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  Opinion   Columnists  19 Apr 2024  Farrukh Dhondy | Are V.S. Naipaul, R.L. Stevenson, Blyton becoming unsafe to read?

Farrukh Dhondy | Are V.S. Naipaul, R.L. Stevenson, Blyton becoming unsafe to read?

In his words: "I am just a professional writer, which means I don't do blogs and try and get money for whatever I write."
Published : Apr 19, 2024, 11:47 pm IST
Updated : Apr 19, 2024, 11:47 pm IST

Preserving Literature or Perpetuating Censorship? The Debate Over Revisionism in Academic Circles

Controversy Erupts as Universities Allocate Funds for Revising Classic Works Amid Concerns About Sensitivity. (image: Freepik)
 Controversy Erupts as Universities Allocate Funds for Revising Classic Works Amid Concerns About Sensitivity. (image: Freepik)

“Jesus of Nazareth worked at his miracles

Feeding the multitude fishes and bread

When he came upon the deceased young Lazarus

He breathed spirits into him, raising the dead.

Jesus could also exorcise demons

Passing their souls into Gadarene swine

For me his most impressive, notable miracle

Was at the feast -- turning water to wine!”

From The Big Book of Bachchoo

The University of Edinburgh is planning to spend £800,000 on revising (read “censoring”) the works of Robert Louis Stevenson. This includes his universal classic Treasure Island. What criteria will this revision use? One can surmise from the recent history of such goings-over of literature that it will adopt an agenda of “protecting” the sensibilities of groups who might feel insulted.

The new shibboleth going round universities in the United States and Britain is “unsafe”. Material, speakers and some expressed opinions make these frail blossoms, individuals and groups, feel “unsafe”. And so censorship and cancellation ensue.

I suppose the presence and thieving character of Long John Silver, with his one leg missing, a black patch covering one eye and a parrot on his shoulder may come in for expurgation as his presence and activity in Treasure Island may make people with any disability, from missing limbs to visual “challenges”, feel picked upon or even “unsafe”.

I can’t imagine what this classic adventure novel will read like with Long John Silver expunged. Or perhaps his twenty-twenty vision in both eyes will have been restored, he won’t have a leg missing and his parrot will have been liberated into the forest where nature intended birds to belong. I might buy the new revised edition just to compare it to the original -- which of course I shall refuse to burn. This may, now that Hamza Yusuf and the Scottish Parliament have passed a law against “hate crime”, make me guilty of the misdemeanour of harbouring hateful material. Obviously not as bad as being caught spending money that belongs to Hamza’s Party on a camper van, but still risky.

The same treatment has been meted out to Enid Blyton’s works from which characters and stories or statements deemed to be racially insulting have been purged.

I recently attended a lecture at Selwyn College, Cambridge, by renowned writer and critic Pankaj Mishra on the work of V.S. Naipaul. In answer to questions and in conversations after, it was mentioned that Sir Vidia Naipaul’s work had been “cancelled” from some educational institutions. The “cancel-cultists” were not at the lecture so one couldn’t challenge them as to the reason for their hostility to one of the most brilliant writers of the twentieth century.

I have of course encountered critics of Vidia’s work, but have never heard a coherent or insightful criticism of any of the words, fiction or world-exploratory work that he penned or published.

The criticisms all centre around his supposed attitudes and his deliberately provocative, mischievous statements in interviews.

Permit me to make one sweeping, though distinct, point. I first encountered Vidia’s work when I was in my late teens in college in Poona (now Pune). I read his essays in a magazine called Encounter and then his exploration and voyage of discovery in India: An Area of Darkness.

The book caused a critical storm. Vidia was abused and accused of every manner of anti-Indian attitude possible by prominent writers, politicians and by the professors who taught me. My reading of Area of Darkness was diametrically opposed to these journalistic and published diatribes. Here for the first time was a book which stripped India of the myths by which it lived. That was refreshing but such was the antagonism to it that I kept my mouth shut.

The book looked at India without the dark glasses of nationalism through which his critics glare.

And so, with his subsequent work. His assertion that the Islamic invasions of India, from the ninth century to the disintegration of the Mughal empire around the early decades of the eighteenth, were not great humanitarian enterprises, is seen, not as historical truth, but as support for Hindu nationalism. Then again, his travels of discovery through non-Arab Muslim countries such as Iran and Pakistan are seen not as perceptive insights into their history, delusions and dilemmas, but as attacks on Islam -- for which there is not a shred of evidence in any sentence or phrase. The religion is not in any way denigrated, the Muslims in power and without any are questioned and insightful conclusions drawn.

The same with his travels of discovery in Africa and the Caribbean.

One of the central and glaring facts of Vidia’s work is that, as the descendant of indentured labour recruited to work the agri-economy of the Caribbean, he is devoid of any sense of nationalistic loyalty. His loyalty is to his insights.

Of course, this meets with opposition from what we may label the “nationalistic” tendency-wallas. His attackers and cancel-cultists are nationalists of one dimension or other: Indian nationalists, “black” nationalists, Islamist nationalists and even some who see themselves, such as the late playwright Girish Karnad, as the nationalists of (short-sighted) sectarian humanism.

This absence of any nationalist tendency in V.S. is one of his cardinal literary strengths.

Some very biased chatteratti attribute the criticism and even cancellation of Naipaul’s work to some cloudy notion called “the Left”. As a wisp in that cloud I protest my innocence.


Tags: farrukh dhondy column, english literature, censorship