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Mumbai University Censors Rohinton Mistry

Mumbai University Censors Rohinton Mistry

December 28, 2010

Salman Rushdie talks Shiv Sena, cryptofascism, and censorship in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In October of this year, Rohinton Mistry’s prize-winning debut novel, Such a Long Journey, was pulled from Mumbai University’s syllabus. Following Gustad Noble, a bank clerk and Parsi family man drawn into the intrigue and corruption of the Indira Gandhi years, the novel was added to the English syllabus four years ago.

The novel, writes The Guardian’s Nina Martyris, is evocative of “a Bombay of mutton samosas, prostitutes and convent schools, spies who use lines from Othello to pass on messages and public walls which need god-photos to keep them clean.” It’s a dark, grimy portrait of 70s Bombay, one which takes on Indira Gandhi, the then US and Pakistani governments, and conservative political party Shiv Sena. And therein lies the rub.

Shiv Sena, only five years old at the time Such a Long Journey hit shelves, was formed by Bal Thackeray and is currently headed by his son, Uddhav. But it is Uddhav’s son, Aditya Thackeray, a 20 year old student at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, whose leading the charge against Mistry’s novel, claiming it’s disrespectful to his grandfather, Shiv Sena, and the dabbawallas, according to Professor C.R. Sadasivan, president of the Bombay University and College Teachers' Union.

Aditya Thackeray, according to his light-on-details Facebook page, “belongs to a family which instantly spells politics and creativity. His profile picture features the 20 year old posed with what appears to be a scimitar and a serious expression. Serious, perhaps, because his comments about Mistry’s work may have won him support among his own party, but shown him to be a firebrand of the worst sort.

Thackeray told The Hindustan Times that, “We [Shiv Sena] have no issues with the book being available in the market but it is being forced upon us. That is not acceptable.”

The novel, although taught at Mumbai University, is not part of the younger Thackeray’s course load at the affiliated St. Xavier’s College. Shiv Sena groups are burning the book, while politicians, including Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, who have not read the novel but rather the passages in question out of context, are declaring it an insult. “I have not read the entire book, but from the paragraphs shown to me, my opinion is that the book contains abusive language... words that I can’t speak. It should not have been included by the university in its curriculum,” Chavan told reporters.

So how does a book get removed from a syllabus? Generally, there are questions to be asked, evaluations, and discussion. Thackeray, however, simply called Mumbai University’s Vice Chancellor, Rajan Welukar, and asked for the book to be removed. Welukar acquiesced immediately.

Mistry, an NRI from Mumbai, currently resides in Ontario, Canada, had this to say in a written statement,

“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...

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."

Censorship--and politically motivated censorship--is old hat in India. And standing up to Shiv Sena, a party known for its sometimes violent tactics, is rare. But Mistry’s novel has struck a chord with students and professors, with many backing both the book and Mistry. At a talk in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last month, prize winning author Salman Rushdie, also once the target of Shiv Sena attacks for his 1995 novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh, summed up the issue particularly well.

Unfortunately, Bombay University has recently acquired a chancellor who is, let’s say sympathetic to the interests of a very bigoted political movement, the Shiv Sena, which is both Hindu nationalist and narrowly Marathi language nationalist and cryptofascist...
...So what happens is the youngest of the Thackeray’s, the grandson, in a bid for political glory, discovers that Such a Long Journey has passages which are disrespectful of the Shiv Sena and the Thackerays. And so he calls the head of the university and says you’ve got to take it off the syllabus and without any discussion, this is done. So a work of literature that is freely available in the country, has always been, has been taught with great respect in a modern university syllabus is banned just because one little kid who’s hardly out of the egg and probably has not even read a newspaper in his life, let alone a novel said so. 
...Obviously it’s good that there’s been a very large, powerful response to that, but the trouble is that the ruling dynasty of India, Sonya Gandhi and gang are very unlikely to [speak out] because the book is actually ruder about them than it is about the shiv sena. So there we are. It’s now considered to be acceptable to ban a book because it does slight a political party.

Rushdie continued to give examples of other Shiv Sena attacks on art and literature, including the destruction of ancient Indian texts used by American historian James Laine while researching his controversial biography of Maratha king Shivaji, widely considered a Shiv Sena hero.

“You can now attack a painter and destroy his painting because you disapprove of their content, you can ban a book because somebody is displeased by a political point of view for goodness’ sake,” Rushdie told the audience. “And all you can do is make a noise.”

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