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Initiation rites

Print edition : Nov 19, 2010 T+T-
ACTIVISTS OF THE Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena and the Shiv Sena burn copies of the novel during a protest in Mumbai on September 14.-AP

ACTIVISTS OF THE Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena and the Shiv Sena burn copies of the novel during a protest in Mumbai on September 14.-AP

Bal Thackeray's grandson Aditya launches himself in true Sena style with a campaign against Rohinton Mistry's book.

Believe me, said Dinshawji, she [Indira Gandhi] is a shrewd woman, these are vote-getting tactics. Showing the poor she is on their side. Saali always up to some mischief. Remember when her pappy was Prime Minister and he made her president of Congress Party? At once she began encouraging the demands for a separate Maharashtra. How much bloodshed, how much rioting she caused. And today we have that bloody Shiv Sena, wanting to make the rest of us into second-class citizens. Don't forget, she started it all by supporting the racist buggers (page 38-39, 1991 edition).

What kind of life was Sohrab going to look forward to? No future for minorities, with all these fascist Shiv Sena politics and Marathi language nonsense. It was going to be like the black people in America twice as good as the white man to get half as much (page 55).

THESE are a couple of offensive paragraphs about the Shiv Sena from Rohinton Mistry's novel Such A Long Journey.

Truth is a bitter pill to swallow, especially for the Shiv Sena. Repeated incidents have shown the party is unable to digest any derogatory remarks about it. The party leader to take offence now is Aditya Thackeray, grandson of Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. The newly anointed leader of the party's students' wing decided in September that Such a Long Journey is offensive to the Sainiks.

The 20-year-old Aditya Thackeray needed an opportunity to show that he had arrived. And so he chose to bash the Booker Prize-nominated, Commonwealth Writers' Prize-winning work of fiction, prescribed for the second year B.A. English syllabus of the University of Mumbai. Mistry's novel was published 20 years ago to universal acclaim.

Until Aditya Thackeray decided to ask for its ban, it was viewed as a brilliant novel and nothing else.

Right-wing antics

In characteristic Sena style, the junior Thackeray burned a copy of the book at the university gates, threatened the Vice-Chancellor and made several irrational and immature statements about Mistry. He was audacious enough to admit that he had not read the entire book but had seen the disparaging references to the Shiv Sena, which, he said, he would not tolerate. Buckling to the threats, the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Rajan Welukar, had the book removed almost overnight from the syllabus.

Justifying his fight, Aditya Thackeray told the media: We have no issues with the book being available in the market but it is being forced upon us. Here we have a book that is a part of our syllabus, which makes it impossible for us to avoid.

Though the Sena's hypocritical and parochial right-wing antics are well-known, academics are disturbed by the speed with which the novel was withdrawn from the syllabus. No proper procedure was followed in its removal.

Activists and the intelligentsia in the metropolis feel that Mistry's novel is the latest victim of a disturbing trend of book banning, film censorship and other such undemocratic actions. This is the second book (after James Laine's book on Shivaji) to face censorship in the State in recent times.

What is more, Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, who has not read the book either, justified the move. He said the book made derogatory remarks about former Congress leader and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as well.

The incident once again shows the disregard for the freedom of speech and expression, say activists of the right to free expression. Who gave Aditya Thackeray the right to tell us what to read and what not to? Who gives Ashok Chavan the right to decide what is good and bad literature? Are they qualified for this task? asks documentary film-maker Anand Patwardhan, who has been a victim of censorship for decades. The characters in novels do not always represent the author's view point. That is the beauty of literature. If writing has to be politically correct, then everything will be so bland, he says.

The other thing is we are a small band who protest. The larger populace is frightened and that's the victory of the Sena and similar types of organisations. Take for example James Laine's book and the controversy about his description of Shivaji's parentage. Although the ban has been lifted, neither the publisher nor booksellers are willing to stock the book, says Patwardhan.

Although the general populace is fearful of crossing the Sena's path, this time around there seems to be a more proactive movement against this form of censorship. Several newspapers, including regional language publications, and television channels reported the incident at great length and their tone certainly was not pro-Sena.

Competitive populism

A statement issued by a prominent writers' group, The Pen All-India Centre India, says:

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 regional sensibility.

There is only one name for a society that bans and burns books, tears down paintings, attacks cinema halls, and disrupts theatre performances under the sign of an aggressive chauvinism. Fascist' is too gentle a description. The exact name is Nazi', it notes.

Rev. Frazer Mascarenhas, Principal of St. Xavier's College, Mumbai (Mistry's alma mater), was among the first to protest when Such a Long Journey was pulled out of the B.A. syllabus. He said: Literature is a place for debate, for dialogue and for dissent. We are painfully aware that not everything that is written is healthy for keeping up the values our society is built on. The politicisation of textbooks would be a case in point. Similarly the hurting of the religious sentiments of any community is starkly objectionable and needs to be proscribed. All this needs to be done in an atmosphere of dialogue, debate and the rule of law not the threat of violence.

When a book is suggested for a syllabus, it goes through a tough screening process, Mascarenhas told Frontline. It enters the curriculum only after the Syllabus Committee and the Board of Studies clear it. He said: Such a Long Journey was part of the postgraduate literature course for 10 years. It was selected for the second year B.A. Literature course four years ago, and has been an extremely popular read. It is frustrating to see the Vice-Chancellor take this action.

If a book had to be removed from the syllabus, the Board of Studies needed to scrutinise the request, he pointed out. At present, all administrative bodies of the University are dissolved as the elections are on. The Vice-Chancellor asked the outgoing Board of Studies to withdraw the book. He was able to do it so quickly because of the current situation, Mascarenhas said.

This might set a bad precedent, according to Sudhir Paranjape, a professor at the Indian School of Social Sciences in Mumbai. We have filed a petition and will hopefully have the book reinstated.

Both Aditya Thackeray and Ashok Chavan talk about the book's offensive language. But the Sena mouthpiece Saamna uses more vulgar language in their articles. Bal Thackeray once famously called other political leaders eunuchs.

Dickensian plot

Reviewers of Such a Long Journey compare Mistry to Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens owing to his skill in writing realist fiction. The book is set in the 1970s, during Indira Gandhi's rule. Mistry's protagonists invariably are ordinary men and women who struggle against all odds to live in Mumbai, a heaving metropolis even then.

Gustad Noble, a Parsi, is the lead character. He is a bank superviser who is constantly irritated with the black-outs and the deterioration of the city due to the impending Bangladesh war. His singular ambition is to see his son gain admission in an Indian Institute of Technology.

Gustad somehow gets enmeshed in murky financial transactions involving the war, which eventually turn sour and upset his entire world. Through Gustad's world Mistry skilfully constructs the story of a small family living against overwhelming odds. His details of Mumbai are honest and fascinating. Mistry peppers the text with risqu Parsi humour and master prose.

Aditya's challenge

The public crowning of Aditya, son of Uddhav Thackeray, was on October 17 at the Shiv Sena's annual Dasara rally in Mumbai's Shivaji Park. After Bal Thackeray delivered his trademark vitriolic speech to a two-lakh-strong crowd at decibels above permitted levels, he formally handed his grandson a ceremonial sword, making him the head of the newly created Yuva Sena.

But Aditya had already launched himself in true Sena style on September 14, when he spearheaded a Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena (BVS) protest against Mistry's book. And he got what he wanted the withdrawal of the book from the syllabus without even the semblance of resistance. The campaign against Mistry's book should be seen for what it is a crude, effective and typical Sena tactic to get attention and, in this case, to launch one more Thackeray into public life. Aditya is a final-year student of B.A. History at St. Xavier's College. Like his father, he is supposed to have an interest in the arts in photography and poetry.

Three years ago, Aditya's father had hinted about his future in politics when he accompanied the former to a political rally. A year ago, Aditya was even part of a delegation that met former Maharashtra Governor S.C. Jamir to discuss a teachers' strike.

Bal Thackeray is practising what he has always lambasted the Congress for dynastic politics. First he handed over the mantle to his son Uddhav and now he has initiated his grandson into politics. A police officer observed, Like many demagogues, Bal Thackeray trusts only those he has control over. It could be that he has knowledge about their activities or it could be blood ties, but he must have some hold over them.

So where is this new move taking the Sena? The Sena has not been doing well for a long while. Its performance in the last elections was its worst ever. The party never quite recovered since the anointing of Uddhav five years ago, despite some high-profile campaigns such as Mee Mumbaikar to regain lost ground. Uddhav never had and is unlikely to develop the common touch his father has had.

In comparison, his cousin Raj, who lost out in the race for control over the Sena, has done much better with his four-year-old party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Aditya's debut is a counter to Raj and his MNS. His brief is to attract those in the 18-30 age group, who drifted away from the Sena when they saw in Raj some of the fire that had attracted them to Bal Thackeray.

There was no ostensible need to create the Yuva Sena as the Sena already had an active youth wing in the BVS. But the BVS revives bad memories since that was where Raj cut his teeth with some virulent campaigns. The Yuva Sena will help the Sena to sideline the BVS slowly.

Old Sena strongholds in Mumbai now look divided the Sena's triangular bhagwa flutters on one side of the road and the MNS' orange, blue and green striped flag on the other. Even the flags and their designs are so telling of the two parties. The Sena's is traditional and appeals to an earlier generation that included mill workers and the lower middle class. The MNS' is modern and flexible the canny Raj and his savvy team have put it to a variety of uses as banners, bumper stickers, mobile phone wallpapers and T-shirts.

Much of the Sena's roar' (its iconic mascot being the tiger) had come from Bal Thackeray, who is now 83 years old and ailing. Thackeray was supported and bolstered by what can now be referred to as the old guard of the Sena men like Pramod Navalkar, Datta Nalawade and Sudhir Joshi. Uddhav has no such support; neither does Aditya.

Until the Sena came to power in 1995, it had the luxury of truant behaviour protesting violently and feeding off the common man's prejudices and sense of injustice. Once it began sharing power with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Sena was forced to abandon its unruly side. Instead, it fell easy prey to the corruption of public political life.

Though the elation of having their party elected to government never quite left its supporters, there was a change in the party's support base. Disillusionment set in when its supporters felt the party did little to take its Marathi credo forward.

Uddhav was never quite able to whitewash this taint, nor could he take the party forward. The Sena has been in limbo for some years and it now looks like the party is looking to a 20-year-old novice to shoulder the challenge of resurrecting it.