The most surreal aspect of these last few days has been watching prominent, liberal and highly regarded feminists on the same side as right-wing politicians burning effigies of the BBC as they demanded a ban on a film they had not even seen. There were widespread and passionate protests against a ban, including in Parliament, but the documentary, about an Indian problem on which every Indian has a view, has now been aired everywhere except in India.
Naturally, it went viral in seconds. I had friends posting links, and thousands watched or downloaded swiftly so that they could see it before the State blocked it off the internet. Watching it through, the first feeling was of vindication simply in the act of watching, the sense that the thousands of people in India, outraged by attempts to control them, had personally thwarted State censorship.
It is a harrowing, deeply disturbing film that you need a strong stomach to watch. The image that emerges through the long interviews with the victim's grieving, bereft parents is of an ordinary, happy family destroyed beyond recovery by the savagery of what was done to their daughter. The raped woman's tutor, an articulate young man who tells us about her aspirations and dreams and the determined way in which she set about achieving them, is the absolute opposite of the stereotypical Indian male. The film also records the wife of one of the accused men in her village in Bihar, and the mother of two others, all leading lives of extreme deprivation. Apart from the jailed man and his lawyers, it has interviews with feminists, judges, policemen.
We are used to governments banning films and books and artists in India. The NDTV channel's black lines through sections of Shobhaa De's article were an eerie reminder of censorship during the Indira Gandhi Emergency years (1975-1977). But to see enlightened feminists demanding a ban on a film makes all of us writing and publishing in India wonder if surviving just got a little harder. For writers, publishers and artists it was difficult enough knowing how easily their work could be banned by the State, or bullied into extinction by fundamentalist groups. And now we have to deal with sections of the liberal intelligentsia turning fundamentalist as well.
Some of these feminists - an isolated minority now that people have seen the film - argued that the film is a patronizing, simplistic, white-Western attempt to condemn a country wholesale; that it does not address 'structural problems' (the Left's term for inequality and poverty); that it profiles all poor Indian men as potential rapists. All these are criticisms, and a sign of democratic health is the fact that these criticisms can be heard. It is doubly ironic then that these same activists support xenophobic State censorship against a film for which apparently every legal permission was granted before it was made. They sidetrack us away from the fundamental issue: why not let us decide what to watch? Why prevent us from forming our own opinions? Should Kipling, Naipaul, and Rushdie be banned because they often say things that many Indians dislike?
When I began writing my third novel, I did not know that one of its central concerns would turn out to be systemic violence against women in India. What I had in my book in one of its very early drafts was a girl on a beach who was an incidental character. In that draft, she stood by a stall selling shell necklaces and I could see her only from the back. Characters in fiction do not always arrive by design and deliberation. The writer is as much a stranger to them at first as the reader, and the process of writing is one of coming closer and closer to the characters, of unpeeling them layer by layer until you know them - and even then, not completely. As I tried to follow the girl's story, to work out what brought her to that particular beach on that day, it emerged that she was a young woman with a traumatic and violent past. Whatever I had to read and research to get her character and life clearer in my head made me feel physically sick or tearful at times, to the point that I was not able to write. I don't know why I reacted to my own narrative in this visceral and crippling way. It was not efficient. The book took me forever to finish.
At the final stage I began to worry about its reception. Not only the critical response to a novel, as every novelist worries about, but whether someone would find things in it to object to. Does it show India as a more generally dangerous place for women than it is? Does it end up showing the West as a refuge and thereby 'pander to the first world'? Will every character or incident be generalized into a type? And these questions in my head which will transmute into criticisms in other heads: are these now reason enough for someone wanting my book banned?
My publisher had the manuscript read by a lawyer and said I had no reason to worry. But in this new context -where women I usually agree with and admire support banning a film for reasons that mostly appear to originate in differences of opinion - I feel less certain. This is suddenly a country in which the joke this week no longer seems a joke: "It's Thursday and only five things have been banned so far." Films. Books. TV shows. The head of the censor board even wants the word 'Bombay' to be banned because it is the West's version of Mumbai.
I remember when Rushdie's Satanic Verses was banned. I lived in Calcutta then and vendors would sidle up and offer pirated copies on the sly alongside cheap lipsticks and fly swats. In the same way today, viral downloads of Leslee Udwin's film have defeated the structures of the State as well as the demands of misguided feminists. As a writer and publisher, net pirates depriving me of royalties and sales ought to be my natural enemy. Ironically, I live in a country where I am forced to see them as everyone's best friend.
The author's third novel, Sleeping on Jupiter, will be published next month