There are umpteen reasons why a book is banned. But a broad reason would centre on political, religious or moral motivations. It could be an official ban, done at a national or sub-national level or a ‘fatwa’ type of ban or unofficial and legally not valid but more serious removal of a book from public access merely by religious sanction. Even the removal of a book from a library, or a syllabus could be a ‘ban’. But is this ‘censorship’ logical? Is it effective as to the root cause of what an authority believes to be bad about a book?
A Banned Book Week was being observed, (I will not use the verb celebrated) and I was looking a list of banned books the other day. The list includes several books which one considers in the genre of classics. I found Aristophanes, Orwell, Faulkner, Voltaire, Chaucer, Twain, Thoreau, Boccaccio, Joyce, Golding, Lawrence, Whitman, Shakespeare, and Hardy…I guess you must think now that I quote from the syllabus of an English graduation class. But it’s a fact that all these books went on to be acknowledged by a literary world as epitomes of good reading and eminently readable volumes.
I also looked into the reasons of the ban of some of them.
But that was another time. Let’s take a list of books banned recently in different parts of the world. I start with the earliest written book in the list, Lysistrata by Aristophanes, written about 400 B.C. and one of the surviving plays by the Greek playwright. The book was said to be banned because of the erotic and sensual content. The play is a comic one and is the tale of a woman’s extraordinary mission to end The Peloponnesian War. Wikipedia says ‘Lysistrata convinces the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing the men to negotiate peace, a strategy however that inflames the battle between the sexes. The play is known for its exposé of sexual relations in a male-dominated society and for its use of both double meaning and explicit obscenities.’ I further read at some place that the ban on the import of this book in the U.S was lifted only in 1930 But I could not make out ‘who’ imposed the ban and why it was carried down all these centuries.
Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species is a landmark both as a book and a scientific theory and is from the year 1859. The work was banned in Yugoslavia in 1935 and in Greece in 1937. From 1925 to 1967, the book was banned in the state of Tennessee. Hitler’s hit list of books is also said to have had Darwin’s path-breaker book. The reason seems to be moral in this case. But about the same year, 1894, Tolstoy’s celebrated non-fiction work ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’ was banned in Russia but interestingly first published in Germany (before Hitler of course); because it was accused of being anti-establishment.
Now for a book that was published and campaigned against much later and for a different reason. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird is a book of the twentieth century, published in 1960, and one that became an instant classic after its publication. (It remains a story for another occasion that it took ages to get it published) Lee addressed strong themes like racial injustice and the destruction of innocence. Lee also addressed issues of class, courage, compassion, and gender roles in the setting she used, which is the area that is addressed as South in the U.S. But it remains a fact that this absolutely lovable book also faced a ban and was campaigned against as not fit for public classrooms because of the use of racial epithets.
Still later on, one book shot to publicity and was banned in the birth-place of its author for another reason. Published in 1988, and inspired partly by the life of Prophet Muhammed, the Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie was accused of being blasphemous by clerics and created controversy across Asia mainly and Europe too. It was banned in India for reasons of causing public offense and disrupting communal harmony. The author was in hiding for fear of his life for several years since there was a fatwa issued calling on all good Muslims to kill or help kill Rushdie and his publishers. Rushdie is still unharmed but two of his translators were stabbed fatally, a publisher shot, and many killed in riots following the fatwa. On a positive note, the book earned the author fame beyond the merits of the book, although it did go on to win a Booker and a Whitbread prize.
I guess all these books had reasons for bans befitting the time of publication, not always justifiable. But a recent controversy in India has me stunned. The book I refer to is Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, published in 1991. Now, twenty years later, a University in India has imposed a ban on the book from its syllabus, bowing to the pressure of a local political organization. It seems that a student of a college of the University whose grandfather and head of the organization is referred to in a derogatory way in the novel. I will not argue on the reasons for the removal or the rights and wrongs of the action taken by the University, I leave that to the readers, but I will ask my reader a question, have you noticed how the reasons for ban of books across human history has moved? Or has it really moved, and is it just one reason, Intolerance?
Suneetha is a writer by passion, profession and hobby. She writes fiction in English, poetry in her native tongue Malayalam and journalistic features in both. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org