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March 31, 2000
Storm in literary circles over 'Ravana Jyosyam'
Sameer in Hyderabad
It was just another busy day at the editorial desk of Andhra Jyothi, a popular Telugu weekly. The editor Namini Subrahmanyam Naidu, himself a writer of repute, routinely cleared a three-part story titled 'Ravana Jyosyam' (Ravana's prophecy) by a little-known author D R Indra and sent it for printing.
But the story, a feminist perspective of the travails of Sita written in a provocative style, triggered a storm in the literary circles.
When the magazine hit the stands, it instantly evoked strong reaction from the conservative section. Threats, intimidation and blackmail followed and the publishers were threatened with dire consequences if it published the subsequent parts of the story.
After the second part of the story appeared in print in January, a 50-member strong mob, shouting obscenities, barged into the magazine's office, ransacked furniture's and threatened the editor and his staff.
In an interview with this correspondent, Naidu spoke about his problems.
"I was shocked to see such an ugly display of intolerance. It was nothing but pure vandalism. How can they dictate what is good for readers and what is not?" Naidu asked.
"I am myself a deeply religious and God-fearing person. I hold the Ramayana in high regard. But, my religious feelings were not hurt even a bit when I read the story. It was just a curious interpretation of the character Sita during her captivity in Ashoka vanam," he said.
Naidu says he does not see the involvement of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or any other organisation in the incident and dismisses it as an impulsive act by some miscreants.
When pointed out that the assailants had proclaimed themselves as RSS sympathisers, he pointed out that RSS or for that matter any organisation can not be the sole custodian of Hinduism.
"There is no place for chauvinism and rabid enforcement of morals in the world of literature which has been thriving in a pluralistic and open culture," says Indra.
The novelist, who began his career as a sub-editor in a Telugu daily, has penned five books so far, all concentrating on issues related to rural life.
"I love the Ramayana and the values that it stands for. Our Prime Minister A B Vajpayee may support the RSS, but Lord Ram is always on the people's side," Naidu said, drawing a subtle dividing line between the common man's view of religion and the politics of religion.
In the three-part story, the protagonist Sita questions the established traditions and Hindu morality and even takes a lenient view of her abduction by Ravana, the King of Lanka. In one of her introspective moods, Sita tells her abductor that his action was justified in so far as it was a revenge against the treatment meted out to his sister Shoorpanaka by Ram and Lakshman.
The story, attempting a radically different interpretation of Sita's plight in Ashoka vanam, comes out as a stinging attack on Brahminical values and exploitation of women in the guise of scriptural sanctions with Sita talking about her loveless marriage, rigid and restrictive customs that stifled her freedom.
" It may not be a great literary work but I chose to publish it for the simple reason that there should be a space for any kind of artistic expression. I was even amused at dragging the venerable Sita into the world of feminism," the editor said.
There was a flood of protests from writers, intellectuals and professionals from various walks of life when the magazine's management did not publish the last part of the provocative story, apparently fearing backlash from fanatic elements.
However, no organisation has so far claimed responsibility for warning the publishers against going ahead with publishing the last episode of the story.
"We do not subscribe to violence by any group, irrespective of the level of provocation. However, one cannot get away with tinkering with religious sentiments of people," said Pracharak Bhimsen Rao, a senior RSS leader.
The artistic freedom does not mean denigrating scriptures and religious texts and attacking fundamental beliefs, he said, asserting that his organisation was in no way involved in the attack on the weekly's office.
While messages poured in from writers and literature lovers from all over the country and abroad expressing solidarity with Naidu and complimenting him for showing artistic courage and grit in standing up to the fanatic attack, the local journalists' union failed to come to his rescue.
Instead, Pratispandhana, a magazine run by the journalists' union chided Naidu for hurting religious sentiments of the people by publishing the story.
"I am deeply hurt by the attitude of my own comrades," said Naidu.
Meanwhile, eminent Telugu critic Velcheru Narayana Rao, now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA, condemned the "blatant attack" on artistic freedom and the "meek surrender" by the magazine's management to a "bunch of overzealous thugs". He said the incident should come as a wake-up call to every Telugu-speaking person who takes pride in pluralistic and open Telugu society.
Narayana Rao, along with 100 other prominent citizens across the world, including academicians, scientists, novelists and artistes, came out with a statement demanding the publication of the remaining part of the story.
"Once free speech is sacrificed at the altar of thuggery and mayhem, no cause is safe," they said, urging the state government to take necessary legal action against the attackers and safeguard the freedom of editors.
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