Pulped fiction

Omair Ahmad, author of The Storyteller’s Tale and Jimmy the Terrorist, on why he wants his contract with Penguin India nixed

A few days ago I asked Penguin India to clarify why they had made their decision to pull Wendy Doniger’s, The Hindus: An Alternative History , from the Indian market. Unfortunately they could not go beyond the official statement. Since the official statement is problematic on many levels, I asked them to cancel my contracts so that I would be free to criticise their decision without having the hypocrisy of asking them to sell my books at the same time.

This was one of the most difficult decisions I have made in my life. Penguin has been very good to me, and the success of the books I published with them, The Storyteller’s Tale, and Jimmy the Terrorist, had a lot to do with the editing, production and marketing that Penguin did. That is only part of the story. Having a big name backing you allows a writer to take on difficult and controversial subjects. For example, Jimmy the Terrorist dealt with the riots and the politicisation of religious violence in the late 1980s and 1990s. It is a subject that still resonates today. In 2010 I found myself arguing with a young Kashmiri whose friend had been killed by the paramilitary forces during protests against the killing of three villagers by the Army. I told him that if he wanted justice, then getting killed or thrown into jail was less useful than arguing his case in public, by writing (or in his case, rapping) about the horror and injustice.

I had the confidence to make this argument because in my case I had written about the issues that had affected me, and not only had Penguin published my book, but Penguin had also nominated it for the Crossword Award, which my book won. The fact that Penguin backed me and my book, allowed me to make that argument to that young Kashmiri man. Now, with Penguin pulling Doniger’s book out from the Indian market, I cannot say I retain that confidence in them. They have taken away something very dear from me.

Penguin’s official statement adds insult to injury. It states that, “the Indian Penal Code, and in particular section 295A of that code, will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law”. This is ridiculous. Penguin knew of this law when it published Doniger’s book (the law has been around since 1927) and I know of no successful prosecution of a case against a publisher under this law. In a recent related case, both the Maharashtra High Court and the Supreme Court struck down a book ban (based on Section 95 of the Criminal Procedure Code against James Laine’s book Shivaji: Hindu King In Muslim India), suggesting that the courts would back the freedom of expression over such laws.

Penguin does not have the right to criticise Indian laws or the legal system when it has withdrawn without even fighting. What message does this give? That the biggest publishing firm in the world has such little respect for Indian courts that it will abandon the fight without standing up for its authors, and its own decisions, in court? If Penguin will not fight for its own decisions, its own authors, then what is its reputation, all its money and organisation really worth? And if its reputation is worth so little, then it is a shame to be associated with them, not a point of pride.

Before taking my decision I asked my wife, my family and friends about their opinion. They were largely mixed although, since my wife approved, that already tipped the scale. One of my friends, Prashant Keshavmurthy, wrote, “As you must know, Jyotirmaya Sharma and Siddharth Varadarajan, both Penguin authors, have also asked Penguin to withdraw and pulp their books. You must also know that several people who are appalled by the banning have called for a boycott of all Penguin books. I personally think these are among the few ethical courses of action in our power to undertake as authors and readers”.

Other than the boycott of Penguin books, I could not have put it better. There are few times when we are faced with ethical choices about which we can do something, for me this was one of them. I wanted to put my reasoning down in writing, so that those that agree or disagree with me can do so knowing why I have made the decision I did. Penguin, too, was faced with an ethical choice. It made the wrong choice, for reasons it has not been honest enough to explain. If possible, Penguin needs to reverse or change this decision, otherwise it will have damaged its own reputation far more than any court case, no matter how bitterly fought, would ever have done. 

By Omair Ahmad on February 28 2014 10.32am

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