Books and writers have often and throughout the long process of history been at risk. In the moments after the assassination of Julius Caesar, once Mark Antony had turned the tide against Brutus and the other conspirators, a mob went out in search of the killers. On the way they accosted Cinna. This Cinna was not the politician-conspirator. But when the mob wanted to know his identity, he said he was Cinna. The furious Romans pounced on him. He cried out, “I am Cinna the poet! I am Cinna the poet!” That helped him little. “Kill him for his bad verses”, the mob roared. Cinna the poet died, a case of mistaken identity.
Not many years ago, the British historian David Irving was convicted of misrepresenting the historical realities of the Second World War. He refused to believe that the Nazis had engaged in a holocaust, that six million Jews had died, that Auschwitz had happened. His denial of the truth led to a three-year spell in prison.
The point? It is risky business to deny history or to reshape part of it in one’s own fashion. But, yes, where creativity is concerned, that is another matter altogether. The state ought scrupulously to stay away from encroaching on the right of the writer to forge his or her own perspectives on life and the larger human story.
But that precisely has been the trouble with the state over the past few centuries. Where in very early times a surefire way of intimidating writers was through making bonfires of their books, in the recent past it has been through a generation of popular discontent against writers that good, well-meaning books have been flung into hellfire.
In 1759, a full three decades before the storming of the Bastille, Voltaire ran into trouble with the state. It found his Candide a rather immoral piece of writing. Now, if you thought the twentieth century was a huge improvement on the eighteenth, you would be wrong. Harper Lee was censured for To Kill a Mockingbird, a work in which the writer has a white lawyer defend a black man. America was outraged. How could Lee commit such sacrilege? White Americans were aghast.
Candide and Mockingbird should not have been preyed upon by the state or society. In equal measure, The Satanic Verses should have been allowed to be read. Rajiv Gandhi and then the Ayatollah Khomeini had no business interfering with the freedom of the writer. And yet you have that little question somewhere: should a writer, no matter how influential or liberated, take upon himself the liberty of mounting a satirical assault on the founder of a deeply profound faith, any faith? There are, let us agree, certain frontiers of experience writers ought not to cross. And literature must not dwindle into the polemical.
In similar fashion, the state should have no business demarcating what individuals like Taslima Nasreen ought or ought not to write. Her work Lajja remains a bold expression of a sensitive woman’s understanding of the social pressures the world’s poorer regions are subjected to day after day. You may agree or not agree with her view of life and society, but when you demand that her works be banned, you are striking at the roots of intellectual freedom.
When the state becomes an instrument of fear, as in the matter of the hapless Boris Pasternak (the Soviet Union kept Doctor Zhivago banned from 1957 to 1988), something of medieval horror takes possession of our souls. Pasternak was accused of undermining Bolshevism in his work. He dared not receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 1958. He died, more of heartbreak than illness, in 1960.
Buddhadeva Basu and D.H. Lawrence have borne the brunt of state ire for the realism they have portrayed in their works. In Raat Bhor Brishti (Rain Through the Night), Basu states a truth we often overlook: genteel inhibitions sometimes collapse into simple carnal passions we may not have reason to regret after we have experienced them. Much a similar portrayal of the attraction of the flesh of man for that of woman is to be had in Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Both Basu and Lawrence, or their works, were dragged through the courts because the self-righteous could not stomach the realism in their stories. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, Anna Akhmatova paid a similar price, though for political reasons. Her poetry was considered subversive; her former husband and her son were put to death in the infamous era of the purges.
The inference, from all our reading of book-related history, is simple: authors have often come under abusive public assault over their writing or have aroused the ire of the state. In a good number of instances, the courts have stepped in. In India’s Gujrat state, Joseph Lelyveld’s work, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India remains banned for its unflattering portrayal of the man.
In Pakistan, Stanley Wolpert’s acclaimed work, Jinnah of Pakistan, is strictly off limits for Pakistanis because it details Jinnah’s love of wine and pork. Not long ago, Wendy Doniger ran into grave trouble in India with her work, The Hindus. The book was withdrawn all across the country because some bigots felt she had humiliated the Hindu faith in its pages.
The truth, you see, is hard to accept. Back in 1936, Sajjad Zaheer’s Angarey was proscribed by the British colonial administration in India. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita took a good beating for its depiction of sex between an elderly man and a girl not yet out of childhood. Samaresh Basu saw his Projapoti dragged through smear and the courts for alleged sexuality. Read that as immorality, in the eyes of the state.
It is all a matter of sensitivities working at different levels. But, then again, the reality must prevail, even in history-based fiction. You cannot deviate from history. Which is why you cannot go against books. You cannot burn down libraries. You cannot take the likes of Nawal Saadawi to prison for the way they look upon the world.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is an independent journalist and writer