Stone, scissors, paper: censorship dilemmas

This is a long, rambling post. (Made possible by a Saturday evening to myself, with the spouse and junior  out and doing . . . uh . . . whatever sons and fathers go out and do together.) But there is a point to the rant (sinister agenda and all that!) and I will make it by and by.

You have been warned. So bear with me.

A colleague and I were sharing our travails of childcare yesterday when she said, almost accusingly, “It’s easier bringing up sons today than daughters.” (Background filler: She has one daughter and I have one son. And that makes both of us experts all right on bringing up children!)

Is it?

The other day when the kid and I returned  home, he from school and me from work, he found my education certificates strewn on my desk.  He scanned them eagerly  for telltale red marks. (What were Mommy’s grades like, huh? ) And then his attention was drawn to something else  my premarital surname. “Hey, these certificates have your name wrong,” he yelled.

So there I was, in the sticky situation of having to explain a) why women’s surnames change; b) the patriarchal bias in such change; and c) my choice without confusing him in the process.

[Digression: Some of us south of the Vindhyas  write surnames as initials before the given name. My surname initial remains the same even after marriage, something I’ve exploited to avoid using my marital surname. And since I always write my name with the initial,  my son never knew the  difference.] 

“So you changed your name?”he asked.  I toyed with the idea of explaining to him that in a world, a system, that is inherently patriarchal, some women  choose to lose some battles to win the war. OK, retrieve jaw from floor. What I actually said was, “Yes da. I chose.”

“Hmm. It’s a good thing, ” he said reassuringly.  “Otherwise, how would you decide which surname to give me? ”

“Which would you have preferred?” I parried.

He looked at me carefully and then, averting avoiding my gaze, said, “You got your father’s name, didn’t you?” I sighed and conceded defeat, wondering darkly whether boys were born men.

I’ve watched my mother raise three daughters and I don’t find bringing up a son any easier. I’m always tormented by dilemmas about how much I should tell him; whether I’m inflicting my ideological demons on him. Sometimes I choose to tell him and sometimes not. Am I, then, censoring? Or exercising judgment?

Reading to the kid is another site of conflict. If he had his way, it would be Tolkien/Rowling/R.L. Stine/Astérix & Tintin every day. Thankfully, the spouse indulges him on these ones. Much male bonding (read plotting against the only woman in the house) happens during these sessions, which I try to counter with Indian stories and stories by Indian authors (not the same thing, alas!) a Sirgun Srivastav, a Vandana Singh, a Ruskin Bond or a Sukumar Ray.

His favourite Indian stories, however, are from the epics. He loves them. All that intrigue and those wars  who wouldnt?! In fact, the number one reason the kid loves his visits to his grandparents is the wonderful stories of Krishna and Rama that they tell him. In this department at least I’m no match to my mother and mother-in-law.

So what’s my grouse? Why can’t I just please the kid like any well-behaved Mom? Well, I try my best, but I’m always on eggshells when narrating these stories because of my own views on them. What views? Vijaya Dabbe puts it succinctly:

Be fearless.
Never worry.
As long as you don’t
lift up your head
men will surround you, guard you
as if they were your eyes.
In case
a Ravana or a Dushyasana is born,
in case they drag you off
and tug at your sari,
there will always be
a Rama or a Krishna,
brave men
who will grant you
superabundance of clothes,
make you pass the test of fire,
and twirl their mustaches.


(Translated from the Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana.

Source: Women Writing in India. Vol II.Ed. Susie Tharu and K.Lalita)

 I’m always on the horns of a dilemma: Should I simply narrate stories as is, for the pleasure their narratives provide? How much should I “colour” them as I see fit? Should I give “meta-explanations” to make him see the views they propagate? Of course, the multi-layered complexity and malleability of the epics themselves, and their different versions, make re-interpretations, re-tellings and different perspectives possible. But you must remember that he gets the ‘authorized versions’ from formidable sources  two grandmothers. 

And I know, only too well, a grandmother’s hold  I was brought up on a diet of these stories, too, very engagingly narrated by my grandmother.  Come nightfall and the three of us, my sisters and I, would troop into my grandmother’s room and plonk ourselves down, with our pillows, beside her. And she duly enchanted us  with stories of gods and demons and beasts from the epics and puranas (with the moral clearly spelled out in the end, of course ) and with the poems and songs of Avvaiyar, (famous female poet of the Tamil canon; lived in the 13th century CE and wrote for children) elucidated with stories drawn from her own life and the lives of those around her.  Whatever the merits of these stories, their worldviews, we were spellbound   a spell broken only by my father’s stentorian voice calling out, “Enough Amma ! Let the girls sleep. They have to go to school tomorrow.”

 I survived those stories, so I suppose my son will, too. But I am a more troubled and confused story-teller than my grandmother. I have fewer convictions than her. And far too many dilemmas.  Sometimes my censoring scissors snips through the stories, cutting and rearranging. Sometimes the  kid blunts the scissors with his boisterous delight in the story. And sometimes the bewitching narrative envelops us, him, me and my dilemmas. Like that beautiful story of Aswathama and how his mother showed him what milk is. 

Whether it’s the stone, the scissors, or the paper that triumphs, my dilemma remains: When am I censoring? And when merely exercising judgment?

What is censorship? Is there a blanket definition? Professor Stanley Fish has a fascinating post on censorhip  over at his blog. He makes a semantic distinction between “the colloquial sense of the word [and] the sense it has in philosophical and legal contexts.”

According to him, censorship in the colloquial sense occurs when we refrain from writing or saying something that is inappropriate/hurts someone/ may have adverse consequences. This “self-censoring” he says is not really censorship but “civilized behaviour”.

On the other hand, economic decisions are “judgment calls”, not censorship. So organizations disciplining employees for something they said or did, or the police preventing someone from saying or doing something at a public place because it might disrupt law and order,  or a newspaper refusing to report something because of the negative impact it may have  all these are “judgment calls”, not censorship. Such actions are taken for purely economic or legal purposes, to avoid loss or harm to the organization or entity concerned. It does not impose a blanket ban because, to continue with the examples alluded to, the employee can always quit and join another organization, people can always look for some other forum to protest, and another newspaper might take up the story. 

Government censorship, which prevents someone or something from saying or doing something anywhere, at all times, alone counts as censorship. So if the government were to ban a book or a film, that would be censorship. If a publisher chose not to publish something or if a theatre chose not to screen a film, it is not censorship but an economic decision.  

It’s a thought-provoking distinction, but what perhaps Fish ignores, and which many of his commentators have pointed out, is the nuanced manner in which power actually operates in society. When a big publisher like Random House refuses to publish a book about the Prophet’s child bride (the incident that sparked off Fish’s post) will any smaller publisher come forward to publish it?  When the MNS in Mumbai goes on a rampage, pulling down English signboards, will ordinary people dare to resist? Yes, legal and police support can always be availed of, but how many would want to go down that thorny path? “Judgment calls” by organizations can have devastating effects on individuals simply because governments are not the only forces that operate in civil society.

How does censorship work at the individual level? Do individual choices professing “civilized behaviour” have cumulative effects on entire generations?

And where do we stand in this spectrum of censorship  my grandmother and I? She who sugar-coated inconsistencies and contradictions in the stories she narrated because “the moral” justified everything; I who seek alternative versions or choose to modify and “explain” stories whose  weltanschauung  I’m uncomfortable with. Or are we both exercising judgment, indulging in civilized behaviour?



  1. Space Bar said

    Excellent post, SS. I have similar dilemmas while telling stories to my son. Sometimes what I do is ask (after I’ve told the story) what he thinks about this or that element and we talk about it for a bit. Sometimes I put hypothetical situations to him and ask what he thinks people might have done. I try to avoid ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’; they creep in anyway.

    Oh and do you know the bilingual books from Tulika? They’re available from Saptaparni. Also recommend Suniti Namjoshi’s childrens stories.

  2. Quirky Indian said

    Excellent post. I’m not a parent, so can’t really comment with any ‘authority’, but shouldn’t these be treated as just stories,as they are, right now (sans the ‘morals’)? Shouldn’t Junior figure out the nuances and complexities and layers over time? Much as you did, after hearing your grandmother’s stories? What do you think?

    On censorship – I agree, saying that only government censorship is censorship is misleading. But then you and I have had this discussion before, and for me ‘civilised behaviour’ is just another euphemism for censorship. Even for a parent, there is a very, very thin line between censorship and exercising judgement. Most parents veer towards censorship on the pretext of exercising judgement – something I wrote about in my sex-ed post.


    Quirky Indian

  3. Prasanth said

    Great Post! What you described parallels something I have encountered as well(albeit in a different context). As an avid mythology buff, I have often been in some amount of despair as my sheer fascination for many of those stories has not sat well with the innumerable issues I have with them.

    As far as the question of censorship goes, I would like to point out the other extreme of the Stanley Fish argument. I believe that most of our daily activities are acts of censorship/judgment. For that matter, even censorship by the government is a matter of “judgment”. And (although this may be a bit of an overkill) one of the origins of the word censor is ‘censure’ which corresponds to value or judge. 😛

    Thus is it possible then, that conflicts of the kind your refer to occur when one’s beliefs conflict with the need to maintain a specific kind of neutrality ? If so, where does this need for neutrality come from ? If not, are the conflicts due to the allure of stories that are so ingrained in us that we are unable to denounce them completely ?

    Whatever be the answer, I do not think perpetuating one’s beliefs is, in any way, a “doubtful” 🙂 activity. It is perhaps the one of the few things that is universally human. Plus your mode of “censorship” is the kind that eventually leads an individual to question established and “authorized” versions—the very antithesis of the concept of censorship.

  4. Pooja said

    Great post, as usual.

    My response might be a tad simplified, but here’s the thing – I see an essential difference between simplifying facts for kids and censoring matter for adults.

    With children, it can be a all-in-good-time factor. Inuring them steadily makes sense, and chances are, most parents use their instinct wisely on this.

    As to govt. or public censorship – there are no clear-cut answers, but plenty of evidence of bootlegging thriving during prohibition and so many similar examples in literature and cinema.

    Maybe, adults deserve to make their own choices, but maybe, all adults are not always wise in doing so.

  5. Thanks everyone for responding. I’m now THIS close to becoming the world’s wisest Mom. 🙂 Seriously, though, this was a difficult post to write coz I try to keep the personal out of this blog. So thanks.

    It’s a comfort to know I’m not alone. And yes, talking it thro’ is the best way. Agree about Tulika, they do great work. Namjoshi is a great fav. of mine, too; I assume you’re referring to the Aditi stories, which I introduced the kid to. He didn’t take to them. But then currently he’s going through an “all girls suck” phase. We’re hoping it will pass soon. Do pray for us. 🙂

    Agree. And that’s what the kid feels, too. He’s instantly put off if he feels I’m “explaining” or being preachy. I have to let the stories do the talking, which is why I agonize over the selection of stories. What’s really at issue, I guess, is my own reservations about some stories.
    “Civilized behaviour is euphemism for censorship.” Yes, we’ve had our discussions on this (Is ‘discussion’ PC for ‘spat’?! Couldn’t resist that. 🙂
    In principle, yes. What we’re probably afraid of is what it might lead to. That once we start censoring, the casualty will be free speech. We don’t trust our discrimination, which is a sad comment on us, isn’t it? I prefer to take a case-by-case approach rather than say that all civilized behaviour is censorship.

    That’s a vey sobering thought – that most of our daily acts are judgments. Which is perhaps why having someone else lay down “right and wrong” makes things simpler for a lot of people. Fewer nervous wrecks! The danger of handing down worldviews to children at an impressionable age is that they become ingrained and difficult to undo later. (Something you’ve alluded to, too.)

    And I agree that part of the conflict is due to our inabilty to completely denounce parts of our culture. However, I’m not even sure I want to denounce it. I merely want to look at it differently. Or, as you said,
    maintain neutrality. That really set me thinking. Yes, the compelling urge to appear neutral, not take a stand – why indeed. In the final analysis everything is a stand. My grandmother’s. Mine. My son’s. Who’s to say which is the better one?

    Absolutely. There is a distinction, which parents do take cognizance of. This morning for instance, my son picked up the newspaper and the headline was “Nun gangraped ….” He wanted to know what ‘gangraped’ meant. And he’s at that awkward age (10) when he’s not mature enough for the truth and yet knows when I’m avoiding an answer. So yes, simplification is required here.

    But as QI pointed out, above, it’s a very thin line indeed and the slightest crossing over might result in a warped personality. The trouble is, the “all-in-good time” factor is fast disappearing today. If I don’t tell my child he will learn from other not-so-reliable sources, which is why the agonizing over the what and the how to tell…

  6. Prasanth said

    Since censorship was (one of) the topic.

    This week is Banner Books Week. (details here)

    Plus an article by Philip Pullman on censorship.

  7. Prasanth said

    sigh! That was Banned Books Week.

  8. @ Prasanth:

    Hmmmm. The Pullman piece strikes a chord – religion and how it can be misused.

    BTW, have you heard of this – The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature by Elizabeth Cantor; it bemoans the disappearance of the great classics of English Literature from school and college curricula, and their replacement by works of popular culture; also attacks English departments for their preoccupation with feminist, Marxist, deconstructionist, and postmodernist critique. Parodying them, even.

    If current debates on how to “read” literature are seen as attempts to sanitize the classics, I guess most of us in this country’s English departments are doing just that!

    So is it wrong to question the classics?
    Or is it wrong to claim that the classics are just great creative achievements?

  9. Prasanth said

    Hmm..tough questions
    I guess the middle path would be the realization that the classics are works of literature/cinema which have influenced a lot of creative efforts over the ages(including its critiques).This implies that with the passage of time, they could become irrelevant. This also enables questions as to how/when//why they became classics

    A funny thing about the debate is that classics(or for that matter any work of art) are primarily supposed to impact a person at an individual level. You read a book and you like it or else you don’t. However that is the never the question addressed when we talk about classics.

    While this approach might seem too basic, I guess it helps clarify certain questions regarding how a classic from a different age or a different milieu impacts itself on the user.

  10. apu said

    Very interesting post, though I am somewhat late to the discussion. On the one hand, it’s tempting to say, let stories be stories; but don’t kids subconsciously absorb things from them? I mean, if all the boys and men in all the stories are smart, courageous, active, resourceful and all the girls and women in the stories are beautiful, helpful, obedient and seeking help – doesn’t that say something to them?

    While I understand the dilemma about censoring, there are hundreds of versions of every story. Who is to say yours is any worse than them? Of course, having to compete with the authorized versions makes it tougher 🙂

    With classics however (or any other piece for that matter), while we may see them as feudal/anti-women/ racist etc etc, I guess it’s helpful to remember the time in which they were written. Of course, the advantage of reading as an adult is that one doesn’t internalize the biases.

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