[As] good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.” — John Milton, 17th century poet
Last month, there was such a murder. Or should I say that a patient came to the ICU, the doctors called an emergency meeting and devised a way to wipe out all traces of the patient? The Hindustan Times reported on September 17 that agitated members of the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena, the Shiv Sena’s student wing, protested before the Mumbai University’s vice chancellor, against Rohinton Mistry’s 1991 novel, Such a Long Journey. The book was on the syllabus as an optional text for the Indian literature paper for second-year English literature students.
The Shiv Sena’s student wing demanded that the university drop the book from the syllabus because it expressed “anti-Maharashtrian” sentiments, knowing fully well that the first-term examinations were round the corner as also elections to the university senate. The university complied with astonishing alacrity.
The decision would have been extremely disturbing to students, who had studied the novel over a full term, and was uncharacteristic for an institution that usually balks at the slightest change to the pattern of examination. But the manner in which it banished the book and its justifications are worrying.
This is the fourth year that colleges are teaching this book, a work that has been the subject of many a seminar and one that eminent critics have hailed as a landmark in the history of Indian fiction and praised for its style and depiction of Parsi life and culture.
Set in the turbulent 1970s, it is a socio-political novel; there are a few unflattering references to the Shiv Sena for what the writer perceives as its chauvinism. He also examines and exposes the complicity of other political parties in fostering such attitudes.
We seem to be revisiting this history, but should we vilify the author or hail his literature for its lasting human insights?
Will political parties now dictate what texts the university should prescribe? Does it mean that our students cannot study writers such as Kiran Nagarkar, Shashi Tharoor and Vijay Tendulkar, who cock a snook at so many idols and icons? What kind of signal are we sending to our students regarding tolerance, civilised forms of protest and debating issues?
Equally troubling is the deafening silence from the intellectual fraternity and civil society. Is there no Voltaire in our midst to cry out, “I may disagree with what Mistry has said, but I’ll defend to the death his right to say it”?