Pulping non-fiction: “I dare you, I double dare you!”

doniger

Here’s a book that has not been read, for reasons that you will know and probably fail to understand, like I did. This is us, here, voicing our problem with banning scholarly books. The book we are discussing here is The Hindus – An Alternative History.

Wendy Doniger, an American Indologist (someone who studies India), is a Professor of History of Religions since 1978 in the University of Chicago. Doniger’s book The Hindus – An Alternative History was published in 2009 by Viking/Penguin. It was received well, in India as well as America, by topping the bestseller list in the non-fiction category in the week of October 15th, 2009 in the Hindustan Times [1].

Doniger’s work, like every other work that challenges the religious fabric of India, was soon met with ‘crusaders’ of the religion who filed a lawsuit in a dingy Indian district court. The Indian Penal Code outlaws acts that “intend to outrage religious beliefs.” This was the premise for filing the case. The plaintiff is one Mr. Dinanath Batra (a retired school teacher at the helm of Siksha Bachao Andolan Samiti [2], he is an RSS pracharak – a member of the Hindu fundamentalist group).

The Ban Man, as he is known, Dinanath Batra, has at his disposal the cadre of RSS. This very force of people have allegedly threatened books into being pulped and are responsible for reducing the space for well-informed debate on culture, tradition, Hinduism. Upon his decree – he sends out legal notices to publishing houses to inform them of the ‘hurtful’ books that they are publishing – books deemed unfit for an Indian audience are taken off shelves. It speaks volumes about the disturbing reluctance of the said publishing house and the supposed guardians of Hinduism (who want to inculcate its values into young children via, hold your breath, books. Books penned down by the all-knowing scholar Batra himself. I can’t wait to review one of them) to admit anything in a religion that was meant to espouse, well, everything.

The anger towards publishing the book came out in the sagely belief of being the custodians of the faith. Their authority is not questioned by anyone seeking to have a debate that goes beyond vandalism and the threat of having one’s publishing house suffer from physical damage. Writers and publishers have been here, seen this, and have chosen to withdraw their efforts to stimulate intellectual debate and to truly appreciate freedom of expression as promised by the Land. India is the land in which they have seen freedom being taken away more often than being practiced.

Doniger’s work looks at India’s tryst with Hinduism and she tells this tale by looking at the ‘alternate’ practitioners and beings of the faith, namely, women, untouchables and animals. The Hindu reviewed it when it was released, and it was one that appreciated the scholarly work that has gone into writing it, although it does criticise it for being a little over-indulgent when it came to anecdotes and for being a tad bit too American. [3]

The lawsuit was settled out of court and the case never saw the light of day; in effect, it did not give the writer an opportunity to defend her work. She knew she’d face trouble with, in getting published in India, due to which she even changed some of the text in the book. The out of court settlement also did not give an opportunity to the knowledge and opinion starved folk (the mighty guardians of the faith, indeed) to learn something more than a prayer song or two, or a dozen nationalist (not to mention, loosely worded and offensive) slogans.

Here is an excerpt from the book, one which you and I cannot read, because alas, it is blasphemous work (gasp!) in the pure ether of India. The excerpt acts as the scholar’s closing statement quite well.

To the accusation that I cited a part of the Hindu textual tradition that one Hindu “had never heard of,” my reply is: Yes!, and it’s my intention to go on doing just that. The parts of his own tradition that he objected to are embraced by many other Hindus and are, in any case, historically part of the record.

The  Hindus – An Alternative History is available online. It is educative, provocative and most importantly, it gives you a different perspective of the Hindu faith. This charade of asking for it to be banned garnered a bigger audience to the book, much to the fundamentalist group’s chief’s chagrin, I hope. Readers in India were curious, and rightly so, when this book was deemed NSFIndianAudience. Don’t we have the ability to read, understand and debate? Don’t we have the right to do so? If only the penguin had more spine and didn’t have cold feet, it needn’t have gone south.

References:

[1] The Hindustan Times http://www.hindustantimes.com/lifestyle/books/top-authors-this-week/article1-465565.aspx

[2] http://deshkosh.org/S/Shiksha_Bachao_Andolan_Samiti.html

[3] The Hindu Centre http://www.thehinducentre.com/the-arena/article5779995.ece

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