It takes about a year to publish a book now, what with the festivals, the hairdos, the film producers and the jetlag. At the Jaipur Literary Festival earlier this year, I was happy to see the Indian schoolchildren out in force, ready – as nowhere else – with their autograph books and stubby pencils, keen to capture a signature just in case the author turned out to be famous. The children of Jaipur seem to imagine that anyone placed before a microphone is a possible celebrity. But, more than that, they have watched the talent shows over the last few years, and they know the difference between a common clerk and a monster celebrity is merely a matter of time and a little exposure to the public vote. It was nice, though, to see how open they were to the notion that writers stood a chance, as opposed to the average Joe mangling a Whitney Houston song.
In the journey last week from Vancouver to Toronto, I noticed that the morning TV shows have happily joined the game. They like having writers on, especially if the writer is willing to cast light on every kind of moral torpor except his own. On the Fanny Kiefer show, I pretended to drink coffee from a mug while decrying the loss of innocence at the cinema. ‘Terrific talking to you,’ Fanny said, before a producer ran up to tell me she knew somebody who once sat on Marilyn Monroe’s lap.
People like having books, or the notion of books, in their life, but by the time I got to Toronto I noticed a hurricane was brewing about just the opposite: about the moment when extremists decide that a book should be put out of commission. A regular question writers get asked in interviews nowadays is what they think of e-books. I say I like them – to say anything else is to sound like a silent movie star bemoaning the arrival of sound – but I don’t like to miss an obvious chance for a joke, so I make the point that e-books have one distinct disadvantage over printed matter. I say I come from a country, Scotland, with a lively history of burning books, and my people came from Ireland, a country which, within living memory, took a box of matches to books by Edna O’Brien and John McGahern. As well as that, Germany is not too far and Iran is never off the telly. The thing about e-books is, they’re a lot harder to set fire to.
In Toronto, my joke took on a darker hue – the darkest – with the news that Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey had just been banned by the new vice-chancellor of the University of Mumbai. The student wing of a far right organisation called Shiv Sena had burned copies of the novel at the university gates. Why? Because there’s a line in the book that isn’t very nice about Shiv Sena. It is traditional in such cases for the protestors not to have read the book, and this was no exception. The mob leader said it was a good thing the author lived in Canada, or ‘we would burn him as well.’ Nice. Mistry’s book, which has been part of the syllabus since its publication 20 years ago, was summarily banned.
This week, the Writers’ Union of Canada (along with the PEN All-India Centre and Mistry’s Canadian publisher, McClelland and Stewart) joined forces to condemn the ban as an affront not only to free speech but to the basic standards of decency underpinning the university. According to PEN:
India has lapsed into the worst kind of competitive populism, with political forces seeking to outdo one another in destroying and banning works of literature, art, theatre and cinema, in the name of an aggrieved religious, ethnic or religious sensibility. Not only does this constitute a betrayal of the liberal Enlightenment ideology that ushered India into postcolonial freedom, but it also makes nonsense of our claim to being a 21st century society.
In Canada, it looked as if an entire country, an entire community, as well as every writer I met, was ready to defend Mistry. Canada had seen such fights before: Deborah Ellis’s children’s book Three Wishes was pulled from school library shelves by the Toronto District School Board following an objection from the Canadian Jewish Congress, who felt the author’s interviews with Palestinian children constituted some sort of offence.
Mistry responds as a writer might well do, by suggesting the extremists read a few books, cover to cover. ‘Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,’ he says, ‘in order to consider the options: Step back from the abyss, or go over the edge.’ And while they’re about it, he adds, they might read through Tagore’s Gitanjali:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
…Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.