Why You Should Read All the Banned Books. Including The Satanic Verses.

 (sanjay austa austa)

If you are a self respecting reader of any worth you must have read at least some of the following books.-  To Kill a Mokingbird, Ulysses, Catcher in the Rye, Brave New World,  Animal Farm,  Grapes of Wrath,  Lord of the Flies,  Gulliver’s Travels , Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. These are no  ordinary books but familiar literary classics taught  today in virtually all leading Universities  around the world .  Yet these are  books that were banned in the past  one reason or the other.

This begs the question; are most banned books brilliant? Or lets put it this way. Do politicians and the clergy ban certain books because they are brilliant?

Take for example the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibirorum. The Index listed   books banned by the Church and was regularly printed until 1966.  It had in it not only the books of literary giants like John Milton and Francis Bacon but also the works of some of the  greatest scientists and intellectuals  that we have ever known namely Kepler, Voltaire,  Pascal, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau etc.

Publications like Oxford bring out lists like  ‘100 best books’  that literary snobs like yours truly regularly scour to see what books we can tick off our bucket list.  Its virtually a compilation of all the once banned books in the world.

With few exceptions – (like Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja which is  just a bad book very badly written)   most banned books are outstanding and have stood the test of time.

Banned books are fantastic for the obvious reasons. They question the status quo, challenge existing paradigms, question idiotic beliefs no matter how sacred, and provoke you to think anew. The very reasons the politicians and the clergy would not want you to touch them.  But what is good writing if it won’t give you a fresh perspective. And what is freedom of expression without the freedom to offend? After all for how long can one read  Paulo Choelho  or Chetan Bhagat

Rushdie’s Satanic Verses may not be an outstanding book. Its admittedly not even Rushdie’s best book. Midnight’s Children stands too tall for comparison.  But it  asks a fundamental question.




What’s In The Satanic Verses that get’s the Mulla’s goat?

Most people who rile against the Satanic Verses have not read it. Ayatolla Khomeini  certainly did not read it nor have the Deobandis. In fact most liberals have not read it either. They speak up for Rushdie being flag- waving activists of the freedom of expression . I got my copy long before Amazon came to our doorsteps. Just like everyone else those days , I got my copy  via a relative visiting Europe.

Is the book against Islam? Yes the chapter ‘The Return to Jahilia‘ is certainly a pointed satire on Prophet Mohammed and his wives but it would be a very narrow reading of the book to say that its an attack on Islam alone. It infact takes on all  three Semitic religions namely Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

As Rushdie has written in his  memoir Joseph Anton – ‘Satanic Verses’ was an attempt to question the idea of  Revelations.

The  Satanic Verses  asks a  crucial question. Must we trust a man who goes up some mountain and claims to speak with God and writes the so –called godly instructions in a book that all must revere? But it was not only Prophet Muhammad who was ‘enlightened’ on a hill by a  God. Moses, one of the most revered Prophets of both the Jews and Christians went up Mount Sinai to confabulate with God before coming back with the Commandments. Abraham ,  Noha , Joshua, and every Old Testament  Prophet claimed to have a direct hotline with God.

Unlike in the East, religious enquiry has never been the tradition for Semitic faiths . If you are a true Christian you have to believe in the Immaculate Conception or the Resurrection.  Doubting any of them is striking at the very core of Christianity. Similarly if you are a Muslim you cannot question any of the verses in the Koran. (More now for fear of losing your head ).

In the East, religious enquiry has been the cornerstone of  faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism. That’s why its so hard to understand the Hindu zealots who go crazy when any   different interpretations of the Hindu texts are  offered or their Gods painted in the nude. Remember A.K. Ramanujan’s brilliant ‘Three Hundred Ramayans’ that was dropped from the Delhi University syllabus at the instance of the loony right. (And now we see how Penguin Publishers have so meekly capitulated to a Hindu fringe group and withdrawn Wendy Doniger’s book – The Hindus.)  And as for M. F. Hussain, its just so dreadful  what the Hindu fundamentalists  did to him and utterly shameful that we stood by and did nothing.  But travel down South East Asian countries and you will see living examples of different versions of the Ramayana enacted in places as far off as Bali. And you just have to visit the National Museum in Delhi to see the Hindu Gods in the buff all etched in bronze and stone.

In the East, truth came not so much from the sacred texts or the Gods   but from a deep enquiry that every individual could do for himself.

Meditation, the essence  of Eastern Mysticism  is nothing but an  open enquiry into everything- including the existence of God. Broadly speaking  the sacred texts of the East for example the Upanishads and the Diamond Sutra urged one to question,  to explore and live a life based on ones observations and experiences.

There is no such scope of questioning in the Semitic faiths. If you want any truth its there in the Bible and the Koran or the Torah. And there can be no debate about it.

The Satanic Verses is an attempt at questioning as it is a satire on the Semitic religions .  According to some accounts, though disputed by many Muslim scholars, Prophet Mohammad during the course of dictating the Koran, got    few verses from the Koran deleted . He claimed  those verses had been  inspired by the devil.  The Satanic Verses asks how does one verify which verse was inspired by the devil and which by God? The book also offers examples of how the Prophet conveniently deleted verses that harmed his business interests and included verses that profited him personally.  The Satanic Verses  had tried to start  a debate on all these questions. But all it did was open a can of worms.

21 Responses to “Why You Should Read All the Banned Books. Including The Satanic Verses.”

  1. Very nice. It seems like a conspiracy to stop people from using their brains and revolting against the religious heads and all those who have power.

  2. akhila says:

    informative and engaging write-up.I am surprised about the Lajja mention – found the book very well researched and written. Not surprised about its ban, though.

  3. pankaj anand says:

    another good write up Sanjay. really enjoyed it.. have read couple of banned books and it gives totally different view to problems/discussion and beliefs.

  4. easwarc says:

    quite a thoughtful write-up..
    my opinion.. inherently any religious school of thought (east or west) is irrational … reasoning and introspection is at the other end of the spectrum..
    there is a fine line between bringing up a radical view-point and deeply offending someone.. some authors do tend to publish brazen views to attract controversies and in turn provide the much needed PR for their work.

    • sanjay austa says:

      Thanks Easwarc, I agree with you. However I think the right to offend is intrinsic to the freedom of expression. One can of course protest against the offending book, hold demonstrations etc but banning it is certainly not the way.

  5. khayali alam says:

    the main reason why we want to read banned books is just to not blindly beleive in what is in trend, but just to get idea about all actual truths and arguments by other experts.
    one should not even beleive in controvercial writers unless otherwise they have facts weighed and judged themselves.

  6. Kurush says:

    whilst I agree with the premise that we should read banned books because they are more often than not superb examples of writing, thought etc … I have to say that Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (SV) was a bad book, the writing,plot(s) and treatment sucked … it almost read like he hadn’t written it himself … yes Midnight’s Children is a tough act to follow but Haroun and the Sea of Stories was beautiful as was Shalimar the Clown … Lajja was a third rate book that emulated Rushdie’s SV because the author obviously realised thanks to the Ayatolla’s fatwa and subsequent brouhaha that Islam was a soft target and that Islam baiting would get her the publicity/notoriety she craved.

    I was 20 when SV was banned in India and my teacher of Islamic Culture at St Xavier’s wason the committee that banned it. I argued very passionately against the ban and she told me that … ‘they had banned it not for those who could read, but for those who couldn’t’ … I told her this was a cop-out. But India proved her right 3 days after India banned it, there was a large ‘julus’ that was marching on Sachivalaya and the police opened fire resulting in 3 deaths … that julus was called to ban the book! To ban a book which had already been banned!!!

    I finally understood what my teacher Dr Shaukat Ali meant, she lent me her copy which I read and then realised what a shitty piece of work it was.

    Whilst I who could read could deride it and move on … millions who couldn’t, didn’t have the benefit of that insight.

    • sanjay austa says:

      Kurush thanks for your comments. Whether the book was badly written is another issue altogether. Badly written books also have a right to exist right there with the good ones.
      Also its the writers and artists who are the soft targets of all organized religions who just don’t want them to raise any uncomfortable question.

  7. shibani says:

    Hi Sanjay

    Really enjoyed your article, especially the poke at chetan bhagat and paulo coelho :o)

    Kurush, I think Satanic Verses is a very intelligent, irreverent and fun book. Your teacher’s take on the ban was an eye-opener though; I’d never thought of a book ban for those who can’t read! It would seem however that it didn’t work anyway – julus 3 days after it had already been banned. so banning or not banning doesn’t really matter? Illiterate and /or ignorant people will always be swayed by those with vested interests, and a book is yet another politico-religious (!) football.

    anyway,glad i stopped by here today, good stuff.

  8. Vivek KAul says:

    “I finally understood what my teacher Dr Shaukat Ali meant, she lent me her copy which I read and then realised what a shitty piece of work it was. ”
    If it is shitty piece of work, why do you have to ban it, let the people decide for themselves, right? As you also understood how shitty the book was, why not give other people the chance?

  9. Vineet Thakur says:

    Fantastic read Sanjay! sharing it..

  10. Romit says:

    Sanjay : A nice and witty article highlighting an important question around the ‘freedom of expression’ that esp. in our country the political leadership take for a ride the moment there is some objection to any piece of art by any community whatsoever. In fact one might argue that “hurting sentiments” is a sort of national past-time for us (other than cricket, Bollywood, corruption and rape) which gives lame and thinly veiled excuse for increasing scrutiny over internet and other medium of expression by vested political interests. The worst is the response of successive governments to right-wing hooliganism; rather than punishing hooligans who vandalize public property, from Maharashtra to Tamil Nadu to West Bengal, everywhere governments have resorted to banning books / films / theater as that’s the morally / legally wrong but convenient thing to do. The western societies note that “right to offend” is an important public right and any incendiary material can be banned only when it directly targets individuals / communities through hate speech and jeopardizes public safety. Such objective differentiation and scrupulous upholding of freedom of expression is sorely lacking in our country.

  11. Spot on with this write-up, I really assume this web site needs far more consideration. I’ll most likely be once more to learn way more, thanks for that info.

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