It’s a slippery slope when we start banning books and even worse, withdrawing or recalling books. Do books need to start passing through a censor soon, to determine what is acceptable and what is not? Not that even a censor would help – because apparently all it takes is a few people to take offense at something in a book or movie for it to find itself in trouble.
I was a little shocked to read that Penguin India is withdrawing all copies of Wendy Doniger’s book “The Hindus : An Alternative History” from the Indian market. What an utterly bad precedent, and how unnecessary.
It’s not that Wendy Doniger’s book is a great scholarly work that I think everyone should read. I reviewed Doniger’s book back in 2009, when I talked about how she calls the Aryans as cattle thieves and how she confuses symbolism for fact. As someone with a doctorate in Sanskrit, surely she knows that Sanskrit is full of symbolism and most words have multiple meanings ? Surely she also knows that the legend she is quoting has widely published alternative explanations based on the twin meanings of the word “go” in Sanskrit – “cow” and “light”. Yet she sticks to her literal meaning, without even mentioning the alternate interpretation.
I wrote again about the book in 2010, when her book was nominated a finalist for the Book Critics Award. I wrote about how she portrays Dasaratha as a sex-addict and claims that Lakshmana lusted after Sita. Clearly, she manages to see things in the Ramayana that no one else has seen so far, and one can argue that perhaps she is the one seeing with a dirty lens.
Her pseudo-Freudian analyses are certainly not backed up by any qualifications or training in psychoanalysis, as far as I can see from her CV. Perhaps she was aiming for controversy, even if it lost her some credibility. Whatever her reasons, the impression I received after reading her book was that it was not a great scholarly work, whatever the author’s credentials. It is not worth the attention it has been getting, and the attention it will get in the coming weeks and months.
But Penguin India’s decision is not only a blow for free speech, it also risks making a martyr out of Wendy Doniger and makes much of her book. Now Ms. Doniger can make statements like this -
Ms. Doniger said she was “deeply troubled by what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate.”
If Ms. Doniger was aiming for controversy, she has certainly succeeded now.