Three years ago, I found myself writing an impassioned defence against the removal of an essay by my teacher, A.K. Ramanujan, from a University of Delhi course reading list. It breaks my heart that, so soon after, I must write yet again, in defence of the work of another of my teachers. This time, it’s Wendy Doniger, this time it’s a whole book. It humbles me when I realize my immense good fortune in having been taught by the great minds of our times, minds that were intellectually curious, unafraid to map new paths and chart unexplored territories, minds that insisted on the importance of multiple perspectives, minds that fought monolithic hegemonies. Sadly, for them and for us, they are both scholars of India, a place that no longer values difference, pluralism or diversity. It is increasingly painful to know that I am becoming one of fewer and fewer people who can learn from the insights, marvel at the depth and breadth of knowledge, enjoy the wit and wisdom of people like Doniger and Ramanujan. It is devastating to live in a country that does not value discursive and critical thinking about itself and its vibrant traditions of thought and story-telling.

On the one hand, Doniger and Ramanujan could not be more different. Small minds (the same ones that carp on about Sonia Gandhi’s origins) can and will remind us that Doniger is an outsider, an American, Jewish, a woman. Ramanujan was none of these things (though he did eventually carry a US passport). He was, in fact, the consummate insider, a brahmin born into a tradition that is mandated to read and comment on our great books. But he, too, valued what was outside the canon, he, too, sought to expand what was considered worthy of examination and scholarly attention, his methods, too, were unorthodox in terms of the theories and heuristics he applied to texts and contexts. For all of these reasons, which make him Doniger’s friend, colleague, compadre and collaborator in the fullest sense of the word, Ramanujan, too, must be exiled from the kingdom that he and Doniger helped create.

Arshia Sattar with Doniger

In a statement on Wednesday morning that thanks everyone, including Penguin, for their support and concern, Doniger concludes by saying, . . . “Finally, I am glad that, in the age of the Internet, it is no longer possible to suppress a book. The Hindus is available on Kindle; and if legal means of publication fail, the Internet has other ways of keeping books in circulation. People in India will always be able to read books of all sorts, including some that may offend some Hindus". It is clear that she remains unbowed in this latest battle which is surely part of a larger war to suppress her ideas and her work.

A. K. Ramanujan. Photo: Hindustan Times file
A. K. Ramanujan. Photo: Hindustan Times file

What is remarkable is that unlike others in her position (i.e., under attack from what liberals call the “loony fringe"), Doniger has continued to write about Hinduism, to publish bigger and more complex books on the subject even in India, never stepping back from the critical or the complimentary. Her insistence on not changing her stance, her determination to keep writing the way she does about the things she does, her continued public appearances in spite of Hindutva bullies and vandals being present all over the world, demonstrate a courage that can only be admired.

Ironically, it is Doniger’s teaching and her books, her scholarly and general lectures, her students and her writing in mainstream media that have brought an understanding and appreciation of Hinduism and its many forms to a vast and admiring non-Indian public, one that could never have been reached by the excitable missionaries of Hindutva. That those very people should target Doniger’s work as a perversion rather than see it as the celebration of the diversity inherent in Hinduism that it is, is quite simply, a travesty of the religion they claim to hold so dear.

Even more ironically, it is Penguin, the publishing house, that has for years, kept Doniger’s flag flying in India. Knowing that she can be controversial and might attract the wong kind of attention, they have, until this week, stood for her and behind her. In this moment of defeat, it is disturbing as well as disappointing that Penguin has had nothing to say in this regard, no explanation for why they jettisoned a book by one of their most respected, best-selling writers, a star in their firmament, someone who makes their galaxy bigger and brighter. Other writers with Penguin have expressed their dismay—at least one of them plans to send his book that they published back to them, to be pulped. Social media is agog with plans to boycott Penguin publications, to return copies of Penguin books, to demonstrate outside their offices.

We know that we live in dark times, that more and more our freedom to think and speak and write (even to love) in a billion tongues, with a billion voices is being eroded. The incident of the dog that did not bark in the night, like this one, makes us even more sure that it is not the state alone that we need to fear. But surely it is the end when the private sector, which is supposed to consist of people like you and me, censors itself, even before the state has called in the fire brigade. Or the Stormtroopers.

Arshia Sattar studied with Wendy Doniger in the 1980s and continues to think of her as a teacher of all that is important in life.

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