When I first read about how Rohinton Mistry's Booker-nominated novel 'Such a Long Journey' was dropped from Mumbai University's BA English syllabus, I was enraged. Aditya Thackeray — Uddhav Thackeray's son and Bal Thackeray's grandson, had paid a visit to the University's vice-chancellor and demanded that the book be withdrawn for containing a few passages that were critical of the Shiv Sena's violent ways during the 1970's (the period wherein the novel is set). The University immediately fell at Aditya's feet, pulling the book off the second year BA syllabus the very next day.
The issue hit close to home. I was an English major and History Honours student at St Xavier's College — the same institution that Mistry is also an alumnus of and where Aditya Thackeray is currently a final year History student. When I was in college, 'Such a Long Journey' was not a prescribed text but a part of additional reading for the second year subject on 'Indian writing in English'. I had read the book then (along with the rest of Mistry's work) and was moved enough by it to select it for an assignment paper. Mistry's fiction narrates the personal stories of Parsi characters laced with characteristic humour. His books while focusing on individual tragedy and triumph make constant references to the socio-political situation in Mumbai and India of the time.
Aditya Thackeray took advantage of a couple of such references to the Shiv Sena in 'Such a Long Journey' and found the 'perfect cause' to gain mileage out of before his big launch into politics at the annual Shiv Sena Dussehra rally on October 17th. The political party's gimmick of vigilantism was pathetic but tried and tested. A book ban was a sure shot way to grab the headlines.
Dr Frazer Mascarenhas S J, the current Principal of St Xavier's College admirably took on his student over the book's withdrawal. He wrote on college notice board -
"The book in question has not evoked any controversy in civil society and is considered an example of excellent literature, recounting life as lived by the common men and women of our time. It does reflect critically on political parties of all hues and in particular deplores the threats of violence unleashed in the 1970s by a particular political party in Maharashtra. It is inconceivable that in the 21st century, a political party will not show the maturity to accept criticism and answer it by the evidence of its own actions. Is it not unreasonable, that literature is banned, merely because it dares to critique us? St Xavier's College regrets that this book, written by an alumnus, and widely acclaimed in the literary world, has been treated in this manner."
Yesterday, Maharashtra's CM Ashok Chavan echoed Shiv Sena's line and claimed that the book had "abusive language" and hence should have never been included in the curriculum. He too seems to have forgotten that the book was a part of a literature and not history course, where it was treated as exactly what it claims to be — a work of fiction. Like Salil Tripathi says in his column in Mint — "If all characters in every work of fiction are to behave impeccably, what will become of our epics. Will the Mahabharatha be withdrawn because Duryodhana asks Dushasana to drag Draupadi by her hair?"
The withdrawal from the BA syllabus is not all though. When a friend went to a Crossword outlet in Mumbai looking for a copy of 'Such a Long Journey', she was told by the store's staff that it was not being stocked because there was an "issue" with the book.
Rohinton Mistry came out and issued a statement about the controversy surrounding the book. He says — "It is the expeditious decision by Mumbai University which causes profound dismay….One thing remains: a political party demanded an immediate change in syllabus and Mumbai University provided de luxe service via express delivery, making the book disappear the very next day. The university, in the person of the vice-chancellor, occupies an exalted position in civilised society, the champion of academic independence and freedom of expression. Instead Mumbai University has come perilously close to institutionalising the ugly notion of self-censorship."
Like Mistry has said though, there is a bright spot. Civil society has responded with outrage, questions and petitions. Twitter, Facebook, the traditional and online media are all abuzz with people slamming Mumbai University's decision. Teachers, citizens' groups, bloggers, journalists have all taken a stand.
As for Aditya Thackeray — the wannabe hate inciter, his first strike in the political arena has served its purpose of lodging his name into the public consciousness. He acknowledges to not have read the book barring the few passages on the Sena brought to his notice. Sample this quote from the young Sena scion on the book — "Most importantly, I think opinions and facts should be treated differently." Really??? So now a University and its students must bow down to a 20-year-old's 'opinion' on opinions? If that's not perverse logic then what is? And by the same logic should not the Saamna (Shiv Sena's political mouthpiece) be banned for their criticism of everyone from Sonia Gandhi to Sachin Tendulkar?
The best summation of Aditya Thackeray however comes from Rohinton Mistry himself. He says — "What can — what should — one feel about him? Pity, disappointment, compassion? Twenty years old, in the final year of a BA in History at my own Alma mater, the beneficiary of a good education, he is about to embark down the Sena's well-trodden path, to appeal, like those before him, to all that is worst in human nature. Does he have to? No. He is clearly equipped to choose for himself. He could lead, instead of following the old regime. He could say something radical- that burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul, will not house one homeless person, nor will it provide gainful employment to anyone, not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever."
Additional reading and videos: