Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Reading: random notes

A group of young men stood outside the gates of the Jaipur Literature festival for three days, handing out blue-and-gold, handbag-sized copies of the Quran. Several journalists noted their presence, but in the ugliness of the threats by a minority of protestors on the last day that shut down Rushdie's talk and almost shut down the festival, few put this quiet and surprisingly effective protest on the front pages.

Hamid, 22, said, when asked why he was handing out Qurans, that he had heard the Satanic Verses was a very bad book, that it insulted his Prophet and he felt no one who shared his beliefs--about faith and about reading--should read it. Was it all right for people who did not believe to read it? He said, "If you want to, but then please read this--the Quran--also, and see for yourself how beautiful the words are." A day later, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan said to the NYT: "According to Islam, you have to counter a book with a book, a statement with a statement." And I thought of the boys who had spent days outside at the festival, gently offering to counter one book with another, reasonably asking readers to compare both and make up their own minds.

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About a year ago, when Rohinton Mistry's Such A Long Journey was under attack for political reasons, a few politicians appeared on a television show to explain why they felt the novel should not be read. None of them had read the book, but all of them had read excerpts where a character had ranted about various things--the city of Mumbai and its varied communities, Bal Thackeray and what the Shiv Sena had done to the idea of Bombay. None of the politicians seemed to grasp the difference between author and character, the license fiction is granted over a news report. "It's written here," they said, pointing at the highlighted lines, as though they were afraid that the other side would deny the words. Useless to tell them that we knew, we had already read them--not as incendiary, standalone passages, but as conversations between characters in a novel. It was as impossible for the politicians to see these lines the way we saw them, as it was for us to read books as offense policemen, seeking what might hurt our sentiments to the point where we had our case. The reader as policeman and inquisitor--another old tradition, but in direct opposition to the tradition of the reader as listener and inquirer.

Censors learn to read this way, but the difficulty of the censor's art is that over time, more and more phrases take on the shadow of offense and all words begin to bristle with hidden danger. Similes are dangerous, metaphors are deadly. Stalin was a voracious reader, voracious in the sense that he often began by reading and ended by devouring what he read. He read Mayakovsky and the playwrights and the poets; and he read and exiled Mandelstam to the poet's death; and he read Maxim Gorky with so much enjoyment that he dispensed with the official censor and took on the task of censoring two of Gorky's plays. This he did with great care and not very much skill.

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In Scharada Dubey's Portraits From Ayodhya, she writes of a time in 2006 when the Vishwa Shudra Mahasabha, a group of radical dalits, wanted to take a stand against portions of the Ramacharitmanas published by the Geeta Press, Gorakhpur, that were offensive to people from the lower castes. They warned the Geeta Press that if the offending dohas and chaupais were not removed, they would garland Rama's portrait with chappals.

In Ayodhya, the original resentment against the epic has been forgotten; the people involved in the incident are only remembered as the strange men "who went and garlanded Rama with chappals". Some years later, a Hindutva rightwing organisation would bully Delhi University into removing AK Ramanujan's essay on the Ramayana from the syllabus. Ramanujan cites folk versions of the Ramayana in his essay, one of which is seen to be offensive. But both retellings of the Ramayana continue to be told and performed, away from the discussions over challenged books and free speech--the version that offends the lower castes, with the hurtful dohas, and the version that offends the righteous Hindus who see themselves as defenders of the faith.

The problem with Such A Long Journey is in the form: it's the freedom of fiction that offends those who see it as fact. The problem with the Ramayana is also in the form: the epic is open-ended, recursive, self-referential, given to unfolding in multiple versions. The Ramayana itself instinctively resists being corralled into one, neat, easy story.

Reading seems like such a passive, private act, which it is when readers stick to the safe and the unchallenging. Perhaps all of these protests are no more than the discovery that reading was always meant to be subversive. The writer cuts a person off from the group and speaks directly to him, without mediation or interpretation. I can see how this might be terrifying for some.
 
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