This post is an opinion piece on Arundhati Roy’s recent open letter regarding the banning of the book “The Hindus”
Whatever your views on the merits of Penguin’s actions in withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s book, ‘The Hindus’, it is hard to read Arundhati Roy’s open letter to Penguin and not cringe. In her letter Roy does what she does best. She is undoubtedly extraordinarily gifted when it comes to constructing beautiful prose, but sadly when it comes to writing on issues that affect the wider public, it seems beautiful prose is the extent of her gifts.
A closer analysis of her beautiful prose reveals that she has not really thought about how hypocritical she is being [or as many suspect, that she is a rather big hypocrite]. If she is in fact as deeply concerned with Penguin’s failure to protect its authors as she claims to be, the logical course of action would be for her to immediately drop them as her publisher. She would hit them where it hurts the most- their pockets; and if she is truly as non- materialistic as she has long claimed, the monetary loss that she would face should be of no significance. But for reasons best know to Roy that has not happened.
Instead of putting her money where her mouth is, Roy insists that Penguin is obligated to fight on behalf of everyone that has a problem with people demanding a ban on the book. According to Roy, Penguin and the people that work there should not only pay vast legal fees to fight for her cause, but also risk imprisonment under the Indian Penal Code as it exists- all while she does nothing beyond writing a letter.
Nor does Roy help her case by somehow connecting a settlement made by an international publishing house after years of litigation with the potential rise of “fascists” in India’s next general election (which I think it is reasonably safe to assume refers to the fact that Narendra Modi and the BJP might attain a majority). How Roy thinks convincing Penguin that taking up this issue is unlikely to endear it to what might possibly be the next government might encourage Penguin is unclear. I would argue that it is more likely to discourage Penguin to do as she asks, than it is to encourage it (assuming for the sake of argument that Roy is right in her thesis about the ‘fascists’).
Personally, I agree that the book should be available to the public and that those that have a problem with it should not read it. But, that said, the law in India allows people to object to the content of books and Penguin has to operate within the bounds of the law. It is not incumbent on anyone, much less on a business run for profit to fund legal battles for changing the law (and in fact, there is a strong argument to be made for the fact that large publishing houses should not be throwing cash into legal battles with the express aim of determining to what extent their actions can be regulated). As a prominent citizen and a veteran of taking on the State, Roy is far better placed to campaign for whatever change in the law she feels is needed than almost anyone else.
Why she seems to be shying away from doing so is anyone’s guess- and till she actually walks the talk, her letter is no more than the piteous bleating of a hypocrite.