Rohinton Mistry protests withdrawal of book

Shiv Sena alleged it contained derogatory remarks on Maharashtrians

October 20, 2010 01:50 am | Updated 01:50 am IST - Mumbai:

Rohinton Mistry, whose book was withdrawn by the Mumbai University after the Shiv Sena's protest, has written an open letter expressing “profound dismay at the expeditious decision by the University.” He said the Thackeray scion, Aditya Thackeray, can think independently and lead the “old regime” of the Sena towards a different and radical thinking.

In September, Such a Long Journey was withdrawn by the Vice-Chancellor from II B.A. syllabus after the Shiv Sena's student wing alleged that the book contained derogatory remarks about Maharashtrians. The protest was led by Aditya Thackeray. The sudden withdrawal of the book has caused an uproar. On Monday, at a book reading session, academics and activists protested the move by reading out from the book.

The following is the text of Mr. Mistry's letter:

“The Shiv Sena's student wing complains to the Vice-Chancellor of Mumbai University that it is offended by the novel ‘Such a Long Journey.' Copies are burnt at the University gates. Needless to say, no one has actually read the book. The mob leader, speaking in Hindi to a television camera, says: The author is lucky he lives in Canada — if he were here, we would burn him as well. The mob demands the book's removal, within twenty-four hours, from the syllabus. The good Vice-Chancellor obliges the mob.

“All this happened in September. Subsequently, the Shiv Sena sent fulsome congratulations to the Vice-Chancellor on his prompt and wise decision. Students and faculty protested the abomination, unwilling to accept his abuse of power, his invoking of emergency measures unused in the University's hundred and fifty-three-year history, circumventing the process for syllabus change, damaging the University's reputation, succumbing to political pressure. For days, the Vice-Chancellor said nothing, offered no explanation. He is, we are told, a Ph.D. in statistics — a useful subject for dealing with permutations, combinations, probabilities but silent on the matter of moral responsibility. In this sorry spectacle of book-burning and book-banning, the Shiv Sena has followed its depressingly familiar, tediously predictable script of threats and intimidation that Mumbai has endured since the organisation's founding in 1966. But it is the expeditious decision by Mumbai University which causes profound dismay. After his long silence, the Vice-Chancellor has now stated that he, in fact, followed the correct procedures, and the decision was taken by the Board of Studies. The outgoing Board of Studies, to be precise. More bobbing, weaving, and slippery behaviour is no doubt in the offing. But one thing remains: a political party demanded an immediate change in syllabus, and Mumbai University provided deluxe service via express delivery, making the book disappear the very next day. The University, in the person of the Vice-Chancellor, occupies an exalted position in civilised society, the champion of academic independence and freedom of expression. Instead, Mumbai University has come perilously close to institutionalising the ugly notion of self-censorship. The Vice-Chancellor knows what he must do to remove the stain.

“This sordid story, however, does have a bright spot. Civil society has responded, in Mumbai and elsewhere, with outrage, questions, petitions; it is inspiring to see. The stand taken by teachers, citizens' groups, bloggers, journalists is exemplary. Who knows, it may even educate the main actors about the workings of a real democracy.

“As for the grandson of the Shiv Sena leader, the young man who takes credit for the whole pathetic business, who admits to not having read the book, just the few lines that offend him and his bibliophobic brethren, he has now been inducted into the family enterprise of parochial politics, anointed leader of its newly minted “youth wing.” What can — what should — one feel about him? Pity, disappointment, compassion? Twenty years old, in the final year of a B.A. in history, at my own Alma Mater, the beneficiary of a good education, he is about to embark down the Sena's well-trodden path, to appeal, like those before him, to all that is worst in human nature.

“Does he have to? No. He is clearly equipped to choose for himself. He could lead, instead of following, the old regime. He could say something radical — that burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul, will not house one homeless person nor will it provide gainful employment to anyone [unless one counts those hired to light bonfires], not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever.

“He can think independently, and he can choose. And since he is drawn to books, he might want to read, carefully this time, from cover to cover, a couple that would help him make his choice. Come to think of it, the Vice-Chancellor, too, may find them beneficial. First, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, in order to consider the options: step back from the abyss, or go over the edge. Next, the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali. And I would urge particular attention to this verse: ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;...Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake'.”

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