Saturday, October 23, 2010

PEN India statement on Rohinton Mistry and Such a Long Journey

(My apologies, this should have been posted earlier; I'm travelling at present.)

PEN Statement on Rohinton Mistry Ban


20 October 2010

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

The PEN All-India Centre strongly condemns the removal of Rohinton Mistry’s novel, Such A Long Journey, from the SYBA syllabus of the University of Mumbai’s Literature course. We also express our great disappointment at the manner in which politicians belonging to the supposedly centrist and liberal parties, including the Indian National Congress, have consented to this ban, demanded by the scion of a right-wing political party, the Shiv Sena.

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. Not only does this constitute a betrayal of the liberal Enlightenment ideology that ushered India into postcolonial freedom, but it also makes nonsense of our claim to being a 21st-century society, marked by openness, tolerance of diversity, and respect for the creative imagination.

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 is a matter of extreme sorrow that Mumbai in 2010 is exactly what Munich and Berlin were in 1935. It is for civil society in our city to decide whether we want to plunge deeper into the abyss of Nazi-style obscurantism, dictatorial oppression and a savage destructiveness towards every impulse that is open, receptive, creative and compassionate -- or whether we shall resist it.

Ranjit Hoskote
Naresh Fernandes
Jerry Pinto
For The Executive Committee

More links:

The Shiv Sena explains its position via invective. (Suggesting that Rohinton Mistry is a nobody wanting to be a somebody gives you some idea of that party's levels of ignorance):

PEN Canada backs Mistry, asks Mumbai University to reinstate Such a Long Journey on the syllabus:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The BS column: Rohinton and the Rat Pack

(Published in the Business Standard, October 17, 2010. This was written before The Buck Stops Here show on Rohinton Mistry and the withdrawal of his book from the Mumbai university syllabus.)

“That you say you are offended, insults me mortally. And if you insult one Rat mortally, you offend all Rats gravely. And a grave offence to all Rats is a funeral crime, a crime punishable by –” Salman Rushdie, Luka and the Fire of Life.

In the city of Mumbai, once upon a time, there lived many storytellers. Some came from the slums, and wrote angry, anguished, beautiful poetry about their lives. Some collected memories of Mumbai with loving care, and set down tales that featured the stories of the real Marathi Manoos, the ones who were Hindu but also Anglo-Indian or had names like Sinai and Pereira.

Some wrote of Firozesha Baag, chronicling the dying world of the Parsis, of ordinary men like Gustad Noble, stumbling from the tribulations of his quiet life into a larger conspiracy involving the corruption of the state, the venality and violence of its political parties. It must be remembered that at this time, Mumbai was also known as Bombay, and Bombay was a city that welcomed kahanis, opening its arms to stories and to story-tellers. Some of the best found an ocean of seas of stories here: a young man who worked in advertising called Salman Rushdie, two men who knew the slums intimately, Kiran Nagarkar and Namdeo Dhasal, a banker called Rohinton Mistry who returned to literature in Toronto, remembering and etching the Bombay he had loved so much.

Salman Rushdie spent years in darkness, at the hands of a villain much like the Khattam-Shud he wrote about in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. There were many other Khattam-Shuds in India, men who preferred “chup” to “gup”, and since Rushdie had been unwise enough to write about religion, Islam and the Koran in a book called Satanic Verses, they placed his book under a seal of the blackest silence for 23 years.
Many argued that religion should not be beyond question, and that the point of a novel was that it was made up, and that perhaps those who didn’t want to read Rushdie’s ideas might want to stop buying and burning copies of the book and just tell all their friends not to read it. But a ban hung like a shroud over Satanic Verses, and in a very strange coincidence, few great novels about controversial religious matters have come out of India in the last 23 years. This is, of course, just a coincidence, brought about by the P2C2E described in Haroun and the Sea of Stories—a Process Too Complicated To Explain.

Meanwhile, Mumbai was changing too, and becoming a city of Rats, fearsome creatures with whiskers that sniffed out the merest hint of offence, and great sharp teeth called censorship laws, and the thing about Rats is that they were very good about calling up bands of fellow Rats at need. The Rats felt strongly about the Marathi Manoos, a mythical and apparently endangered species that was threatened in Mumbai by anything that was neither pure Maharashtrian nor a Rat. The Rats felt strongly about anything that was against the spirit of their ancient culture, which is to say anything that criticized Rattery in general and Ratty politics in particular. The Rats felt very, very strongly about books that were freely available, in bookshops or in local universities, that caused offence to Rattishness.

The second thing about Rats is that they are very slow readers. Someone needs to bring a King Rat, or a Crown Prince Rat, a book worthy of burning before he will turn its pages, and the vision of Rats is such that they can only see what offends them. And so, twenty years after Mistry first set down the tale of Gustad Noble, and after it had been not just acclaimed by critics, but loved by non-Rats everywhere, a young Rat read the book. And he was shocked to discover that it offended his sensibilities, by casting aspersions on Rattish behaviour (such as corruption and mob violence and other forms of Rattery), and that it offended particular political parties. It happened to be his political party, but he explained that Political Parties, like Rats, needed to stand together against anything that might be Offensive, such as books that made people question the conduct of Political Parties known for their tendency to rule by thuggery. (Or Thuggeries, since there were three of them, a big Thuggery, a medium Thuggery and a little Thuggerish.)

It caused the Rats the greatest offence of all to discover that Such a Long Journey was being taught in Mumbai University—which, however, had a fellow Rat at its helm. It was the easiest thing in the world to organize a book-burning session followed by a book-banning session, and the niceties observed, the Rats went back to their holes.
They left us with a question, though, as Rohinton Mistry becomes the latest in a long line of authors to experience Rat censure and censorship. If Bombay turns into Rattistan, what will happen to its story-tellers? Will they leave, hustled out of the city by Rat stormtroopers? Will they end up with books written in Rattish, a new language for books that contain only blank pages, and three words: “Don’t cause offence.”

Monday, October 18, 2010

Copy, Paste: The India Today plagiarism case

The India Today plagiarism case makes me think of the Ananda Bazaar Patrika library system, also known as Shaktida.

Shakti Roy was the unacknowledged genius who ran the group's archives for years, long before the Internets made it easy to Google everything under the sun. He had the mind of a superior search engine; if two people, one working on the Society pages and one working on the Stockmarket pages, asked for information on, say, Ratan Tata, they'd get superbly filtered results. And his memory was phenomenal. Any young journalist foolish enough to attempt to "recycle" copy, recycling being the euphemism for plagiarism in those days, would receive a package from Shakti da containing a printout of his story, and the stories he or she had been "inspired" from. No other comment was necessary.

Here's what happened with India Today. Aroon Purie, who writes the note from the Editor-in-Chief, was faced with a split edition; India Today was covering Rajnikanth in the South, Omar Abdullah in the North. His piece on Rajnikanth more or less reproduced the first two paragraphs of this much-discussed Slate article on the film star verbatim:

"Jackie Chan is the highest-paid actor in Asia, and that makes sense. Besides producing, directing, and starring in his own action movies since 1980, he's earned millions in Hollywood with blockbusters like Rush Hour and The Karate Kid. But the No. 2 spot goes to someone who doesn't make any sense at all. The second-highest-paid actor in Asia is a balding, middle-aged man with a paunch, hailing from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and sporting the kind of moustache that went out of style in 1986. This is Rajinikanth, and he is no mere actor—he is a force of nature. If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth. Or, as his films are contractually obligated to credit him, "SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth!"

If you haven't heard of Rajinikanth before, you will on Oct. 1, when his movie Enthiran (The Robot) opens around the world. It's the most expensive Indian movie of all time. It's getting the widest global opening of any Indian film ever made, with 2,000 prints exploding onto screens simultaneously. Yuen Wo-ping (The Matrix) did the action, Stan Winston Studios (Jurassic Park) did creature designs, George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic did the effects, and Academy Award-winning composer A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) wrote the music. It's a massive investment, but the producers fully expect to recoup that, because this isn't just some film they're releasing; this is a Rajinikanth film."

Aroon Purie claimed jetlag as an excuse, in an ungracious apology that didn't mention either Slate or Grady Hendrix, the author of the Rajnikanth piece.

The apology is... illuminating. We have a senior editor explaining that he doesn't write his own editorials, and skating lightly over the tiny detail of how those "inputs" found their way into the main copy. We also have a situation where one of the country's best-known magazines apparently doesn't have a copy desk, or at least not a desk that could either recognise the lift (the Slate piece was widely discussed on the Net), or red-flag lines that explain who Rajnikanth is and speak of the "Indian state of Tamil Nadu"--in an edition that goes out to South India.

But most of all, that apology and India Today's reaction lacks grace. Slate got ripped off, without acknowledgement; Grady Hendrix, who wrote those lines, must have been surprised to see them under a different byline. Journalism is often written at high speed, to unrealistic deadlines, and anyone who researches their 600-word pieces will have, at some stage, made use of the files. But plagiarism in India isn't seen as a major crime--as a major embarrassment, yes, but there is little understanding of how the person who's been ripped off might feel. (I remember a journalist from a major newspaper complaining that I'd complained when he stole all but one paragraph of one of my columns. He felt it was unfair that he got yelled at by his editor for "paying tribute". It was only when I explained that I'd prefer to replace the term "paying tribute" with "stole my work" that he backed down.)

Grady Hendrix reacted with amusement: "I’ve just emailed India Today offering my services. Instead of having to do all this tedious cutting and pasting themselves, I suggested that I could just write for them directly. I’ve promised them to charge a reasonable rate, and assured them that I will never steal copy from Mr. Purie and print it under my own name in revenge."

Now that's grace.

And a little more from Mr Hendrix here (scroll down in the comments section):
"I'm the guy who wrote the Slate article, and someone forwarded me a link here to check out the preview of the apology. India Today has refused to respond to emails from myself and Slate, but I'm glad they're going to apologize. It must be very difficult for the staff of India Today that when Mr. Purie gets "jet-lagged" he steals things. I would imagine that whenever they see their boss yawning, or looking sleepy, all of his employees must frantically lock up their laptops and hide their wallets lest he lifts them."
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