The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page

A squabble about the truth of a sexual liaison mentioned in a book cannot be reason for a court case. This is typical of the region: people assume their heroes have no sex life

The freedom to express oneself should have no fears about skeletons in the cupboard. It is thus rather difficult to support the stay order that has been imposed on the book, called Dwikhandita, by Taslima Nasreen. The ostensible reason for this stay is that she has spilled the beans about a three-night stand she had with another writer. The view that voluntary physical intimacy with a woman is morally defamatory is only a reflection of a particular view of morality. It needs to be underlined that the author has said that she did not decline the physical intimacy not because she could not but because she did not want to. It was a voluntary decision on her part. The denial of the event brings the case down to one personís word against anotherís. This cannot be a substantive ground for stopping the sale of a book. The fame of a writer ó a necessary condition to establish defamation ó should not be based on his or her sexual activities. Rather, it is necessary to look at the merits or otherwise of his or her creative efforts. This perspective is often lost when a court case focussing on lurid personal angles comes to be associated with a work. This only helps the publisher to go laughing all the way to the bank.

This problem has a unique south Asian aspect. People in this part of the world steer clear in public discourse of matters of a personal and intimate nature. This is true of autobiographies and biographies. Take for example the autobiography and the best biography of Jawaharlal Nehru. The former, despite its title, is no more than an account of the young Nehruís political quest and journey. There is hardly anything in it of a personal nature and not even a passing mention of his relationship with his wife. This absence Nehru tried to compensate for by the memorable dedication, ďTo Kamala who is no more.Ē The love and the pain of that sentence came significantly as an afterthought. Similarly, Nehruís biographer, S. Gopal, wrote without any reference to his subjectís personal relationship ó with Kamala, with Edwina Mountbatten and with other women. Indians assume that their heroes have no sex life. The redoubtable Nirad C. Chaudhuri was honest enough to admit that he felt betrayed when he heard that one of his icons had a wife in Vienna. The exception to this general trend was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. His autobiography was frank and for its honesty, it is placed next to the recollections of Augustine and Rousseau.

Memoirs and biographies in the West have a refreshing candour. There were no objections to the revelation that Virginia Woolf was sexually abused as a child or to the fact that she had a lifelong relationship with Vita Sackville-West. The monumental biography of John Maynard Keynes by Robert Skidelsky has details of the economistís sexual proclivities. The strange prickliness of Indians in this regard is perhaps a reflection of emotional immaturity as well as an almost natural equating of sex with sin. There can be no higher morality than complete honesty.

Email This Page