Mistry defends book dropped at Mumbai University

Canadian author Rohinton Mistry is vigorously defending his book Such a Long Journey, which has been at the centre of a heated public debate after Mumbai University dropped it from the curriculum.

Shiv Sena supporters burn Such a Long Journey on campus

Canadian author Rohinton Mistry is mounting a vigorous defence of his book, Such a Long Journey, and of freedom of speech after the novel was dropped from a Mumbai University curriculum.

He was responding to a heated public debate in Mumbai (formerly called Bombay) over the novel because it makes reference to violence by the ultra-nationalist Shiv Sena party.

Such a Long Journey, published in 1991, won the Governor General's Literary Award and the Commonwealth Prize, with its story of a Parsi family struggling to rise above poverty in 1970s India.

But university students in Mumbai have objected to the book, which was on a second-year Bachelor of Arts reading list.

The university dropped the book after a Shiv Sena official met with its vice-chancellor last month.

Mistry, who studied at Mumbai University, defended freedom of expression and was critical of opponents of his book in a statement from his Canadian home Monday.

"In this sorry spectacle of book-burning and book-banning, the Shiv Sena has followed its depressingly familiar, tediously predictable script of threats and intimidation that Mumbai has endured since the organization's founding in 1966," he said.

Shiv Sena supporters burned the book on campus as part of their protest against what they said was an "offensive" description of the party and its sometimes violent tactics in the novel.

Aditya Thackeray, the 20-year-old grandson of the man who founded the nationalist Shiv Sena, led the movement against the book. He has admitted he hasn't read the entire book, but just the sections referring to Shiv Sena.

Mistry said he is divided between feeling disappointment or pity for the " young man who takes credit for the whole pathetic business."

"Twenty years old, in the final year of a BA in history, at my own Alma Mater, the beneficiary of a good education, he is about to embark down the Sena's well-trodden path, to appeal, like those before him, to all that is worst in human nature,'' Mistry said.

"He could say something radical — that burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul, will not house one homeless person nor will it provide gainful employment to anyone [unless one counts those hired to light bonfires], not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever,'' he added.

'Where the mind is without fear'

Mistry is recommending that the young activist read Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali and especially the verse that champions the place "where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; where knowledge is free."

Indian intellectuals and freedom of speech advocates have also come out in defence of his book.

Mistry was critical of the university and its vice-chancellor for succumbing so quickly to political pressure.

"More bobbing, weaving and slippery behaviour is no doubt in the offing. But one thing remains: a political party demanded an immediate change in syllabus, and Mumbai University provided deluxe service via express delivery, making the book disappear the very next day," he said.

"The university, in the person of the vice-chancellor, occupies an exalted position in civil society, the champion of academic independence and freedom of expression. Instead, Mumbai University has come perilously close to institutionalizing the ugly notion of self-censorship."