Too much is being made of the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus – An Alternative History.” I guess it all started with Arundhati Roy’s open letter to Penguin in the Times of India. Titled, “You must tell us what terrified you”, it launched a scathing attack into Penguins act of reaching an out of court settlement on Wendy Doniger’s book.
And then began the steady stream of condemnation from the so-called Literati, the upholders of India’s cultural and moral values. Penguin’s decision to pulp Wendy Doniger’s book had backfired, or so it seemed.
To all those who are being opportunists I want to say just one thing :
Let the hypocrisy stop.
I have the following points to make on this issue. A few will agree, many won’t. But what the hell, I wrote this for myself right. This is not a book, I am selling. And hell, you can’t ban this blog. Can you.
1) A publishing contract is bipartite – legally and emotionally.
Two parties involved. In this case those two parties are Penguin, the Publisher and Wendy Doniger, the author. If anyone has a right to comment/feel aggrieved, it is Wendy. No one else. And this is what she has to say about Penguin:
“But I do not blame Penguin Books, India. Other publishers have just quietly withdrawn other books without making the effort that Penguin made to save this book. Penguin, India, took this book on knowing that it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks, and they defended it in the courts for four years, both as a civil and as a criminal suit. They were finally defeated by the true villain of this piece-the Indian law that makes it a criminal rather than civil offense to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardizes the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation brought against a book”
From the looks of it, Wendy’s anger seems to be directed not at the Publisher, but at the legal system and framework in India. She categorically says that she does not blame Penguin. If you read anything else in this statement of hers, please let me know.
2) For any Publisher, publishing is a business.
For those who don’t understand this, let me begin by telling you what it is not.
- It is not a charity.
- It is not ‘propagation of religion’.
- It is not standing up against the legal system of the country.
- It is not appealing to the conscience of the set of people who will stand up for anything which gives them some column space in mainline dailies.
- It is not playing to the gallery and becoming a hero.
Publishing infact is a noble profession, where authors are given a platform to express their views, write creative stories and connect with the reading public. But only as long as it is legally acceptable. (If you think questioning of the legality of the content in Wendy Doniger’s book is incorrect, then question the legal system, not Penguin.)
Every publisher exists in this business for profits. Lets not glamorize this basic reason for existence with lofty words, like upholding of freedom of speech, bowing down before religious fundamentalists etc etc. If after defending Wendy’s book for four years, Penguin felt that they were on a weak wicket, what’s wrong in pulling the plug? Had the case gone to the higher courts, it only would have led to more expenses, which Penguin could have thought was unnecessary. Don’t they have the right to decide what is good for them and what is not?
Arundhati Roy says in her column that Penguin is one of oldest and most reputed publishers who exist today. Then why did they do this? Well Ms Roy, given the fact that they are oldest and most reputed publishers around, don’t you think they would have thought through a thousand times before taking this call. Give them that credit.
Let me recommend something to all those who think Penguin has screwed up and are taking to content hungry newspapers and social media to have some fun, starting from the columnist who started it all in the Times of India. If you are so anguished by Penguin pulping the book, go ahead and start a fund. Get like-minded people, including yourself, to donate to the cause. And take up cudgels on behalf of Wendy Doniger. Fight a legal battle. If you feel so strongly about suppression of freedom of expression, why don’t you put your money where your mouth (oops ..Pen) is and take it up. If you manage to win, you would have pointed your middle finger at Penguin. What say? Deal?
If you don’t have the courage to do this, then STFU.
3) Rising Intolerance
Over a hundred people work at Penguin’s office in Panchsheel Park in New Delhi. Penguin, like any other organisation, is accountable for their safety and security. The peace of mind of a hundred families would be shattered if Hindu Fundamentalists were to attack that office. And knowing the growing levels of intolerance in India in general, and Delhi in specific, the possibility of such motivated violent attacks is a bit more than remote. Don’t you think this would also have been on their mind. Given that all of us are expecting a Hindu fundamentalist government to take charge at the centre soon, you actually think Penguin had a chance of winning this legal battle. Why then would you say they were wrong in exiting this extremely one sided battle? A battle they had no chance of winning.
4) Publishing is a trade which is going through extremely stressful times.
Profitability is weak, channels of distribution are shrinking, Indian reader base is not growing at the pace at which it should be, costs are rising-leading to margin pressures. Its not a very positive business environment. Given this, no publisher wants a distraction. Wendy Doniger’s book was surely a distraction. At times in business one has to take tough calls. And the call Penguin took was surely a tough one. In Penguins view, it was right. In Wendy Doniger’s view, they are not to be blamed for taking that call. What you and me think, honestly doesn’t matter. Get real!!!
5) Where were the hypocrites when other books were being pulped?
In life, the sure shot way of getting into the media glare is to take potshots at leading luminaries, big organisations etc. I guess people doing this to Penguin, surely have this also at the back of their minds. Hit out to get noticed. Make a controversial statement and be featured. If this is not true, and you were serious custodians of free speech, torch bearers for freedom of expression, where were you when Jitendra Bhargava’s book “The Descent of Air India” (Bloomsbury) was scuttled by Ex-Union Minister, Praful Patel. Or when Sahara Group scuttled Tamal Bandhopadhyay’s book “Sahara – The Untold Story”, published by Jaico. Bloomsbury agreed to pull back the book and pulp it (a month ago) as a part of an out of court settlement with the Civil Aviation Minister. They even agreed to offer a public apology. Sahara group managed to get a stay order on the release of Tamal Bandhopadhyay’s book. I didn’t see the same noises being made when those books were banned / pulped, by those who are screaming their heads off now. Well now do you realise why I call them opportunists and hypocrites?
6) Great boost to Sales
And lastly, am not sure how many copies of Wendy Donigers book was Penguin selling in any case. Market feedback tells me that in four odd years since launch Penguin would not have sold more than 5000 copies of the book. Many of them as gifts (which would not have been read for sure). Retailers / Distributors would have had heaps of stock gathering dust.
It would be stupid to assume that this settlement would not have given the book a fillip. Withdrawing a book and pulping it, is a long drawn out process. By the time the instruction to pull out books reaches the last retailer, most of the books would have in any case got sold. People are in fact rushing to buy her book before it gets taken off book shelves (Even her more recent book with Aleph Publishers has shown a huge sales traction over the last two days).When the dust settles on this, I would love to see how many books Penguin actually would have had to pulp. My vote is for “not many”.
Imagine the media attention this issue would get overseas and the resultant sales of Wendy’s books globally. Brand Wendy Doniger is bound to rise as a result of this masterstroke.
I am confident that by taking this smart call, in one stroke Penguin has achieved two things :
a) Make Wendy Doniger a household name in India (irrespective of how much the Literary folks would have us believe… she was not a household name) and
b) Exhaust all stocks of Wendy’s book in India. In the process they have managed to get more people (in India and overseas) to read Wendy’s book, than even Wendy would have imagined. Probably a lot more than the number of people who have read her in the last five years.
I see it as a win-win for everyone. So why are the hypocrites complaining.
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Penguin is the publisher of my latest book BANKERUPT. This fact has had zero influence on what has been stated in this blog. Views expressed here are personal and my own.