Like every other year, the Banned Books Week (BBW), celebrated in America from September 24 to October 1, draws to a close today. First held in 1982, it is essentially an American event that promotes free speech and the freedom to read, and is supported by a motley group of organisations representing library associations, booksellers, publishers, journalists and writers. That is not to say that the propensity to deem certain books offensive, and thereby restrict their circulation, exists in the US alone.
A quick glance through the list of books banned over the ages and across countries reads like a literary who's who, enough to prompt an aspiring writer to wish to be banned somewhere. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio's Decameron and the Arabian Nights have all, at some point, fallen foul of the US's Federal Anti-Obscenity Act on grounds that they were 'lewd', 'indecent' or 'filthy'. Nor has the axe spared John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, James Joyce's Ulysses, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 or JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Over the decade, the Harry Potter series has occupied the top slot in the American Library Association's list of banned books on the ground that it "promotes witchcraft" and that the central character "has no moral arc". Whether your work is cerebral or inspired or popular, someone, somewhere, is surely getting rubbed the wrong way.
A direct, or even veiled, indictment of political authority and State power is always a formal invitation to trouble. Monarchical England would not tolerate John Milton's impassioned argument for free speech in Areopagitica (1644). Nor would Allied countries during the war years (1940-45) be able to hold down George Orwell's withering criticism of the Soviet Union in Animal Farm. Keeping a close check on what is politically appropriate can often lead to ridiculous outcomes: South Africa, during the apartheid, had reportedly banned Black Beauty (a story about a black horse) while The Diary of Anne Frank is reportedly banned in Lebanon as it portrays Jewish people in a favourable light.
Books excite a fair share of passion here in India, which in 1988, became the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses on the grounds of 'denigrating Islam'. Hurt ego, injured pride and wronging historical rights (this, depending on the end you are looking from) cause greater outrage than any tangible threat to power or authority. Mahatma Gandhi's sexual preferences (in Joseph Lelyveld's Great Soul) or the truth about the marital life of Shivaji's parents (in James Laine's Shivaji) might well interest only an antiquarian and yet caused an uproar; perceived injury to religious sentiments (Dwikhandito, the second part of Taslima Nasrin's autobiography) or regional feelings (Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey) ignited passion. The controversy over the purported content of Javier Moro's The Red Sari (a fictional account of the life of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi) led to its publication still being stalled in India.
India does not celebrate a 'Banned Books Week'. Perhaps it doesn't need to. An outrage is momentary and once it has found its release, the demand for a ban often whittles down - or the ban itself is rescinded, albeit on a rather subdued note. The onset of the era of downloading e-books anyway defeats the purpose of territorial bans on ink-on-paper literature. Moral boundaries alter with time; today, amid the deluge of internet pornography, it is difficult to fathom why Madame Bovary or Lady Chatterley's Lover were regarded as immoral. What doesn't alter is the potency of the written word. As David Ulin wrote in a 2008 article for the Los Angeles Times, books have a "historical imperative" and "at the right place and time… can be a galvanising factor, for good or ill".