13 February 2012

A PUBLISHING PERSPECTIVE ON THE A.K. RAMANUJAN CONTROVERSY


The two short pieces below offer a publisher's perspective on the A.K. Ramanujan controversy in late 2011/early 2012, involving Delhi University and OUP India's decisions on Ramanujan's work.

A WISE BIRD AND ITS KEEPER
(published in The Book Review, February 2012)
 
After variations in colour, form and melody
On a million birds, he was cast
On the earth, an afterthought, to extol
Those splendid compositions by contrast.
—Patrick Fernando, ‘A Wise Bird’

A.K. Ramanujan’s work shows that the traditional folk repertoire of stories and village lore can provide more penetrating insights into the workings of cultures, texts, and social systems than modern criticism. He may have liked this folktale, given below, which I heard from a village bard. The tale is being retold all over India and has taken many shapes, depending on where it is told and who is telling it. Perhaps it is among the many folktales that Ramanujan himself collected in the Indian hinterland. Still, my retelling of it is bound in some ways to be different from his and everyone else’s; and being now a tale told to a different audience, and in a different context, it will provide weight to his opinion that tales must bear many tellings—300 at least, he felt—for there’s no telling what each new telling will tell. This is even truer of the most popular tales, such as the Ramayana, which is a bird of many feathers, each feather worth a whole bird, each feather almost in itself a different bird. This is the folktale as I think I heard it, though it is not in fact as I heard it. I heard it in Hindi, and now, translating it to English,  it sounds strangely different from how it sounded in Hindi. The bard who narrated the tale also said the world is difficult to fathom, words are hard to pin down, and stories the hardest.

Some bird catchers in the mighty West happened to catch an exceptional owl which had flown there all the way from the East. Though it looked piercingly in all directions, the bird seemed happiest looking East. Having grown fond of its wise visage, and sensing that by its oriental gaze the bird might be expressing a yearning for the regions from whence it had come, the bird catchers offered their rare owl to an Indian zookeeper on condition that the zookeeper agreed to look after the bird for the entire duration of its life, allow it to fly wherever it wished, and ensure, even when it had passed its prime, that it could fly about freely and come home to be nurtured when it pleased, until its natural end. 
Delighted to get such a fine specimen for his zoo, the zookeeper readily agreed. He revealed the wise owl to the marvel of his audiences, flew it for benefit over many years, and all who saw it wondered at its beauty and spoke their praise of it to all the world. 
After its prime, the bird not flying much, the zookeeper, in keeping with his assurance, let it perch and scratch around with others of the same feather who enjoyed dawdling.
One day, however, a trader in bird feathers chanced to see the old owl and, finding it had many feathers of an unusual colour, sensed a killing in the market if he could buy the bird. He offered the zookeeper the unexpected price of twenty pieces of silver. This immediately caused the zookeeper to forget his promise to the bird catchers from whom he had purchased the owl.
The trader took away the owl, killed it at once, sold its feathers for a high price, and went home gleeful at the ease of his success. 
Emboldened, he went on to buy and feather every such bird that he could from every zookeeper in the world, and by such fowl [sic.] occupation gained so much wealth that he rose to become the king of his country.

For those who know the context in which this fable is being told—the actions of Delhi University and OUP India in relation to one of the wisest and most resplendent birds in the world of scholarship—no further explanation is necessary. A moral aura that lies beyond explanation envelops every fable and was, for alert listeners in olden times, sufficient as the generalized and wisdom-laden understanding of a specific issue.
People now are more attuned to reaching understanding by the very different route of contextualization, analysis, dissection, and explanation. So I will switch modes and say the same thing in a less Ramanujanesque way. Still, I will try to remain true to the fable’s method by outlining broad moral changes in our publishing universe.
A mix of Thatcherism and corporatization has, over the past twenty-five or so years, altered many publishers from being publishing houses—implying a place where authors and readers feel at home—into straightforward money-making enterprises in which the author and reader are ‘clients’ with differing values, depending on how much the publisher stands to make from them. One consequence of this has been that the publisher, as reader and respecter of books, has given way to the ubiquitous “manager” who runs publishing mostly as a business and is only accountable to some higher form of “manager” who sits in Wall Street or Walton Street. Could OUP India have been immune to this pattern? It claims it is different from the standard commercial press because of its dedication to university scholars. Meanwhile the scholars to which it says it is dedicated are holding up a large signboard to the press which has a single word telling a whole story: Ramanujan.
Normally, within a university press, the scholarly book’s commercial value is recognized as a bonus, not a prerequisite: recognition of the value of academic writing as not centrally commercial, but as culturally and educationally invaluable, is the Kantian basis for the existence of a university press. Can OUP’s action be defended in relation to the ideals which it claims are its core?
OUP India’s heads until 1995 were reputed publishers: R.E. Hawkins (a friend to Salim Ali, Jim Corbett, and Verrier Elwin), Charles Lewis, Ravi Dayal (who made OUP India South Asia’s pre-eminent scholarly press), Santosh Mookerjee, and Neil O’Brien. They were readers of books who were also canny businessmen. They recognized, as any head of a university press must, the non-commercial value of scholarship, even while making decent profits for their organization.

The legal case against the university and the press seems to have been brought about by a Hindutvavadi in remote Dera Bassi. His rant against Ramanujan can be googled. The situation was a very difficult one for the publisher, and my instinct is to sympathize with any press besieged by fanatics. All the same, the choice was clear: to defend what the press had published by one of the great Indian humanities scholars of modern times; alternatively, to succumb to threats issued by a fundamentalist. When a press with vast financial resources and cultural capital decides against deploying them in defence of scholars that it has published—Hans Dembowski in 2001, James Laine in 2003, and most tellingly A.K. Ramanujan in 2011—the world is entitled to ask whether the philosophy underlying the publisher’s functioning is the vision of a university press.

Perhaps Ramanujan will have found the second half of this essay tiresome for not leaving enough unsaid.


Narrow View at the Top

(published in The Telegraph, 7 November 2011) 

The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen! — Bible, 2 Samuel 1: 19

A consequence of the debate generated by Delhi University’s removal of A.K. Ramanujan’s essay on the Ramayan from its history syllabus has been, ironically, to confirm the value of Ramanujan’s unusually exhilarating and accessible scholarship. People who may never have heard of Ramanujan have now, because of the furore, read him. Less established and debated has been the role of Ramanujan’s publisher, at one moment complimented by progressive academics for publishing works of genius, at another dragged to hinterland regional courts by the dogmatic for the offence of publishing these same works. 

Imagine a scenario in which the publisher of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species were taken to court by a Hindu fanatic for hurting his religious sentiments by casting doubt on Hindu beliefs about creation. Or one in which Einstein’s publisher were taken to court by some other variety of religious fundamentalist for disproving his belief in a universe divinely ordered. Given the latitude offered to the frivolously aggrieved by the Indian lower judiciary, these scenarios aren’t as fictitious as they seem. Legally, a publisher in India who has offended a fellow Indian by republishing the views of Darwin and Einstein can find himself being asked to appear in a mofussil court in Kargil or Kanyakumari. The number of offended Indians is legion, and growing by the day, and many of these bleeding-heart illiberals can reach an arrangement with a sub-judge on the need for self-publicizing litigation against any publisher whose size suggests a generous settlement out of court.

Although in theory publishers indemnify themselves against litigation costs in their contracts with authors, in practice it is they more than the author who are answerable in court. This is even more so in cases where the author is dead, or inaccessible because he is a foreigner. Given this, the position the publisher takes in court, and in the world at large, during times of legal assault by conservatives or fanatics is crucial in three ways: it outlines the publisher’s worldview, ideology, and attitude; it lays bare what the author has written and whether or not his work should continue to be published and disseminated; it either reassures or disillusions the reading public of the worth or absence of it in both author and publisher.

In the Ramanujan case, what should the publishing institution that took on his book (and thereby bought itself respect and made good money) say to his ghost, and to the serious reading public for which it was set up to publish such books in the first place? How would secular, progressive and sane sections of the reading public expect the publisher under attack to respond? Even if we forget the book’s commercial success — academic books sell in small numbers — isn’t there a publishing ethic that requires a publisher, specially a big publisher, to stand by a book and author he has taken on, and defend them, if not to the death, at least legally, vocally, and reasonably strongly? Such expectation would only be strengthened if the publisher happened to be a reputed university press claiming that the very purpose of its existence was to promote learning. How would it look if, instead of standing its ground and defending its authors, such a press were to cave in, whine out an apology to medievalists for having caused unintended hurt to their religious views and promise never again to reprint supposedly offensive books?

Cut from the domain of the imagination to the realm of the real. A.K. Ramanujan, a scholar so formidable that he was, for several years after his premature death in 1993, considered irreplaceable by his department at the University of Chicago (he was replaced many years later by D.R. Nagaraj), writes a pathbreaking essay on the Ramayan. In it he documents the popularity of the epic by showing how its influence on the Indian imagination is evident in the diversity of narratives and regional versions which it has generated. He publishes the essay, alongside many others which argue the same view — oddly, these other essays are not deemed offensive merely because Delhi University happens not to prescribe them — with the University of California Press, from which the Oxford University Press in India buys rights of republication for South Asia.
Indonesian stage performance of the Ramayana

A history department prescribes it. A hurt Hindu, his sentiments backed up by the sort of antagonism to ideas in which only cretinous Indian vice-chancellors specialize, takes the publisher to court. And what does the publisher do? Instead of preparing for a siege and sticking his Oxford Blue banner into the battleground, the publisher grovels. He agrees that what he has published can cause religious offence, and that by publishing Ramanujan he has caused it. He promises in court that he will renounce Ramanujan and not reprint the offensive essay.

Are such reactions by a major publisher acceptable? Is this the way in which even a small-time press, lacking the resources to fight legal battles but intent on retaining its self-respect, would react — never mind one of the world’s phenomenally resource-rich publishing multinational organizations? Has OUP India not heard of Penguin’s successful defence of D.H. Lawrence against State censorship? Or an Italian publisher’s defence of Roberto Saviano for exposing the Sicilian mafia?

I ask this in part because I was, 20 years back, the editor who acquisitioned and published the Indian edition of Paula Richman’s Many Ramayanas. And because I am, like many thinking academics and readers, dismayed by the position taken by the book’s Indian publisher. I also ask this because, being now a small independent publisher of scholarly books, I recognize the enormous difficulties that mischievous litigation can cause; and therefore, in principle, I am in fact sympathetic to any press besieged by fanatics.
But it is one thing to be a little publisher in a garage beset by the mob; it is quite another to be a corporation with offices in every continent and equipped with a whole legal department experienced in dealing with hurlers of footwear. Its press is Oxford University’s single largest donor to the university coffers. If the OUP were on sale, even Rupert Murdoch would have to check with his bank if he had the money to buy it. If the OUP were a bank, it would be asked to rescue Greece and save the euro. Given its financial worth, how can such a publisher seem so oblivious of its own intellectual and cultural worth, specially in India, a country with universities round every corner but without even one functioning university press? Why doesn’t this, of all publishers, empty its massive coffers just by the little that’s required to employ a security agency, protect its employees, put steel on its windows — and a little into its spine?

The Ramanujan case is not, unluckily, the only instance which shows OUP India crawling when asked to bend. A brief foray into publishing history shows a consistency in their response pattern when assaulted by numbskull vice-chancellors and their ilk. A few months before I left the OUP, I had signed on an excellent legal monograph by the German legal sociology scholar, Hans Dembowski. In 2001, soon after publishing his book, Taking the State to Court, OUP India apologized to the Calcutta High Court and withdrew the book instead of defending either it or the author (a first-rate German scholar who later put the book online). Two years later came the James Laine controversy. Same brick-throwers, same response: book withdrawn, apology tendered, academics left feeling betrayed. 

The case for mounting a defence of Dembowski and Laine earlier, and Ramanujan now, is not just very strong, it is absolutely required. It ought to be any self-respecting press’s first response to say it will defend what it has published. Unfortunately, the OUP’s actions in court, and vis-à-vis its own scholarly constituency, seem to suggest the philosophy of a myopic accountant who sees books as fodder for a cash till, not as ideological artefacts by great writers who can feel either supported or betrayed. In all these cases, the publisher’s instinctive reaction seems to have been to apologize and withdraw the book. In fact, both the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court threw out Maharashtra state’s case against Laine —but much after OUP’s instant apology and withdrawal of the book. It would seem excusable, though far from commendable, if a small press were to try worming its way out of prolonged and crippling litigation; but if, in addition to being big, you’re the pre-eminent scholarly publisher in your world, your every move is a statement of your ideology and must be carefully thought through. If a publisher with enormous resources sidles apologetically out of court, it will be interpreted as having said: “Let fascism rule, we haven’t the stomach to fight it.” 

To say this, even implicitly, can enormously injure a publishing reputation. And this is damage that cannot be compensated for by the size of a publisher’s holdings — as Rupert Murdoch has been finding out. OUP India, which celebrates its centenary next year, is unlikely to become India’s News of the World. But when quite a lot of people even begin to exclaim, “How are the mighty fallen!” it would be sensible for any publisher to listen carefully: a trickle can grow suddenly into a deluge.

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