On censorship, obscenity and trains: Decision to 'de-platform' Khushwant Singh's book would have made the writer laugh

It is believed that Khushwant Singh’s book On Women, Sex, Love and Lust will corrupt its readers — nothing could be further from the truth. Millions of readers across the country indicate that the ‘corruption’ is endemic and quite incurable

Aditya Mani Jha November 25, 2019 08:45:09 IST
On censorship, obscenity and trains: Decision to 'de-platform' Khushwant Singh's book would have made the writer laugh
  • It is believed that On Women, Sex, Love and Lust by Khushwant Singh will corrupt its readers, and nothing could be further from the truth.

  • Millions of readers across the country indicate that the corruption is endemic and quite incurable.

  • It is believed that train stations are family-oriented spaces: they are not, which is why On Women, Sex, Love and Lust is the perfect book for them.

Another day, another censorship row in India — this, evidently, is the new normal we’re living in. It seems that Khushwant Singh has been de-platformed, in a very literal way.

On 21 November PTI reported that Ramesh Chandra Ratn, chairman of the Railways’ Passenger Services Committee (PSC), had instructed vendors at Bhopal Railway Station not to sell copies of Khushwant Singh’s On Women, Sex, Love and Lust — a thematic selection from the late writer’s newspaper columns, chosen and edited by veteran publisher Ashok Chopra at Hay House in 2011. Speaking at the Bhopal station, where he discovered a copy of the book during a routine inspection, Ratn said: “This is a multi-purpose stall, so obscene things with such words should not be displayed. Officials have been cautioned and directed to ensure such obscene things are not sold."

On censorship obscenity and trains Decision to deplatform Khushwant Singhs book would have made the writer laugh

It is believed that Khushwant Singh’s book On Women, Sex, Love and Lust will corrupt its readers — nothing could be further from the truth

To be fair, this is one not-particularly-important politician, heading one quasi-governmental committee. It’s also true that despite Ratn’s orders, it’s unlikely that AH Wheelers (and other book/magazine vendors) across the country’s train stations will stop stocking Khushwant Singh’s works (his joke books, for example, are legion and I’m pretty sure they reproduced, so good luck hunting down those babies).

And yet, the thing to keep in mind here is that acts of censorship draw their strength, in part, from each other. Every such act reduces the scope of dissent, strengthening the ground for further censorship — by creating new kinds of “unacceptable” every day, the business of controlling the narrative is streamlined. Which is why it’s important to push back, to listen to stories that powerful men don’t want told.

I find it a little funny that out of all of Singh’s hundred-plus books, this book, On Women, Sex, Love and Lust, was singled out for obscenity. It’s a volume comprised entirely of 600-800 word newspaper columns (of which Singh surely wrote several thousands in his lifetime). Surely, every one of these columns has already found an audience hundreds of times larger than On Women, Sex, Love and Lust is ever likely to find. But let’s not allow facts to get in the way of Mr Ratn, the boy who cried obscene.

Within these pages is a mostly on-brand Khushwant Singh, whose newspaper writings were marked by a cultivated curmudgeon-at-large persona. His expertly aimed missives of grouchiness were felt most keenly by zealots, hypocrites, crooks and politicians (who could, after all, be all three). And yet, there was a side of him that was susceptible to ‘strongman’ politics — in his later years, he expressed contrition for his support of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, for example.

Here, too, both these aspects are plainly visible. In a chapter on ‘eve-teasing’, Singh is in fine finger-wagging form, scolding the “gutter Casanovas” of his Delhi youth, even as they spew lines like, “Hai jaani maar daala, pyjama phaad daala”. But then, he strangely pivots to bitter stentorian mode: “There is yet another class of female, usually unattractive, who makes up stories of men making passes at them. This kind of Eve is deadlier than any Adam.” At places like these Singh resembles a lot of famous men of his generation, his popularly remembered image notwithstanding.

On the whole, Singh’s style in most of these articles is simple and effective — starting from a one-word prompt, say, ‘Breasts’, he talks about canonical sources from both East and West (“for Dickens, the ideal breasts were those on which a man could repose, like a pillow”) sometimes peppering them with popular Urdu or Punjabi poetry. By the end of the column, he either quotes or deconstructs a popular saying (the chapter about eve-teasing has an amusing aside about the Hindustani phrase ‘chher-chaar’, for example) tying it all together thematically. You start from the classical, build a bridge using mainstream art, and end with the colloquial — a sound strategy for a newspaper columnist.

Singh would have chuckled at being censored at a train station of all places. Trains-in-dreams have long been understood as sexual symbols by Freudian analysts — of discovery, moving into a new phase in life, or even danger-tinged sexiness, as Alfred Hitchcock films like Strangers on a Train and Suspicion show. The Bollywood of an earlier era used steam engines to allude to sex, while 21st-century Bollywood negotiated the various aspects of “acceptable” female sexuality with Kareena Kapoor’s train-obsessed character in Jab We Met.

Ratn has it all backwards. He believes that train stations are ‘family-oriented’ spaces: they are not (which is why On Women, Sex, Love and Lust is the perfect book for the train station). He believes Khushwant Singh’s book will corrupt its readers — nothing could be further from the truth. Millions of readers across the country indicate that the ‘corruption’ is endemic and quite incurable. It was just a few weeks ago that we heard that ICSE syllabi are being purged of ‘Jamun Ka Ped’, a satire about the bureaucracy written by Krishan Chander, another World War I-era stalwart like Singh. The two of them must surely be in splits at our idiocy.

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