Friday, Oct 31, 2014

The right of the reader

Written by Stephen Alter | Posted: February 19, 2014 12:05 am | Updated: February 19, 2014 9:32 am

hindus-med

Where is the political, judicial leadership to stand up to attempts to silence the writer?

It is hard to believe that one could feel sickened by the simple act of taking a book off a shelf. But when it means that this book is going to be shredded and pulped, the consequences make my stomach turn. If self-appointed custodians of faith and culture can use outdated laws to intimidate publishers and silence a writer, it is time for us to ask whether India, as a modern democracy, has the kind of political and judicial leadership that can make these irrational attacks a thing of the past. Surely, there are much more important issues in our country than protecting the feelings and sensitivities of fringe groups who are afraid of honest scholarship and discourse.

Dina Nath Batra, convener of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, has successfully forced Penguin Books India to withdraw and destroy Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. He claims that her book is “written with a Christian Missionary Zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus and show their religion in poor light”. Though I have never had the pleasure of meeting Doniger, I know for sure that she is not a Christian missionary. And nobody dedicates her career to interpreting classical works, as she has done, with the intention of ridiculing the very traditions she reaffirms and celebrates. As a translator of Sanskrit texts, from the Rig Veda to the Kamasutra, Doniger has done an enormous service to Indian literature and philosophy by making these texts accessible to contemporary readers of English, many of whom live right here in India today.

Most troubling of all is the fact that isolated passages in a book can be twisted into controversial claims that are usually exaggerated, almost always inaccurate and invariably motivated by ignorance rather than any genuine concern for cultural integrity. India is too great a country to be dragged down by voices of prejudice and defensive alarm. Whose sentiments are really being hurt? Are we going to stagnate as a culture that continually touches the feet of intolerance? Are we going to surrender our ideals of free speech to a limited number of individuals who happen to have the time on their hands to file frivolous yet malicious lawsuits against legitimate authors, all in the name of dogmatic purity and pious sanctity? Surely, our many gods, if they are as omnipotent as many of us believe, can easily defend themselves against occasional blasphemies and heretical critiques? Why do human devotees need to intervene on behalf of immortal deities, who can destroy the world in the blink of an eye or create the cosmos in their dreams?

Much has been made of Doniger’s focus on sexuality in Hindu tradition. She is accused of perverse and prurient interpretations of ancient stories, art, rituals and beliefs. Yet I remember reading her masterful translation and commentary on the Kamasutra, co-translated with Sudhir Kakar, and thinking that continued…

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