This book is about the thing it says on the cover” – announces the opening page of Natasha Sharma and Priya Kuriyan’s just-published picture book The Art of Tying a Pug. What follows is a delightful account of just that — a young boy in a patka trying out his father’s instructions on how to tie a perfect pagdi — on his pug. The book, published by Chennai-based Karadi Tales, and Sharma’s tribute to her turbanned grandfathers and father, has run into trouble with a section of the Sikh community for its apparent intent to hurt religious sentiments, leading the publisher to withdraw the book from its catalogue and de-list it from online commercial platforms.
In a Facebook post, Karadi Tales announced: “…Yesterday, we made the difficult decision to withdraw this new book The Art of Tying a Pug… The book was …intended to foster open-mindedness and respect for the Sikh community and their traditions. While it received glowing endorsements from many readers including other Sikhs, Karadi Tales simultaneously received several abuses and threats from those who objected to the wordplay and the cover image. After careful consideration and concern for the creators, we decided to withdraw this book across all channels…”
The trouble, says Shobha Vishwanath, co-founder and publishing director of Karadi Tales, began when they were invited to the second edition of the Vizag Junior Literary Fest last week, where they were planning to formally launch the book. A member of the local gurdwara, who was invited to launch the book, took exception to Sharma’s use of the abbreviation “pug” for pagdi. “He said that he would not allow the launch, nor allow the organisers to sell the book at the venue and called for banning the book,” says Vishwanath. Sharma and Vishwanath withdrew from the festival, hoping to settle matters through dialogue. But soon, it snowballed into a bigger protest, with calls for legal action and individuals threatening them with bodily harm on social media.
“Even as we were seeking legal counsel and discussing the way forward, we were hit by legal notices and call for bans from several organisations and individuals,” says Viswanath. Some of the complainants, she says, included Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar, and presidents of Gurudwara Sahib, T Nagar, and Gurudwara Sahib, Tambaram, Chennai.
“So, I took the call to withdraw the book because, as a publisher, I consider the well-being of my writers and illustrators to be my responsibility,” she says. In a career spanning nearly 25 years, Viswanath says this is the first time that she has faced something like this.
While Mumbai-based Sharma, 42, author of some very popular children’s books such as Icky, Yucky, Mucky and Princess Easy Pleasy was not available for comment, Bengaluru-based Kuriyan, 38, its illustrator, said that the decision to withdraw the book was taken consensually. “The problem is that if we continued to publish the book, there is no assurance of our safety. Both Natasha and I had been working on the book for the last two years. Natasha belongs to the Sikh community, she modelled the character on her father. A lot of love and labour went into creating this book. It’s unfortunate that a children’s book would run into such a barrier without people even having read it. Perhaps, what we really need now is a humour rights lawyer,” she says.
For those who have read the slim primer on how to tie a pagdi, the controversy seems superfluous. “There’s always space for dissent, for disagreement, and for freedom of expression from all sides. Asking for the withdrawal of a book and threats and harassment to the publisher, writer and illustrators is extremely distressing and unacceptable. Also, first read the book!,” says writer Bijal Vachharajani, who has pitched her support behind the writers and the publisher.
Who gets to act as cultural gatekeeper for books for children is a question that has long plagued the global publishing industry, particularly because a lot of children’s books on diversity are panned for their content. It also raises the question whether giving in to demands of rescinding a book is also an acquiescence to cultural bullying. “In a much safer world, where social media did not wield the power it does, if such a thing were to happen, it would have been easier to handle it through dialogue. But we don’t live in an ideal world. As a publisher, I completely understand their decision, but there are other ways of standing up to the bullies. One of them is to stand by the book as a reader and that is what I intend to do,” says Richa Jha, writer and publisher, Pickle Yolk Books, who has started a social media hashtag, #bringbackthepug in solidarity with the team behind the book.