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Updated: March 9, 2014 10:15 IST

Banning books will kill literary genres: writer Jaishree Misra

S. Anandan
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Jaishree Misra
Jaishree Misra

Authors are gradually beginning to censor themselves, says the author of "Rani" which was outlawed by the UP govt. in 2008

The alacrity with which political biographies and books on history are banned and even pulped in India has made authors edgy about venturing into these genres.

This kind of self-censorship by authors under duress is smothering a whole body of literature, warns author Jaishree Misra, whose historical romance “Rani” — on the Rani of Jhansi — was outlawed by the government of Uttar Pradesh in 2008 claiming it hurt the sentiments of the people of Bundelkhand, which at that time was reeling under a terrible drought!

Ms. Misra, then a resident of London, did not oppose the ban for ‘pragmatic reasons’, even as her publisher, Penguin, chose to soft-pedal the development.

Presumably, the government resorted to the ploy to divert public attention from the raging famine.

With no hullabaloo over the ban, it was eventually forgotten.

‘Rani’ is doing well online and at bookshops in Lucknow, said the author in a conversation with The Hindu on Saturday.

In hindsight, though, she’s a bit ashamed that she did not do anything against the ban. It is disconcerting to see books (on legendary heroes, political figures and alternative histories) getting proscribed for being politically incorrect. Writers are gradually beginning to censor themselves, trying to write things that are safe and sweet and far from problematic, she rues.

“Nobody wants several years of their effort and research to go waste… Writers would now think 10 times before taking up something like a political biography,” she says, hoping there would soon be some kind of a writers’ movement against tabooing books.

V.S. Naipaul, for one, displayed tremendous courage and large-heartedness to facilitate an unflattering official biography by Patrick French, she thinks.

New work by year-end

Once her ‘secret trilogy’ was over, Ms. Misra took it a little easy and got down to work on something that is ‘part history, part contemporary’.

The spadework for ‘Rani’ had taken her to look up the archives for events in 1857 when she stumbled upon the story of Margaret Wheeler, daughter of General Hugh Wheeler in Kanpur, who was kidnapped and never returned.

“There’s a bit of historical record available on Margaret, who voluntarily married her kidnapper. She said to the priest who had come to give her benediction when she was dying, that the kidnapper was ‘kind to her’. I’ve heard that’s what all those suffering from Stockholm syndrome say. It is, however, different for the modern girl in my work.”

Typically, Ms. Misra’s yet-to-be-named novel — due for release by the end of the year — has intermixed Margaret’s tale with that of a contemporary schoolgirl who gets kidnapped. “The story of Margaret is written by the sister of the kidnapped girl,” she reveals.

Delhi was witnessing an unusual surge of gang rapes and kidnaps when she sat down to write the story of Margaret in September 2009, on return to Delhi. “It was the journalist in me who turned it into a contemporary narrative.”

With her roots in Kerala, Ms. Misra wants her next tome, also a historical fiction, to be set in the State. “There’s an abundance of unexplored local history in Kerala. I’m spoilt for choice,” she exclaims.

By history, she doesn’t mean those grand narratives. Her interest lies in perhaps the best part of history that goes unrecorded: the private conversations of historical figures and their thoughts.

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