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Why not go samizdat?

Go anonymous and publish The Satanic Verses underground.

india Updated: Jan 26, 2012 23:24 IST
Anu Kumar

So Jaipur ended on a bit of an anti-climax. The writer who would be present, remained absent, and did not even make a virtual presence, forced to remain away by the presence of protestors, the doublespeak of governments at the Centre and the state, the concocted fictions of administrations and the helplessness in the face of this all of the organisers. Soon, the tweets on the matter will die down as well.

And writers will think twice before daring to make a gesture of protest. And we will become citizens, comfortable in our cocooned existence, not questioning the curtailing of an essential freedom, that of expression highlighted once again by this issue and symbolised now and perhaps for a long time yet by that book: The Satanic Verses.

This story of what 'did' not happen at a literary festival is now well known. When a writer remained away, those who read out passages from his book from pieces of paper became isolated figures of protest and had to leave or be whisked away, depending on the account you are reading.

Writers, like artists, who are arguably the most forceful representatives of freedom of expression, cannot really protest in isolation. Hari Kunzru had to follow up his tweet on reading from Rushdie's book with another one, issuing an apology if he had caused offence. A gesture forced and rendered necessary considering the circumstances. But then the freedom to offend, as Rushdie has said elsewhere, is part of the essential freedom of expression. Gestures of defiance such as those by Kunzru and others will remain a quickly forgotten gesture because these soon became acts rendered in isolation.

When a vital freedom is threatened, a book needs a wider support network. The ban imposed in 1988 on The Satanic Verses is a customs ban that prohibits 'the import and export of goods of any specified description'. It was never published because the publisher was advised not to, on grounds that its publication would threaten public peace.

If this is the case, what's to stop its publication as 'samizdat writing' in India? This term was first applied to publications in the erstwhile Soviet Bloc put out secretly and by underground presses, and then passed on from reader to reader so as to evade the harsh censorship rules prevailing. Countries such as Poland have a long tradition of underground presses. In Iran, a samizdat Persian version of The Satanic Verses was published in 2000.

It has also been argued that the ban on the book helped fuel sales. The book's sales picked up in the US and Britain following the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini. By that same argument, the ban helps certain figures to retain some importance in the name of religion.

India has a long tradition of small presses, little magazines, and excerpts from The Satanic Verses could appear in these. Sheer quantity could help outnumber the numbers of its opponents — most of whom proudly profess never to have read the book. Computer technology that would enable its quick mass anonymous production could also assist. If vague, amorphous reasons can be given for stifling an essential freedom, perhaps it's time almost similar methods — amorphous and anonymous — were used in support of that same freedom.

Anu Kumar is a Singapore-based writer. Her novel, It takes a murder, will be published later this year. The views expressed by the author are personal.