Posts Tagged censorship

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?


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