Zealots, religions don’t need your protection

Aaril Oru Pangu still haunts us, with the recent withdrawal of Meesha, a serialised novel by the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award winner, Hareesh, following threats of violence to the author and his family.

The year 1910 should go down as among the darkest in modern Indian history. It was the year that bigotry raised its ugly head in a country known for its tolerance. A short story in Tamil — the first of its kind — was banned. And it was written by no less a patriot than that “Mahakavi” Subramania Bharatiyar. The rest is history.

Aaril Oru Pangu still haunts us, with the recent withdrawal of Meesha, a serialised novel by the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award winner, Hareesh, following threats of violence to the author and his family. The mindset of intolerant forces in this country has apparently not changed even after decades. The incident reflects their own limited vision that makes them afraid of new ideas and ideologies.

When a discerning reading public knows its own mind and has firm convictions about the rightness and wrongness of things, why should a book or a poem or a cartoon cause so much anger and agony among these self-appointed moral conscience-keepers of the country?

If a writer chooses to write something that I don’t relish, I have the freedom to close the book and put it away. It is the same with a song or a film that I can switch off or not see if it bothers me.

Even if someone chooses to send an offensive online message, there is always a “delete” button. As the courts decreed in a similar case, “if you do not like a book, throw it away.”

The problem with people who want to burn books or ban films that they think will affect public perceptions is a sad lack of confidence in their own beliefs. Rather than condemn their actions, social activists — who are equally guilty of forcing their ideas on others –- should impress upon these self-styled guardians of morality that temples, gods and religious beliefs cannot be wiped away by a book or a cartoon or a song.

They are timeless in their own way and can withstand criticism or even censure. So, all this brouhaha about immorality in works of art merely exposes a limited vision added to a paucity of rational thinking. It also shows a pitiable lack of aesthetics.

The silver lining to all this drivel about banning books to stifle an author’s ideas is that the latter just cannot be suppressed simply because someone did not like them. Talent is the one asset that cannot be killed in order to promote mediocrity.

Salieri may have engineered the death of Mozart, but could he kill his music? Christ was crucified, but Christianity has survived. Gandhi was assassinated, but his message of non-violence could not be annihilated.

Needless apprehensions

In the same way, great epics like the Ramayana or Mahabharata can be torn to shreds by sceptics, but their teachings are eternal and cannot be destroyed.

Similarly, Hinduism is too well-established a creed for anyone to be able to demolish. It is a way of life itself, entrenched in the hearts and minds of its followers. Any apprehension that a writer can wipe it out with the mere swish of a pen is quite unnecessary.

The objection to the novel in question should have come, if at all, from women and not from political parties. A trivial conversation between two of its characters about the significance of women going to temples dressed in beautiful clothes has sparked needless controversy among the “righteous minded” followed by threats to the writer.

Just as Perumal Murugan’s controversial novel Madhorubhaagan or One-part woman stirred unnecessarily fierce reactions three years ago until he was forced to apologise on social media with the sad comment “Perumal Murugan, the writer, is dead.” Only another writer can understand the anguish behind those words.   

The New York Public Library celebrates a ‘banned books week’ when it encourages the public to read the works of authors dating back to the 16th century when the world’s great thinkers like Galileo, Copernicus, Voltaire, Rousseau and others were all condemned to lie in the shadows by the Catholic church which denounced any writing that went against its teachings.

Four hundred years on, Muslim clerics placed a fatwa on the head of Salman Rushdie for the same reason. Today, Hindu zealots take up arms against those who criticise temples and their holy activities.

None of these “crusaders” have realised that Christianity, Islam or Hinduism are among the great religions of the world which cannot be wiped out of existence so easily and, what’s more, do not need their crusading for their survival.

If they are used by writers or other artists as subjects of debate, their magnitude is not diminished either. Condemning a 21st century author for insulting Hinduism is like saying you have polluted the Ganga by throwing a pebble into it.

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Zealots, religions don’t need your protection

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