Delhi-based publisher Navayana’s decision to not publish the English translation of Joe D’cruz’s Tamil fiction novel Aazhi Soozh Ulagu, has rekindled the eternal debate about the freedom to create. The question being asked again is, “Can politics and literature truly be kept apart?”
The author in question is a Sahitya Akademi award winner for his novel Korkai, which deals with the lives of fishermen from Tamil Nadu. He has now come under the scanner because he aired a personal opinion about his political leanings.
His support for the BJP candidate, Narendra Modi, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections has earned him some harsh criticism from the publishing world and otherwise. Coming soon after the widespread objection against the withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s controversial book, The Hindus, this new event has evoked mixed reactions.
City Express asks a few authors and bookstore owners about their views.
“I can understand how a political publishing house would reject a non-fiction manuscript that plainly does not match its political leanings. But how can it ensure that a writer’s personal views, which may not be reflected in a work of fiction, are in line with its own?
Only by vetting the writer thoroughly. I would suggest that Navayana make every one of its prospective writers fill in a detailed questionnaire that would leave his or her political views in no doubt,” says author and journalist C K Meena.
Although she thinks that her personal and political inclinations and beliefs do come through, broadly, in the way she treats her characters, and in what she make them say or do, this needn’t be the case always. “For example, I wonder what would happen if I wrote a novel from a rapist’s point of view. Would a feminist publishing house reject me?” she asks.
Vikram Sampath, author and co-founder of the Bangalore Literature Festival says, “I think any sort of intolerance, whether its for right wing extremism or left wing, is detrimental to the literary and arts world. While intellectual fascism can be dangerous, a publisher must judge a book for its literary merit. And although publishers have the right to decline a book, this decision should have come before they decided to publish the book in the first place. It is not right that the publishers uses an author’s personal opinion against him or her.
And if they do, then we have no right to protest against the withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book. Authors need to be judged independent of their political leanings and opinions.”
Shashi Deshpande cannot wrap her mind around the publisher’s move. “I can’t believe this. It’s so weird, like a story that’s not from this country or these times. Isn’t it such an exaggerated response?” she says.
“How can a publisher do that,” she asks bewildered. “Of course they can, but then writers will have to keep their mouth shut all the time.”
Referring to Penguin’s withdrawal and pulping of Doniger’s The Hindus, the Sahitya Akademy awardee adds that publishers are becoming ‘gutless’.
“It’s not just them, it’s also people —I think they give up too easily. No one’s ready to fight anymore.”
As a novelist herself, she admits that a writer’s ideologies can be reflected through his/ her characters. “But a novel is not about ideologies; a novel is about life and the million, million changes that take place as we go through it,” she says.
As for this instance, she says that Modi is being given too much importance for a single person. “Whenever his name is mentioned, it excites people. We should just learn to look at him as we any other politician, not a magician and not a villain who will chop people’s heads off — not that he will,” she declares.
“In an ideal world, literature and political parties won’t have anything to do with each other,” says Subodh Sankar, owner of Atta Gallata bookstore. “Literature should always be viewed in the context of art. And we’re a free country and freedom of expression is still valid here, isn’t it? That being said, today there are fringe elements in both spheres and when one of them steps over a line, awkward situations arise,” he continues.
According to Subodh, this is definitely a one-off incident and shouldn’t be taken to be indicative of the downward spiral of Indian publishing.
Ravi Menzes, owner of another bookstore Goobes on Church Street would rather not comment on the issue as he hasn’t read the book, but he believes that censorship of any form is counter-productive.
“People can always read up, get information on the Internet, and the work becomes more even popular,” he says.