Burning Mistry full w/ white background)
Readers should remember that it is often the censor who draws our attention to the hidden virtues of a text.
In one of the earliest instances of book burning we know (but certainly not the first), in the year 213 BCE, the Chinese emperor Shih Huang-ti issued an edict ordering that all the books in his realm should be destroyed. In one of the latest instances (but certainly not the last), in September 2010, Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey was burned at the gates of Mumbai University by students belonging to the right-wing Shiv Sena party. Between the Chinese emperor’s edict and the Mumbai students’ action lie twenty-two centuries of books set on fire. If proof were needed of the essential power and value of literature, this long line of burning pages should suffice. Nothing less vigorously alive could elicit such fear.
Fear of what? we ask. Among other things, of the truth. Over half a century ago, Jorge Luis Borges suggested that one of the reasons for Huang-ti’s action was the fact of his mother’s adultery, which the emperor wished to erase from Chinese memory by erasing Chinese history itself. (Borges noted that his case was similar to that of a certain king of Judea who, wishing to kill one child, ordered that all children should be killed.) The burners of Mistry’s novel complained that Such a Long Journey depicted right-wing politicians, and particularly the Shiv Sena party, in a less than flattering light, and assumed, like their remote Chinese ancestor, that by reducing the story to ashes they would eliminate the fact. No doubt somewhere, in the hundreds of thousands of pages that constituted the corpus of Chinese literature prior to the third century BCE, a mention might have been found of the emperor’s mother’s peccadillo, but if Huang-ti’s reason was indeed to erase such a fact from public memory, his colossal task of destruction had the contrary effect, since the towering flames signalled, even to those quite uninterested in the affairs of the Chinese court, that there was something rotten in the Middle Kingdom.
The Shiv Sena students have now achieved much the same thing. As a keen reader of Mistry’s books (having once written an afterword for a school edition of Such a Long Journey), I think I have a fair recollection of the events and characters in the novel. I must confess, however, that I had not paid particular attention to the presence in it of the Shiv Sena party, and had to go back to the book to refresh my memory. Yes, there is a mention (on page 298 of the first edition) of “dutiful Shiv Sena patrols and motley fascists who roamed city streets with stones at the ready, patriotically shattering windows that they deemed inadequately blacked-out.” Mistry writes in a deceptively plain style, with great elegance and quiet humour, and his fiction is infused by a belief in what Robert Louis Stevenson called “the ultimate decency of things.” But if I were to offer a selection of outstanding examples of Mistry’s writing, I suspect the Shiv Sena passage would not be one of them: there are far subtler, stronger, deeper lines in the novel than this efficiently documentary one. (Here is one, for instance, describing what a father thinks of a hammer that belonged to his own father and that he hopes his son will one day inherit: “He will add his gloss to the wood.”) However, now that the irate students have drawn my attention to the appearance of their grouplet in the book, the passage carries for me all the vigour of a political manifesto. We readers should always remember that it is often the censor who draws our attention to the hidden virtues of a text.
But there were two other consequences to the book burning that are, if not more outrageous than the act itself, then certainly as distressing. One was the response of the Mumbai University authorities. The other was the lack of response of the Canadian government.
In India, when the leader of the Shiv Sena students was interviewed by a television journalist, he said that Mistry was lucky to live in Canada: if he lived in Mumbai, they would burn him as well as his book. He then added that his group demanded the removal of Such a Long Journey (prescribed reading for years in the university’s MA and BA courses) from the syllabus. After several days, the vice-chancellor of Mumbai University, Dr. Rajan Welukar, did as he was told. The decision, he said, was not his, but that of the outgoing Board of Studies who, with one foot on the stirrup, declared that Such a Long Journey should no longer be taught. Dr. Welukar responded, of course, in accordance to a time-honoured bureaucratic tradition, according to which, in such cases, the person responsible must always pass on the blame, preferably to someone departing or departed. Fortunately, India’s readers reacted otherwise. In colleges and universities across the country, in individual blogs and in the public press, readers expressed their outrage at both the burning and the banning.
In Canada, where indignation is rarely expressed above a polite “Oh, you shouldn’t,” the response was more subdued. The Globe and Mail dutifully reported the incident, the National Post noted it briefly, CBC Radio mentioned it on an international program dealing with Canadian matters abroad, PEN Canada, the Writers’ Trust and the Toronto Reference Library issued statements of protest, and Mistry’s publisher sent out a stern press release. From the government of the True North, Strong and Free, came not a whisper. We must not forget that India has become a vital economic partner for Canada and it would not do to bring up anything that might upset business negotiations, whether in the electronic or the tourist trade. The silence of Harper’s government should therefore not surprise us, nor that of the Honourable Michael Chan, Minister for Tourism and Culture of Ontario, Mistry’s province: as the minister’s title indicates, one industry takes precedence over the other.
However, for those with the long view, there is consolation in the fact that book burnings never quite succeed in their purpose. Huang-ti’s determination to condemn to oblivion the three thousand years of books that preceded him, failed, as these things always do. Today we can still read the sayings of Confucius and the parables of Chuang Tzu and the medical books of the Yellow Emperor, just as we will continue to read Such a Long Journey, to revisit its passionate pages or to discover what made it so powerful that a fanatical mob and a cowardly vice-chancellor believed that it merited the flames.