Thursday, May 25, 2006

The BS column: Banned in India (Part One)

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, May 23, 2006; part two next week)

For a state often accused of knee-jerk censorship, the number of books banned in India is surprisingly small—one reason why The Da Vinci Code isn’t likely to be stopped at Customs, despite the recent hysteria over the film. In the first of this two-part series, we take a brief look at the history of banned books in India.

The 1930s: Almost exactly 70 years since Katherine Mayo’s Mother India was placed on the list of banned books, the import of this “drain-inspector’s report” is still prohibited. More typical of books that incurred the disapproval of the State in pre-Independence India was Arthur Miles’ Land of the Lingam, a salacious “history” of sexuality in Eastern lands. Max Wylie’s Hindu Heaven was an intemperate expose of mission conditions in India, and was banned in 1934. Perhaps the most puzzling ban was the one placed on Frank Richards’ Old Soldier Sahib, an account of this veteran soldier’s pre-war army service in India. Richards was a friend of Robert Graves; his memoir of the Great War was never banned in India, and indeed, did extremely well. Old Soldier Sahib appears to have ruffled military feathers for its candid portrayal of life in the ranks.

The 1940s: Moki Singh’s Mysterious India and Bernard Stern’s Scented Garden are fairly representative. Scented Garden was considered too sexually explicit (versions can still be found at pavement bookstalls, providing competition to the Kama Sutra). Mysterious India offered the usual stereotypes, some of them at least moderately offensive. The 1940s also saw early bannings of pamphlets containing material that was considered inflammatory to one or the other religion and politically seditious literature. In 1946, for example, the Customs notifications prohibited any reproduction of an issue of the journal Britannia and Eve, containing an article entitled Codijah the First and Devoted Wife of Mahomet, on the grounds that this might be offensive to the followers of Islam. Pamphlets offering a “neutral opinion” of Kashmir were also banned, on the grounds that these opinions were not as neutral as they seemed.

The 1950s: In the aftermath of Partition, the first bans on specific books from across the border came into force—Agha Babar’s play Cease-Fire, and a treatise on Somnath called Marka-e-Somnath, the newspaper Hamara Kashmir were typical of the Urdu writings from Pakistan that were put on the banned list. One of the oddities of this period was a book about a Saurashtrian freedom fighter, written by Kaluwank Ravatwank and published from Karachi—Bhupat Singh crops up with alarming regularity on the banned list. The ban on Robert W Taylor’s trashy and semi-pornographic Dark Urge went almost unnoticed.

But in 1955, Aubrey Menen’s Rama Retold was placed on the prohibited list—marking one of the earliest significant “literary bans” in India—for Menen’s irreverent, iconoclastic attitude to the scriptures. (Books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover routinely found their way onto the banned list, but surprisingly few literary works have actually been banned by the central government—most bans on specific works of literature have been implemented by state governments.) In 1959, Alexander Campbell’s Heart of India was also banned.

The 1960s: Aubrey Menen continued, apparently, to offend the sensibilities of the Indian state—his Ramayana was one of the first novels to be banned in the 1960s. (I never figured out whether the ban on Menen had been officially lifted or not, but the effect lingered—we read him in college with a faint sense of enjoying illicit pleasures, which did his work no harm.) In 1962, Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama was banned for its insinuations about the poor security around Mahatma Gandhi and how that may have aided his assassins. The erotic offender of this decade was Allen Edwards’ somewhat overwrought history of sexuality in India, The Jewel in the Lotus. But the real change in the sixties can be seen in the periodicals that appeared on the banned list. In addition to “incendiary” and “anti-national” journals from Pakistan, there was a spate of Tamil journals published in Ceylon, and magazines preaching revolution and sedition from France to Portugal to Rangoon (the famous Lushai Weekly), that were banned in India.

By the end of the sixties, a few magazines and books from China were also on the contraband list. In the next three decades, the list of banned books would increasingly read like a list of the deepest fears of the Indian body politic—and while fewer books were permanently banned, there was a corresponding rise in temporary bans, and in bans by individual Indian states. We’ll take a look at that next week.

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