Tuesday October 30, 2012
Read without prejudice
By AKSHITA NANDA
Censorship is not the answer even when the written word can cause hurt and anger, says this bookworm and cultural commentator.
READING between the lines is hard when a book pokes at soft spots in one’s identity.
According to recent news reports, Sikh elders in India are mulling over whether to ban J.K. Rowling’s latest novel, her first for adults, The Casual Vacancy, because it has racial slurs within.
The objectionable lines are uttered in the context of a bully tormenting his victim: A teenage character nicknamed Fats taunts classmate Sukhvinder Kaur by calling her “mustachioed, yet large-mammaried” or “a hairy man-woman”, driving her to self-harm.
When I read the book, it was clear to me that the author did not endorse the bully’s views and was instead making a point about the real-life racism that minority groups in Britain endure.
However, it appears that several complaints have been made about the “provocative language” to India’s Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, which manages Sikh places of worship. A spokesman added that religious elders are now reading the book. If it is deemed derogatory to the Sikh faith, they will demand that the book be banned in India and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is a Sikh, “would be urged to take up the matter with the UK government to initiate action against the author”.
Coincidentally, the day this news story appeared in newspapers over here was the day I began reading Joseph Anton, British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie’s recently released memoir. Rushdie is a celebrated fantasist, whose whimsical speculative fiction book Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1981.
However, he is better known for the controversial 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, which the then spiritual leader of Iran called “blasphemous”. The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini offered a bounty for the writer’s death and Rushdie had to spend 10 years of his life in hiding. The fatwa, or edict, calling for his death has yet to be cancelled.
I have never read The Satanic Verses, given the ban on its import in India and Singapore, so my only understanding of its content comes from the periphery and now from Rushdie’s writing in Joseph Anton. The author, avowedly atheist although he grew up in a Muslim household, thought of The Satanic Verses as the “least political” of his books.
He writes that it was a book that allowed him to address questions about his own existence and non-faith in a deity. So perhaps readers got him wrong? Perhaps they did not? Who can decide without reading the book and then engaging in rational discussion?
In 2004, a group of right-wing Hindus attacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in my hometown Pune in India because of the support it gave American scholar James Laine. Laine wrote a book, Shivaji, about the 17th-century Maratha warrior and king Shivaji and how this Hindu hero’s legacy is perceived today. The book reported jokes hinting that Shivaji’s mother might have had an affair, resulting in such an outcry that his book was banned in India until two years ago. Even today, discussion of the book tends to spark angry reactions.
Books are banned because the authorities fear extreme reactions from those who would be angered by the text and because they fear how the text may be misused. Looking at the cases above, perhaps there are some books and ideas too sensitive to access and discuss today.
But then let us also make the case for banning Lolita (1955), in which writer Vladimir Nabokov makes a paedophile memorable, or banning Beatrice And Virgil (2010), in which Yann Martel features a Nazi torturer in a somewhat sympathetic light, in spite of all his crimes.
Shall we cut off access to any book that makes readers uncomfortable? Even if it is a book that depicts the world fearlessly? Even if the author’s intent is to mirror real-life issues for readers to address, not to admire?
How far then will censure or censorship go for those books that appear to be in complete opposition to our viewpoints, that deliberately set out to shake the foundations of those tenets we consider fundamental to our identities?
We exist in an ever-shrinking world, and we come from so many different – even opposing – beliefs and faiths that we are bound to rub one another in the wrong way at some point. Rather than limiting access to controversial ideas, a task impossible in this Internet age, we need to create a safe place where we can talk about the things that bother us and listen without lashing out in anger, whether or not such a reaction is deserved.
Recently, a Sikh girl in Britain who has been subjected to similar taunts as Rowling’s character spoke in favour of the book. Aspiring medical student Balpreet Kaur wrote in The Guardian newspaper: “Rowling’s character sheds light on a reality that the Sikh nation is still struggling to fully understand, acknowledge and accept: a reality of bullying, and superficial impressions.”
Like Rowling’s character, Balpreet had her photograph posted online on a social-media site with taunting comments about her gender and facial hair.
In an act of incredible compassion and intelligence, she reacted not with complaints to the authorities or mobilising an army of vengeful vandals but by responding directly to the bully on social news website Reddit. She explained her religious beliefs and said she accepted her body as it is.
Here is where the story enters the realm of the miraculous: her tormentor apologised. “It was an incredibly rude, judgemental, and ignorant thing to post,” he wrote in the comment thread.
Conflict, engagement, explanation and finally, acceptance. This is the sort of narrative thread I love.
This is the sort of narrative I hope we can keep reading and writing in real life, rather than simply closing the book. – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network
> Literary journalist Akshita Nanda writes the Culture Vulture column in the Singapore Straits Times.