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Why Ravi Subramanian is wrong to support Penguin pulping Doniger's book

Ravi Subramanian, the author of best-sellers like Bankerupt, If God was a Banker, The Bankster, The Incredible Bankers and so on, has written a blog justifying the decision of Penguin India to pulp Wendy Doniger's book The Hindus – An Alternative History.

In this blog titled Stop the Hypocrisy, Penguin did the right thing, Subramanian defends Penguin's decision by saying that “am not sure how many copies of Wendy Doniger's book was Penguin selling in any case. Market feedback tells me that in four odd years since launch Penguin would  not have sold more than 5000 copies of the book. Many of them as gifts (which would not have been read for sure). Retailers / Distributors would have had heaps of stock gathering dust.”

 Why Ravi Subramanian is wrong to support Penguin pulping Donigers book

Screenshot of Wendy Doniger's book.

And given this, Subramanian feels that Penguin has made a “smart call” to pulp Doniger's book. As he writes, “By the time the instruction to pull out books reaches the last retailer, most of the books would have in any case got sold. People are in fact rushing to buy her book before it gets taken off book shelves (Even her more recent book with Aleph Publishers has shown a huge sales traction over the last two days).”

This would mean that Penguin would exhaust all stocks of Doniger's book in India, writes Subramanian. “In the process they (ie Penguin) have managed to get more people (in India and overseas) to read Wendy’s book than even Wendy would have imagined. Probably a lot more than the number of people who have read her in the last five years. I see it as a win-win for everyone. So why are the hypocrites complaining.”

First and foremost, it is surprising that a writer is defending a publisher's decision to withdraw a book. But that in the words of Subramanian would be a “hypocritical” argument to make. So let's move on from that. Second, if this is an excellent win-win situation for everyone including Penguin, why doesn't the publisher practise it more often? Given the number of groups in this country who are opposed to almost everything and anything, how difficult is it to get any group going against any book? Since Subramanian seems to be advocating this “win-win” strategy, would he have implemented it on his book Bankerupt, which has been published by Penguin and thus, sold a few more copies in the process?  Subramanian is a passout of IIM Bangalore, and he surely understands what the phrase “win-win” means.

Subramanian also writes that “every publisher exists in this business for profits. Lets not glamorize this basic reason for existence with lofty words, like upholding of freedom of speech, bowing down before religious fundamentalists etc etc. If after defending Wendy’s book for four years, Penguin felt that they were on a weak wicket, what’s wrong in pulling the plug?”

That seems like a fair point, especially for someone like Subramanian who has worked for banks like Citibank, HSBC and ANZ Grindlays, most of his life. (You can read his detailed Wikipedia entry here). As we all know, bankers in their greed for more and more profit, brought the world to a standstill in 2008. The world is still suffering from the aftermath of the financial crisis that started in 2008. Many big banks (including Citi where Subramanian worked) had to be rescued by governments. Hence, for a banker, most things revolve around profit and more money, and that is not surprising.

But the question is should anything and everything seen from the profit lens? As Philosopher Michael Sandel writes in What Money Can’t Buy – The Moral Limits of Markets, “Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life.” Sandel also wrote something similar in a piece in The Atlantic. “We live in a time when almost everything can be bought and sold. Over the past three decades, markets—and market values—have come to govern our lives as never before. We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.”

Given this, it is not surprising that Subramanian has defended Penguin's decision to pulp Wendy Doniger's book in the way that he has. It's all about money. Who cares about old world phrases like the freedom of expression any more?

Subramanian also asks “where were the hypocrites when other books were being pulped?” As he writes: In life, the sure shot way of getting into the media glare is to take potshots at leading luminaries, big organisations etc. I guess people doing this to Penguin, surely have this also at the back of their minds. Hit out to get noticed. Make a controversial statement and be featured. If this is not true, and you were serious custodians of free speech, torch bearers for freedom of expression, where were you when Jitendra Bhargava’s book The Descent of Air India (Bloomsbury) was scuttled by Ex-Union Minister Praful Patel. Or when Sahara Group scuttled Tamal Bandhopadhyay’s book Sahara – The Untold Story, published by Jaico."

This is a very lame argument to make. Since when did two wrongs start to make a right? Just because the level of protests on Bloomsbury scuttling Jitendra Bhargava's book on Air India and Sahara scuttling Tamal Bandopadhyay's book were not very high, that does not mean that Penguin's decision to pulp Doniger's book is correct.

Also, protests against the pulping of Doniger's book have been made by a range of people (from Arundhati Roy to a lot of my Facebook friends who do not agree with what Doniger says, but don't want her book being pulped either). Painting everyone with the same brush and accusing them to be seeking publicity is a rather far-fetched argument to make, even for a banker.

Subramanian also talks about the peace of mind of the families of people who work for Penguin. As he writes, “Over a hundred people work at Penguin’s office in Panchsheel Park in New Delhi. Penguin, like any other organisation, is accountable for their safety and security. The peace of mind of a hundred families would be shattered if Hindu Fundamentalists were to attack that office.”

By that logic no form of creative expression should be allowed any more because it might hurt the sensibilities of someone and that in turn might put other people in danger. The only form of creative expression that we can allow are probably the films of Salman Khan (given that they are so mindless that they can't hurt anyone). Even a Karan Johar does not make this cut, given that his movie My Name is Khan managed to create a lot of controversy.

As far as books go only the Chetan Bhagats and the Ravinder Kumars of the world will make the cut. Even Subramanian's books will not pass through, given that they show bankers in negative light, at times.

And hence, some banker somewhere, who is not right in the head, may want to hurt the employees of Penguin (the publisher of Subramanian's latest book) and Rupa (the publisher of Subramanian's previous books). Given this, why should publishers take the risk of publishing Subramanian?

Guess it's time Subramanian read the German anti Nazi theologian Martin Niemöller. As he wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Subramanian will probably understand what the issue is all about, if and when, they come after his books.

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

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Updated Date: Feb 15, 2014 11:30:55 IST