doesn’t happen in real life too. Mistry at least is in good company, although it’s a club he’d rather not have joined. Salman Rushdie’s 1989 novel “The Satanic Verses” had Muslims around the world up in arms and it was burned and banned in many countries; more recently, conservative politicians in Italy burned copies of “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown because it was allegedly blasphemous. A book is not just an item, it is symbolic of an idea; by burning a book, you are attacking a belief.
For India, a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy, it’s a sad day when its right-wing leaders and young upstarts get away with banning and burning a book because of perceived slights on their own party. Liberals, writers and thinkers in India have been appalled by the Shiv Sena’s behaviour, and have come to the spirited defence of Mistry, condemning the burning and ban. Freedom of speech and expression are absolute and enshrined as fundamental rights in the constitution of India, and the courts have upheld it rigorously in the past. And yet, freedom of speech can sometimes be difficult to defend against thugs.
It’s never particularly a good idea to mess with a writer because their point of view will always be more stylishly expressed. And the best writers, of course, deal in compassion, not fear-mongering. At the end of his statement, Mistry had this advice for Aditya Thackeray: “He could lead, instead of following, the old regime. He could say something radical – that burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul, will not house one homeless person nor will it provide gainful employment to anyone (unless one counts those hired to light bonfires), not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever.” We hope Thackeray has taken those words to heart. And maybe certain of SA’s young politicians could do likewise. DM