From Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi to James Joyce’s Ulysses: How the censors misread literature

How ‘hurt sentiments’ and ‘offensive material’ reduce a literary text to its ‘contents.’

WrittenBy:Neerav Dwivedi& Uday Kanungo
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When Delhi University decided to remove Mahasweta Devi’s short story Draupadi – along with works by two Dalit authors Bama and Sukirtharani – from the English Literature curriculum, Devi joined the illustrious list of classic authors whose works were banned for being “offensive” or promoting obscenity, like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

Even more closely, this allied Devi with contemporary women authors like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, whose portrayal of violence on women’s bodies have been considered too obscene for students.

Although no academic rationale was given, statements from DU registrar Vikas Gupta and the Oversight Committee Chairman MK Pandit implied that the age-old, tired banner of “hurt sentiments” and “offense” was waved, and returned to haunt yet another university text. While Gupta said that the syllabus should not “hurt the sentiments of any individual”, Pandit rebuffed any complaints by saying that, for everyone who can read English, “if something offensive is written somewhere, we don’t need a PhD in literature to understand that”.

It is telling that both statements confuse understanding a literary text to merely feeling sentiments and, more appallingly, mistake language comprehension for literary analysis. By Gupta’s implication, studying literature is for the intellectually faint-hearted, producing only a series of impulsive sentiments that will either enrage or please us. On the other hand, if Pandit’s criteria were to be applied, then the instruction manual of a refrigerator would be equivalent to Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, since no one would question that both are written in English. Ironically, such interpretations of what literature is or does, reinforce the need for the very subtlety and expertise whose gravity both statements vehemently denied.

What any literature is, is inevitably bound up with what it is expected to do. So, a confusion about the first will probably lead to misreading the second.

Instrumentalising literature, conceiving it as a hammer-like tool crudely applied to the world to generate an effect, often dictates such impulsive curbing of texts. Similar demands of one-dimensionality were implied by the National Democratic Teachers’ Front, described as a right-wing teachers’ group, who not only supported the changes but demanded “scanning” of syllabi to remove any “demeaning” references. In a statement, the group also said that the very title of Devi’s story is “an attempt to demean Hinduism.”

Missing the very first textual layer that Devi sets up for the reader, the statement confuses the mythological character’s disrobing for its echo in Dopdi Mejhen, the titular tribal protagonist of the short story, whose clothes are torn apart and body violated. Her odd-sounding, coarse name “Dopdi” (a vernacular version of “Draupadi”) at once sets her apart from the figure revered in religious texts, bringing her much more viscerally to the jungles where she lives and resists. To mistake the leader of a tribal resistance for the classical heroine of the Mahabharata implies that for those objecting to it, there can be only one Draupadi, and only one possible context for her to exist. “Hurt sentiments” dictating what is permissible or not, seeing literature as a chemical formula with constituent compounds that lead to a given result, is to inaugurate “the death of the reader”, undoing decades of efforts by all those who labored to create a space for readers as active participants in the meaning-making process.

In a recent talk, Rina Ramdev, a lecturer of English, mentions how Devi, through Draupadi’s character, makes us “confront our own reading strategies”, forcing us to “acknowledge the impossibility of an exhaustive meaning.” While censors expect a book to operate like a set of clear instructions delivering a singular meaning, great authors have always acknowledged that inherent in the language and politics of every literary work is a deep sense of ambiguity, and that conflict is the life-blood of literature.

As critic Michael Wood says, reading, like every adventure, has its risks, and “among the things we shall almost certainly lose is our certainty”. Works worth our time almost never have a singular meaning or intended effect, as much as a rich set of possibilities. “Draupadi’s removal is a stark reminder of the time when AK Ramanujan’s essay Three Hundred Ramayanas was hastily scrapped from the syllabus of the history department, after protests against the text for having “hurt” sentiments. Finding Ramanujan’s and Devi’s texts “hurtful” is symptomatic of a nationalist imaginary more invested in imposing a singular vision rather than being accepting of pluralities.

The NDTF statement further complains that the contents of the story mentions “private body parts, sexual innuendos, vulgar descriptions of sexual attacks”. One can sense the rudimentary way in which this rhetoric reduces Devi’s story, with its dense network of imagery, narrative, rhythm, point-of-view and other aspects, to simply “content”, or what it overtly talks about. This myopic outlook completely dispenses with that aspect which makes a collection of words literary; that is its form, or the peculiar ways it uses language and recasts our socio-political surroundings. Under this short-sighted approach, each classic work can be reduced to its overt themes; the contents of Pride and Prejudice can be described as marriages and aristocratic events, and that of Anna Karenina can be summed up by adultery and rural agriculture.

Of course, only active readers of these books know the utter futility of abridging such works under the generic label of their “contents”. Part of the literary training that universities offer through texts like Draupadi is to move beyond what the texts say and direct their attention towards how they say it, and how these two often contradict each other.

If “content” dictates the morality of a book, then it implies that the theme or the mere mention of violence on womens’ bodies is effectively forbidden from all literature. Following the principles of those who support Draupadi's removal – whether those in the oversight committee or the general public – thus leads us to the logically incoherent position where we must not differentiate between a text that critiques such violence and another that glorifies it, since both would have this violence as its “content”. Alongside all these elementary misunderstandings, NDTF also made a spurious claim that an introduction to the story termed “Draupadi” a prostitute. This description, according to a statement signed by 125 teachers from Delhi University, is neither there in Devi’s story, nor the foreword written by Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak, but is in fact from Karna’s speech in the Mahabharata, where he humiliates Draupadi.

To appreciate literature is to grant it autonomy from the responsibility of not “hurting” readers, freeing it to build its own worlds, its own meanings and truths, and its own moral compass. However, autonomy is not to be confused with “independence.” This “second reality,” even as it operates with its own laws, can only realize itself through the specific manner in which it establishes relations with the outside. To make a case for autonomy is thus not to hermetically seal the text from any dialogue with reality. We have, for instance, the Progressive Writers’ Association manifesto urging literature to align itself with the interests of the common masses and to critically examine institutions. In our times, this ranges across Dalit and feminist literature, music, and cinema – from Aamir Aziz’s “Sab yaad rakha jayega” to Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen, to ever newer renditions of Faiz’s “Hum Dekhenge.”

It is interesting to observe how a defense of texts is mounted in legal terms, and to what extent it helps art retain its autonomy. In 2016, the Madras High Court dismissed a petition asking to ban Perumal Murugan’s book One Part Woman. As Gautam Bhatia, an author and constitutional law scholar writes, citing the book’s critical acclaim and its intention to critically examine societal structures, nonetheless leaves out a fundamental concern: the freedom for narratives to live and breathe even if substandard, irreverent, or simply nonsensical. “What if One Part Woman had no broader social purpose, had no purpose at all, but to aestheticize the erotic?” Bhatia questions.

Putting literature to trial or justify its existence still commits the error of evaluating it in terms of its presumed objective: “is this for the ‘public good?”. Lawrence Liang, professor of law at Ambedkar University, likewise cautions against “romanticising the status of courts as generous readers” – as lines between law and aesthetics get blurred, a judgement, for better or for worse – it creates the “outer limits” of art. In such cases, we constantly have artists striving for some external rationale to defend their art.

Even as the public claims to have been “wounded”, the artist’s own hurt is pushed behind the curtains. Murugan’s particularly ominous announcement from 2015 comes to mind: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is not god, he is not going to resurrect himself...”

Such misreadings are by no means exclusive to culturally conservative authoritarians, but are also expressed by “progressives” for whom “freedom” simply amounts to a consumer’s choice to choose texts as products offered. While escaping state authorities’ gaze, students must not be tempted to consider themselves as consumers demanding some products to be included and others to be shelved. In the US, for example, where students reel under billions of college debt, a neoliberal attitude emerges as the mirror image of a culturally conservative one, and poses as much danger to texts like Draupadi, which are not seen as having inherent literary value that stand testament to a cultural existence, but subject to the whims of a consumer pool.

Consider the strange case of Lolita, first banned by conservatives, and now newly under challenge by students. As Anne Dwyer from Pomona College writes, she was surprised by her students’ suggestion that Lolita should not be “read at all” as it “perpetuates trauma, and may even be perpetuating rape culture”. Like Devi’s story, Lolita was viewed as something that bluntly produces an effect or provoke a behavior, and Dwyer had to explain to her students how the complex moral landscape of Lolita makes the reader alert and active, and how indispensable reading it is to gain academic expertise over modern literature. It is by reading against the grain of the predatory male narrator, whose perspective is always close to eclipsing the real trauma and subjectivity of Lolita, that we find the voice and story of the innocent girl. This is the responsibility that every reader owes to characters and authors: to travel the terrain of conflicting emotions and moral dilemmas, and the possibility of being left with more questions than answers. Viewing Lolita and other novels as cause and sentiments provoked by it as effects is a simplistic binary that critical reading should resist, lest students fall into the same trap as censors do, as Dwyer says, of “pronouncing judgements on texts we have not read”.

Doubtlessly, the students’ protest about texts like Lolita comes from much nobler intentions than those of governments. But it is important to realize that a privatised model, seeing students as consumers, will prefer overriding any academic necessity of immersing students in texts without which one can’t navigate a field, no matter how troubling or conflicting this might be. This shift, as critiqued by the American Association of University Professors, is at once “infantilising and anti-intellectual”. This approach judges texts based on the content, language, and theme of the material. Just as the oversight committee, fuelled by an irrational fear, removed Draupadi based on its “contents”, a privatised education model will demand texts and approaches that garner market value and fit certain trends at the expense of academic rigor and worth. Responsible progressives should ensure that texts like Draupadi are protected not only from state censorship, but also from consumerist models that erase cultural and literary values altogether.

Such hesitation about confronting texts is often used by right-wing neo-conservatives as proof of widespread “cancel culture”. This helps them hypocritically pose themselves as protectors of free speech, even as they wield every weapon of censorship. The current debate about critical race theory in the United States is a glaring example, where major Republican states signed laws to prevent public educational institutions from discussing the country’s dark racial history in any depth. Just like Draupadi’s story reminds us of the state’s culpability in crimes against the marginalised, every story worth telling contains the possibility of confronting one’s own moral responsibilities. This is all the more reason that as progressive readers, we should remain conscious of the complexity and risk inherent in reading critically, and not lapse into blind spots of our own.

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