Sad, Sadder, Saddest

The HindusThe world doesn’t need another take on the unfortunate incident of Penguin India’s decision to recall and pulp Wendy Doniger’s book “The Hindu – An alternate approach”. My motivation to dwell on this topic is for posterity – to look back at this post few years down and see if I agree with it or not. Morality is not only subjective (changes from culture to culture) but is also temporal (changes within a culture from time to time). So, when you take a civilization as old as Indus and paint a static lens, you are bound to get pretty sub-optimal and unsavory output.

I read through 200+ pages (out of 800+) of the book. I am not going to finish it, but I have enough context to intelligently comment on the book. So here are my comments.

Wendy took a historical, mythological, cultural, psycho-analytical and western view on the civilization. In 800 pages, she mapped out pre-vedic (at least 1500 BCE) to present day. That’s a whole lost to chew. If I were to write a history of Hindus, I would just stick to subjective narrative and objective facts and that’s it. Keep it as neutral as possible. But she felt compelled to apply moral and cultural interpretations. That to me, is a different book. Now on top of it, she takes Valmiki and put his work under Freudian lens. That’s a third book. So, this book is not one but three different genres. The book doesn’t make up its mind on what it is. You can’t blame if readers get confused.

Now, on the writing style. This is purportedly a non-fiction (her acknowledgements . But the writing style vacillates between pedantic and pulp-fiction. In some paragraphs you see her asserting her historian authority and immediately followed by that you will see her psycho-analysing characters (which makes it for interesting read but not under the non-fiction category) and in the third paragraph she immediately resorts to pulp-fictionish satire.

“..the princess in exile is delighted to find that Tiffany’s has a branch in the forest..”

“..The text suggests that Rama might fear that Lakshmana might replace him in bed with Sita; it keeps insisting that Lakshmana will not sleep with Sita. It doth protest too much. (Recall that when Rama kicks Sita out for the first time and bitterly challenges her to go with some other guy, he lists Lakshmana first of all.) (page 259)”

When she is talking about Ramayana, she should realize that she is not talking about a dead mythology but a living symbol worshipped by 700 million people.

In the end even though she wasn’t trying to insult or denigrate, you come out pretty confused about the intent.

And that in my opinion is where the issue is. When people expressed their outrage, I think they were coming from different points of views.

Now to the reaction:
I felt that technology, globalization will make people more tolerant, open, and inclusive. Sadly, the world has become more belligerent, societies have cloistered into narrow enclaves, and nations have become more conservative. At every level of our society, we have developed a “selfie” state of mind. We want to impose our views and we want to obliterate anything outside of it.

“If you are not with us, you are against us!”

Why? If I am not with you, why does it mean I am opposed to you. Can’t we tolerate multiple opinions?

Practically, coming to this book, its ridiculous to assume that by pulping few thousand copies, the book will be gone. Its just one internet search away. Frankly, we have to give up this stupid idea that you can control, obliterate, censor things. Music industry is trying to do that for over a decade and finding it frustratingly impossible.

What could have been a better reaction? Write a rebuttal and make it available for free! If you think Wendy’s book is wrong, why not use the same medium to explain your point of view instead of trying to silence her voice. In fact, more people took interest and read the book because of this brouhaha (for example, I wouldn’t have read even those 200 pages).

Now, to the medium. Wendy is the creator and she exercised her freedom of expression by writing the book. Readers are patrons and they expressed by protesting or supporting. The medium is Penguin Books and they also have a role. They tried to paint themselves as victim here, but none of the parties see it that way. Penguin chickened out. Overall, the biggest blame (and responsibility) in my opinion lies with Penguin. They could have considered some creative options (beyond legal). They could have released the copyrights. They could have made it available as free ebook. They could have used social media to raise the debate at broader level. But, they chose to play victim.

Its sad that Wendy decided to write such a book. Fiction or non-fiction, given her literary stature, this was beneath her. If I were to write a book on a civilization, I would have exercised more restraint. The platitudes and sarcasm was unnecessary and inflammatory. Its irresponsible and its only defense is “freedom of expression”.

More sadder that the courts decided to censor it. The concern is, where do you draw the line? Courts can not decide moral standards. What’s written might be in bad taste for few but is definitely legal.

But its saddest that, of all the publishers, Penguin decided to play victim and chicken out. What a shame.

There are no winners here.

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