PEN, Writers Union back Mistry's book battle

PEN Canada and the Writers Union of Canada are calling on the University of Mumbai to reverse its ban on Rohinton Mistry's novel Such a Long Journey.

PEN Canada and the Writers Union of Canada are calling on the University of Mumbai to reverse its ban on Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry's novel Such a Long Journey.

A university vice-chancellor in Mumbai pulled the book from a second-year bachelor of arts reading list last month because of complaints from students who support right-wing political party Shiv Sena.

Mistry's novel follows the story of a family struggling to get by in 1970s India, and there are descriptions of Shiv Sena's violent tactics.

PEN Canada said it was "deeply concerned" at reports of book-burning and censorship at the University of Mumbai.

Copies of Such a Long Journey were burned on campus by students who said they were offended by passages in the book. In addition to passages about Shiv Sena, they said they did not like profanity and a reference to a brothel in the book.

"It is a further cause for concern that the ban was apparently rushed through to appease members of the Shiv Sena Party, following a book-burning protest organized by Aditya Thackeray, the new leader of Yuva Sena, the party's youth wing," PEN Canada said in a statement released Thursday.

PEN pointed to the book's distinguished history as winner of numerous prizes, including 1991 Governor General's Literary Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book.

"Until Mr. Thackeray criticized the novel's 'foul language against many things that we, in Mumbai, hold close to our hearts' most reviewers had emphasized the book's 'loving humour' towards the citizens of Mumbai, and its 'sharp affectionate sketches of Indian family life,'" it said in defence of Such a Long Journey.

Alan Cumyn, chair of the Writers Union of Canada, said it's "unacceptable" that the University of Mumbai is bowing to political pressure.

Cumyn said India, as the world's largest democracy, has a responsibility to uphold freedom of expression.

"Freedom of expression must be a cornerstone of any democracy, especially the world's largest," he said in a statement. "We call upon the university to reinstate the book."

Both PEN and the Writers Union have been strong advocates for freedom of expression around the world.

Mistry himself published an open letter to the university earlier this week criticizing its decision to drop the book.

Vice-chancellor Rajan Welukar said the board of studies for the university had approved the book for study a few years ago without reading it.

He told Indian media the decision to drop the book was made after a two-hour debate and he did not know why it had become a political issue.

There had been protests against the book on campus, led by Thackeray who is grandson of Shiv Sena's founder, and a Shiv Sena member had visited the vice-chancellor to lodge his own objections.