Updated: August 30, 2021 9:47:08 am
Literature, by instinct and in practice, is against the oppression of the single story. It is interested, not in dogma, but in textures and voices, chronicles and records that confound easy truths. By pushing us into zones of discomfort and disquiet, it allows us a clearer view of human life. In doing so, it also offers a powerful way to speak back to power. It’s an understanding that appears to have escaped Delhi University authorities, who have struck off the works of Tamil writers Bama and Sukirtharani, as well as the short story ‘Draupadi’ by Mahasweta Devi, from a paper of the undergraduate English literature syllabus. No reasoned argument has been offered by the DU’s Oversight Committee for the decisions that several members of the university’s academic council have described, in a note of dissent, as “vandalism”. The Delhi University registrar defended the changes by stating a preference for “literary content … that does not hurt the sentiments of any individual”. He also objected to the language of Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Draupadi’ — the story of Dopdi Mejhen, a Santhal woman gang-raped in police custody — as going against “culture and ethics”, and the fear that it would make “students hate the military.”
It appears that behind such decisions is the idea of the classroom as a sanitised encounter — to be measured by the deference of students to all kinds of authority, especially the state. The summary dismissal, too, of the works of Bama and Sukirtharani, who powerfully represent the experience of living in an oppressive caste society, confirms this narrow vision and its anxieties. In the name of “culture” and “ethics”, it undoes decades of scholarship and debate that have pushed literature departments to a more expansive understanding of literary experience and merit — as gendered, as influenced by caste, and race and empire. Anything but the single wholesome story. That such a decision has been taken by a committee which does not include members from the English Literature department, among other disciplines, also leads to worrying questions of the way syllabi are being vetted. According to the DU registrar, however, “I can read English, you can read English. If something offensive is written somewhere, we don’t need a PhD in literature to understand that.”
Scholars and students of literature must not be distracted from their work – the critical study of all texts, whether nationalistic or not — by such censorious instincts. Nor should the classroom be held hostage to the “sentiments” of those who take offence at any challenge to the “consensus”. Delhi University must rethink its decision to shrink the syllabus.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on August 30, 2021 under the title ‘No single story’.
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