This is what India’s greatest city has come to.
A gawky 20-year-old history student looking for an event to accompany his impending break into politics asks the vice-chancellor (VC) of one of India’s greatest universities to withdraw an award-winning novel that’s been on the syllabus since 2007. Within 24 hours, the VC cravenly complies with the absurd demand.
The young man is Aditya Thackeray, son of Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray and student of Mumbai’s famed St Xavier’s College. That’s him, in the photo above, brandishing a sword earlier this week during that political debut, having achieved his first political feat: getting Mumbai University VC Rajan Welukar to withdraw from the syllabus a 1991 book, Such a Long Journey, by former bank clerk, Bombay boy and now-celebrated Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry (The irony: Mistry also went to St Xavier’s).
This is what India’s grand, old party has come to.
Asked about the university’s ban, Maharashtra’s Congress Chief Minister Ashok Chavan parrots the line of the Shiv Sena, a party founded and nurtured on hate, divisiveness and violence. The few paras he’s read in Mistry’s book are “highly objectionable”, says Chavan, who the previous day argues that bans impede the growth of a literary culture. “We will not,” he now says, “prescribe such a book for students.”
How then has the book been studied by MA and BA students for three years?
The point isn’t that all of Maharashtra’s major parties have never had a problem with the book — that itself reveals their venality. The point is that Chavan is the latest Congress chief minister to have bowed to the Shiv Sena, a party that has never ruled Maharashtra on its own steam in the 44 years since Bal (I refuse to use the honorific Balasaheb) Thackeray founded it to drive “Madrasis” out of what was then Bombay. And outside Maharashtra, its nakedly parochial politics have got nowhere.
Yet, the Congress persists in kowtowing to the Sena’s agenda. Don’t buy the Congress’ argument that their chief minister’s views are his own. In recent years, the Congress and its alliance partner, the Nationalist Congress Party, have often competed with the Sena’s failed attempts at populism. Instead of cracking down and standing by their party’s ideals, the Congress and NCP have winked at the Sena’s assaults on Bihari and UP taxi drivers, allowed attacks on young men from across India appearing for railway exams in Mumbai to go unprosecuted, and largely let Bollywood be intimidated when it needed protection from the Sena’s goons. This appeasement is in line with the Congress’ history of short-term populism: whether Indira Gandhi’s nourishing of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Rajiv Gandhi’s opening of the locks on the now-demolished Babri Masjid, or a ban on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.
What is it about Mistry’s book that riles Aditya and Chavan?
Such a Long Journey is the tumultuous story of Parsi bank clerk Gustad Noble, whose story plays out in early 1970s Bombay. These were Mistry’s years in the city, when India was at war with Pakistan, in the days before Indira Gandhi’s draconian Emergency. Noble struggles with a rebellious son, a superstitious wife, a friend’s betrayal and eccentric neighbours, as he weaves his way through love, fate and espionage.
On September 14, someone in the Sena’s student wing decides the book says “derogatory” things about Maharashtrians and Mumbai’s famed dabbawallahs (By that warped logic, they should also have objected to the book’s other irreverent references — from Indira Gandhi to the Parsis). Copies of the book are burned.
VC Welukar invokes rarely used emergency powers and by September 15 drops the book from the second-year BA syllabus, where it is an optional text. The new Thackeray tries nuance. “We have no issues with the book being available in the market,” says Aditya. “But it is being forced upon us. That is not acceptable.” One of his mob is more direct, telling television cameras: The writer is lucky he lives in Canada, otherwise we would burn him as well.
After protests by students and professors snowball, the usually reclusive Mistry — frequently profiled as a Muslim and pulled out of US airport lines — reacts with eloquence and dignity to the Sena’s new youth wing leader, Aditya: “What can — and 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.”
Let’s apply Mistry’s musings to the man who now echoes the Sena, Chief Minister Chavan. “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…not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever… he can think independently, and he can choose.” Too often has the Congress chosen badly. Can it change now?