Opinion | Comment

Book and theatre bans in a living culture of fear

A cement based sculpture of a Garuda in Yakshagana style, at Malpe Sea Walk in Udupi, Karnataka. File photo

A cement based sculpture of a Garuda in Yakshagana style, at Malpe Sea Walk in Udupi, Karnataka. File photo | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, we’re remembering.”— Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury 

Talking to journalists after winning the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2019, Jayant Kaikini ( No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories) said he was influenced by many experiences of his childhood, not least the Yakshagana tradition famous in the coastal region of Karnataka. A liberating art form, which opened up multiple windows, he said Yakshagana “groomed the sensibility of each mind in coastal Karnataka, with its reinterpretation of the classics through the use of music, dance and visual aesthetics.” He was taken in particularly by the transformation of ordinary citizens like a teacher or vegetable vendor into magical larger-than-life characters like Arjuna, for example. 

Kaikini’s book of short stories, written in Kannada, was translated into English by Tejwaswini Niranjana; and growing up with a sensibility of being open to the world, it’s not a surprise that Kaikini himself has translated many English stories and plays into Kannada. Last fortnight, it must have come as a shock to him when Bajrang Dal activists in Shimoga disrupted a performance of  Fiddler on the Roof, the musical he had translated into Kannada ( Jathegiruvanu Chandira), the Jewish family in the story replaced by Muslim characters, with one of the characters falling in love with a Hindu boy. But why should a play that celebrates interfaith amity upset anyone?    

A crowded timeline 

Unfortunately, there has been a growing tendency to jettison the ‘other’ in recent times, with the administration mostly looking away. Hindutva units have vandalised churches, protested against the hijab, and called for banning books, films and plays critical of its ideology. When Mira Nair adapted Vikram Seth’s  A Suitable Boy for television, a kiss between the protagonist Lata Mehra and her boyfriend Kabir led to an uproar, another indication of a creeping intolerance towards equality and inclusion. Several stories that deal with “controversial” issues like caste and rape have been dropped from graduation courses, including Mahasweta Devi’s short story, ‘Draupadi’, about a fearless Naxal rebel leader who is named ‘Dopdi’ after the famous  Mahabharata character. To be sure, in the late 1980s India was the first country to bar the import of copies of Salman Rushdie’s  The Satanic Verses.     

The liberal consciousness appears to be unravelling elsewhere as well. Over the past couple of years, several States in the U.S., the world’s oldest democracy, have seen a rise in censorship, and with that a ban on a wide spectrum of books, from the Holocaust graphic novel  Maus (Art Spiegelman) to Harper Lee’s  To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck’s  Of Mice and Men and Toni Morrison’s  The Bluest Eye

The ban on books is putting libraries in peril as well. Growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Susan Orlean went to the library at least thrice a week with her mother. In  The Library Book, an account of the fire that destroyed millions of books in Los Angeles’s Central Library, she looks at the role of the library in promoting one of the foremost ideals of democracy, freedom of expression. “It is also a place,” she writes, “where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.” 

Atticus Finch’s warning

What happens then when libraries – or books and their adaptations — are at risk? It’s never a good idea to police or censor books, for it limits a reader’s access to diverse content, say, on race, gender, caste, religion. If a child is restricted from reading  To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, consider what she will miss out on. The book tells the story of a lawyer, Atticus Finch, who stuns people of his town in the American south when he defends a black man wrongly accused of rape. Throughout the darkness of the trial, he guides his children to face the ugliness. When six-year-old Scout Finch has a difficult first day in school, her father tells her, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  

History shows that books that are banned often find their way to more readers. In  Lenin’s Tomb, David Remnick’s account of the fall of the Soviet Union, he writes about a surreal moment on the Moscow subway in 1988/1989 with people reading sky-blue copies of Boris Pasternak’s  Doctor Zhivago, till then available only in samizdat or underground versions. The philosopher Grigori Pomerants told him: “People read  Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time and they discovered that Orwell, who got this education at Eton and on the streets of colonial Burma, understood the soul, or soullessness, of our society better than anyone else.” 

One of the most famous books to have been banned is of course James Joyce’s  Ulysses, celebrating its 100th year in 2022. It was serialised in an American journal, before being published as a book by Sylvia Beach, owner of the Paris bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, on February 2, 1922. The stream-of-consciousness novel, which profiles a day in the life of Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom and his wife Molly Bloom, has survived controversy, bans and legal action to be hailed as a “monument to the human condition”. 

In a wonderful twist, however, the minute a ban is announced, a book is bound to get most attention. When the bar on  Maus became known, sales went up exponentially, with one publisher even announcing that it was getting extra copies to distribute them free to students. 

The future is here

With tolerance for diversity running thin, fiction is becoming reality too. Suddenly, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel  Fahrenheit 451, about a time in the future when reading and thinking and books are banned, doesn’t seem about the future anymore. In the novel, as books are ordered to be burnt, the fireman Montag meets a community of people who have been memorising books to keep them alive: “Each man had a book he wanted to remember, and did.” Published in 1953, Bradbury had eerily told the  Paris Review in 2010: “Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again.” 

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2022 7:02:36 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/book-and-theatre-bans-in-a-living-culture-of-fear/article65626240.ece