Last week, we heard that Wendy Doniger’s other book, On Hinduism, published by Aleph had,come under attack from the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS). After Penguin had reached an out-of-court settlement with the SBAS agreeing to withdraw all remaining copies and pulp the book, expectation was high that Aleph would do the same. Booksellers in Bangalore, according to an article in the Times of India had been asked to send stock back. Rupa, Aleph’s parent company, came out with a statement denying this, but without shedding any light as to their future intention regarding the book. On Monday, Batra hosted a press conference in Bangalore announcing an undertaking with Rupa. As a writer who has written on the epics, has been published by Penguin, who has reviewed The Hindus and has, as a result, been trolled on Twitter and on Facebook, I decided to go hear what SBAS’ Dinanath Batra had to say.
Despite the Twitter and Facebook storms, innumerable TV sound bytes, and headlines in the English language press, there were few journalists in attendance. It was largely the local Kannada press in attendance, who (for no fault of theirs) had to be brought up to speed on this issue – this may reflect the fact that this issue is of interest only to the English-language media and its audience. There was, understandably, a great deal of confusion over the titles of Doniger’s two books – On Hinduism and The Hindus.
The SBAS passed out a variety of material to the audience listing all of their problems with Doniger’s books. They had done their homework, and Batra – even if he did reiterate the claim that “the approach of Wendy [Doniger] is that of a woman hungry for sex” – had read Doniger’s book cover to cover, and had carefully thought through his objections to Doniger’s books. One may not agree with Batra’s stance but he is within his rights to object to Doniger’s writing — and as he has repeatedly underlined — he does not condone violence and has used legal means to challenge her books. At the press conference, Batra claimed to have reached an undertaking with Aleph.
The term ‘undertaking’, it turned out, was misleading – the copy of a letter from RK Mehra, chairman of Aleph, circulated at the press conference, informed Batra that the book had sold out and was out of stock and cheekily went on to suggest a reason for its popularity: “This was probably due to various statements made in public as well as the media coverage of your objections to the book published by Penguin.”
The letter did not promise to withdraw the book but offered instead to the below: Upon receiving your objects we sent these to four scholars independently for review as this is common practice in such cases. We expect a response from the concerned scholars next week and shall deal with your concerns as required. As such we are writing this letter to you without prejudice to all our rights and contentions.
This book which is out of stock with us shall not be reissued until the concerns are addressed for an acceptable resolution of the whole matter. The SBAS spokesperson declared that they were largely happy with this response, although they had requested clarifications on a few issues, and regarded this as one more successful resolution in their favour in a long string of cases — including an earlier, successful ban of Paula Richman’s book Many Ramayanas which contained A K Ramanujan’s essay Three Hundred Ramayanas.
Here, for me, lies a huge and unspoken tragedy. While The Hindus has proliferated on the internet after the ban, and sales have shot through the roof, there are other more valuable books which have been driven into literary extinction due to the ongoing attempt to censor Hindu-related texts. The furore over Richman’s Many Ramayanas, for example, has sadly made her other anthology, Ramayana Stories in Modern South Asia, iunavailable and little-known in India. Ramayana Stories in Modern South Asia contains translations of fascinating retellings of the Ramayana in other Indian languages – Telegu, Kannada and Tamil. In this anthology, I found all the alternative perspectives and traditions that I had hoped (and failed) to discover in Doniger’s work – such as an excerpt from the famous kannada Dalit writer Kuvempu’s “Shudra Tapasvi” (which explores Kuvempu’s own problems, as a Ram bhakt, with the treatment of lower-castes in the epic) and an essay on the film version of Kanchana Sita.
This essay led me to discover for myself C N Sreekantan Nair’s original play, with it’s fascinating, feminist interpretations of characters like Lakshman’s wife, Urmila. Doniger’s book is readable and interesting, but it’s Richman’s anthology that truly offers an alternative history peopled by the accounts of women, marginalised elements of society, lower-castes etc. These translations facilitate an important and necessary conversation between writing in the vernacular — so often surprisingly radical and subversive — and Indian writing in English. This has repercussions not just for literature, but for Hindu identity — discussion around which tend to prioritise sanskrit texts and Brahmanical perspectives and negate oral and performance traditions in the vernacular.
Yet, such conversations can only be facilitated through educational institutions and academics in the US, who are willing to fund academic work and translations of these little-known texts. With translations and essays on vernacular texts and disappearing oral traditions being banned from University syllabi, there is little incentive and much risk for publishers to circulate such books here. When these texts and retellings disappear, this conversation – which is pivotal to literature, politics and even the evolution of a Hindu identity – dies a quiet death.