Wendy Doniger was wrong

India isn’t that tolerant, perhaps

shantanu

Shantanu Datta | February 13, 2014



I am ill-read. I don’t know a ‘good’ book from a ‘bad’ one. And but for the wife, who is far better read than I, the bookshelves at home would have been stacked with a Chekhov or a Dostoevsky or a Tagore next to Leon Uris or a Andrea Camilleri or a Satyajit Ray (not to say, for the life of me, that any of them are either good or bad). And then, perhaps, a copy or three of some sports journal or inane magazine or travel picture-book taking plum position in between.

To cut an inane story short, I did not know who Wendy Doniger was. If you had told me about her the day before she made it to page 1, I would have thought it’s some brand of donut. “Milta hai kya, in market?” I would have probably added, as an afterthought, just to make you feel that the two words have been ingested by the system.

There’s a way, though, to fill in people without much clue (any clue whatsoever would be better but that’s another story) on something with that clue – at least so far as work of art is concerned. It’s called the ban theory. It’s the simplest theory in the whole wide world – just ban it, burn it and forget it – and it begets the simple possible question: why, oh why, do people who genuinely feel irritated or threatened or disgusted or plain-vanilla hurt by a particular work of art feel the urge to ban it still?

You don’t want people to know Wendy Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’? Fine; just go about your business – go to sleep, get up in the morning, brush your teeth, eat your healthy breakfast, have that unhealthy, oily snack in office, eye that woman/man in the public transport and then get back home to enact the world’s best couch potato. Or whatever it is that you routinely do. Just don’t think of getting it banned – or withdrawn, or called back, as the latest phrase is.

Otherwise you got a sort of problem on your hand – yes, it’s the other hand; the one you didn’t use to burn that book or scratch your head to figure out whether you actually should spend some money to buy that book and burn it. The problem, dear fanatic itching to bitch about an artiste and burn his/her work of art, is this: otherwise-ignoramuses, like yours truly for instance, would suddenly learn about that work. And given that human nature is overtly curious about the ‘other’, the thing that you are barred from taking a peek or pot shot at (the neighbour’s bedroom, or his arguments with the wife, for two infuriating examples), chances are he/she would check it out.

So here’s the crux of the story, dear fanatic/s who wanted Doniger’s ‘The Hindus’ banned. I got the ebook from a colleague, started reading it each time I went out for a smoke, and even read up her past interviews. And I am not just another oddball – this country filled from end to end with oddballs like me. They would have done the same.

“It's a book about the history of the Hindus, from 50 million B.C.E. to the present. It says that there is no evidence that Rama was born in the place that is now known as Ayodhya and there is no evidence that there was a Hindu temple on the spot where the Babur Mosque was. And that there is no evidence that Rama and a bunch of monkeys built a bridge from India to Sri Lanka, as the Hindu Right have claimed. That's just mythology, which is lovely, I've studied it all my life, but you don't legislate on the basis of mythology,” Doniger said in a November 2009 interview with UChicago News, the University of Chicago’s journal. This was shortly after ‘The Hindus’ was published in India (read the whole interview here)

More interesting: “…I felt that I wanted a book to be out there to counteract their claims and to tell the history of the Hindus the way I think it should be told, the way it is more to the credit to the Hindus. It's a very positive book - it shows how for so much of their history the Hindus have been so tolerant, and so open to different forms of religion, and that to close it down now would be a terrible shame. So it's really a backhanded compliment - Hinduism has always been so good, and these guys are ruining it.”

She was wrong, of course, and right, of course. Barring the fringe fanatics, tolerance is our second nature. It’s just that this nature stays so hidden from even us that we sometimes forget it’s natural to have a second nature. And in that we let the fringe elements’ first nature take over. Till the time someone yells KILL! BAN! BURN!

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