Penguin’s disappointing surrender
A quarter century ago, Penguin had published another controversial book, Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’
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This is not a ban; it is surrender. There is no nicer way to put it. Rather than fight the case in higher courts, instead of making the case of freedom of expression and academic freedom, and avoiding the option of standing by a renowned author, Penguin has decided to throw in the towel and agreed to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s award-winning, scholarly, entertaining, and authoritative book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, and to destroy remaining copies within six months.
Doniger is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and one of the foremost authorities on Hinduism. Penguin’s decision is unlikely to be based on literary merit—the book has been on sale in India since 2009 and those who wanted to, have already bought it. Now more will try to buy it through fair means or foul. And Penguin’s decision is possibly made out of expediency—perhaps to cut costs, perhaps to avoid trouble, or perhaps out of concern for the safety of its staff. None of this reflects well on Penguin or on India.
Dina Nath Batra of Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti had filed a suit in 2011, seeking the withdrawal of the book, saying the book was written with “a Christian missionary’s zeal” to denigrate Hinduism and show it in a poor light. For the record, Doniger is not a Christian, and even if she were that would be irrelevant—and yet in any case, Hindu nationalists have rarely let facts get in the way of their theories.
Also for the record, when the book came out in 2009, I had asked Doniger about the rise of the more militant brand of Hinduism, which has led to attacks on the works of overseas scholars, including Michael Witzel of Harvard, James Laine who wrote a book on Shivaji, and Paul Courtright who wrote one on Ganesha, and homegrown ones, like D.N. Jha, who wrote that Hindus do eat beef and there’s no religious stricture against it.
Doniger told me then that she had written her book to clear some misunderstandings about Hinduism, and “to counteract the Hindutva misinterpretations of the Ramayana.”
Last night I asked Doniger what she thought about her publisher’s decision. Deeply concerned, she told me: “Penguin has indeed given up the lawsuit, and will no longer publish the book. Of course, anyone with a computer can get the Kindle edition from Penguin, NY, and it’s probably cheaper, too. It is simply no longer possible to ban books in the age of the Internet. For that, and for all the people who have expressed outrage over this, I am deeply grateful.”
I also asked Penguin for its response. At the time of writing, Chiki Sarkar, Penguin’s publisher, had not replied.
A quarter century ago, Penguin had published another controversial book, Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses. Recalling that episode, Penguin’s chief executive in London, Peter Mayer, wrote in 2009: “When we decided to continue publishing the novel, extraordinary pressures were focused on our company, based on fears for the author’s life and for the lives of everyone at Penguin around the world... The elimination of divergent points of view is incompatible with the basic tenets of free societies. We chose to frame the argument as one not only respecting the central importance of free speech, but transcending the case of this one book. The fate of the book affected the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it.”
In my 2009 interview with Doniger which appeared in Tehelka, she traced her interest in Hinduism to her study of ancient languages, Latin and Greek, when she also discovered Sanskrit; and later she saw rubbings from Angkor Wat in Cambodia that her mother had. “I loved Indian painting and sculpture, and architecture and clothing—you could wear purple and orange together, which no one would let me do when I dressed in western clothing—and music (she learnt sarod from Ali Akbar Khan in Calcutta),” she told me.
What had she learnt from Hinduism? Doniger had told me: “I have learnt so much, where to begin! I’ve learnt so much about dealing with the darker side of life, with death, with violence, which I think Hindu mythology and theology deals with in a manner infinitely more realistic and profound than the Western monotheisms do. I’ve learnt a lot about animals, about ways of thinking about them and living with them. I’ve learnt to appreciate chaos and the unexpected, in ways that were hard for me to deal with when I was younger.”
Those who disagreed with Doniger had options—to protest, to argue, to publish their own book as response, and if they had a copy, to shut it. Nobody is being forced to read it. Now, go to your electronic readers, buy it, download it, read it; if you go abroad, get copies—there’s no ban on its import; and reinforce the idea that a pluralistic India does not have singular views. India thrives in its diversity and plurality—its culture and its opinions.
As freedom of expression itself is under threat, and India undergoes its own period of darkness and chaos, Doniger’s philosophical equanimity offers hope, that this, too, shall pass. It must, otherwise it is another country.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.