Writer Mridula Garg is no stranger to controversy. At the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, where Garg was launching her novel The Last Email, the only thing that loomed larger than the branding of multiple sponsors was the threat of a disruption by the Karni Sena, who were outraged that the Central Board of Film Certification Chairperson Prasoon Joshi, who had cleared the film Padmaavat, was one of the speakers. In the face of these threats, Joshi eventually backed out of appearing, “so that the lovers of literature get to focus on creativity and not controversy.” The cloud of censorship, however, hung over the rest of the festival, prompting heated conversation about the right to expression and freedom of speech. For 79-year-old Garg, however, the Padmaavat controversy was eerily similar to what had happened to her almost four decades ago.
Over the course of 26 frenzied days in 1979, as Garg finished her Hindi novel Chittacobra, about a woman in an unsatisfactory marriage, she had no idea about the condemnation, abuse and eventual arrest that she would be facing for it. Soon after it was published, the Hindi weekly magazine Sarita dedicated several pages to an excerpt from an “objectionable” section of the novel, accompanied by a letter declaring it obscene.
It became a scandal – book stocks were seized, Garg was subjected to a witchhunt, and eventually two policemen showed up at her house to arrest her. While she avoided the lockup, the legal battle dragged on for years. The most ridiculous, and uncomfortably familiar, aspect of the whole matter, Garg said, was that hardly anybody accusing the novel and its author of “obscenity” had actually read the book. What offended readers was a few passages that depicted a wife who used her husband merely as a body to have sex with, while other thoughts raced though her head.
In the 43 years since the publication of her first novel, Garg has written over 30 books, mostly in Hindi, and won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2013. Her latest novel tells the story of two lovers reconnecting over email four decades after they first fell in love. One is a Scottish vicar dedicated to the struggle for Scottish independence, and the other, a respected writer of Hindi literature.
Mridula Garg spoke to Scroll.in about how censorship in India has changed over the years and why good fiction is always political.
The backlash against Chittacobra was almost 40 years ago, yet in a way nothing seems to have changed. Do you feel that is true?
As far as the writing about sexuality is concerned, particularly writing by women, as long as they write like men, everything is fine. There is a protocol about writing about sex. As long as you follow that protocol, you’re fine. In Chittacobra, the main problem that people had with the supposedly offensive pages is that this woman treats her husband as a body and reduces him to a commodity. Throughout intercourse, she is thinking of other things and in the last sentences she says she’s going to go to the bathroom and wash it all away. This was very hurtful to male egos. Women are forever reduced to bodies and commodities but women aren’t allowed to do that to men, to their husbands. I think this is the reason everyone got so angry and once they get angry, nobody reads.
There were lakhs of people who said Chittacobra is obscene without ever having read it. When the letter in Sarika called it obscene, the writer revealed that she’d not read the book at all. But the editor asked for more letters of the same kind so for one year, letters poured in – abusive, vulgar letters from people who hadn’t read the novel. The strange thing is that nobody intervened. I talked to the Authors’ Guild, I wrote to the bosses of Bennet Coleman. But they said that was freedom of expression, all the muck being thrown at me, not what I had written.
In what ways have things changed in how women can write about sex, female bodies and sexuality today?
The line lies between writing about the body and writing about sexuality. If you’re talking about sexuality as something that you have full rights over, people have a problem. Writing about the body or presenting the female body is fine but where it becomes a question of the politics of the body, then people start objecting because they feel threatened. A woman’s sexuality is still a threatening thing. They don’t have a problem because the descriptions are honest or uninhibited, it’s because they feel threatened.
Your writing, including your fiction, is inherently political. Is that a marker of all good fiction?
If you’re a thinking person, your writing will always have political elements because you don’t live in a void. A love story, for example, can be very political. I think fiction tells history best, it relates it in the best possible manner. I’ll give you one example – Tagore’s book Chokher Bali. It’s not a “political novel”, some of his other novels are more so. But there’s one small incident in there when an Indian family hires a carriage and goes on a picnic and while they’re picnicking, the carriage is taken away by a group of British people. And nobody bats an eye, nobody expresses anger, frustration or anything at all. They don’t even mention it, they just go and get another carriage. They just take it for granted that that these things will happen to them. This speaks volumes about people under colonial rule. The whole of Gora, that political tome of Tagore’s, couldn’t convey it as well as this one incident did. If you’re a thinking person, politics will always infuse your writing, otherwise what you write is pulp fiction.
You’ve spoken in the past about concerns regarding a culture of silence in the current government against discrimination and hate. What worries you the most right now?
I think our freedom of expression is gradually being taken away, whether you make films, cartoons or write books. It is the street which censors you. That always used to happen but now the government is colluding with the street. It is doing nothing to prevent rioting or other forms of censorship, it is always dragging its feet. The moment you start dealing strictly with people who are engineering riots and disorder, things will be different. This whole business about “hurt sentiments” is in some ways a new development and should be thrown out. In a democracy, sentiments will always be hurt. That is of no consequence. Nothing should be banned or stopped because somebody’s sentiments are hurt, that’s not a crime.
While you write in English, including your latest novel The Last Email, you are primarily a writer of Hindi literature. While it has a higher readership, do you think Hindi and other non-English languages are getting their due in the publishing ecosystem?
Not at all and what’s worse is that in the last few years, readership has fallen. Several Hindi magazines have shut down and for a lot of people, they read magazines first and then go on to read books. Not that there is a lot of fiction in English magazines either but there is a flourishing online ecosystem. The world of English publishing is a little more organised and the marketing, and hence, the reach, is better. I’m hopeful that people will start reading again in Hindi but there needs to not be some sort of status attached to speaking and reading in English. At literary festivals, you will find that English has grabbed the main stage and Hindi is just put in some corner.
While all fiction, of course, includes elements from the writer’s life, your newest novel feels particularly autobiographical...
It is based on a series of incidents over a period of 40 years. There are two lovers who meet after 30 years of not having seen each other and very quickly they find out that they’re talking about love and that they are in love. There is grief, there is forgiveness, there is politics – the man writes for the freedom of the Scottish Independence Party. Most of it is authentic except I have embellished the emails they exchange – I have been selective about which emails to put in and which to not. In life, you cannot be selective about memory, in fiction you can. Memory and love are two entities where fantasy and reality forever get mixed up.
If so much of it is reproduced from your own life, why did you choose to fictionalise instead of writing a memoir. Do you get to hold on to a little more of yourself and keep it private in a way?
When you call it fiction, you don’t have to put in all the facts. If you say it’s autobiographical, people say “but you had five sisters, what about them?” and “you lost your parents early, what about them?” so with fiction you’re not getting bogged down by the facts. You have a little more leeway in being selective to suit a novel, you can remove the unnecessary things that would have made it less interesting, that would have taken away from the passion.
Is an autobiography on the cards then?
No, never. I don’t even read autobiographies, at least those by writers, because they’ve already said everything. As you’ve said, all novels are in some way autobiographical – all the good material to draw on has already been written into your novels. So what remains to be said?