Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Vexing Case of Murzban Shroff

Indian fiction writer and longtime friend of this blog, Murzban Shroff, has for some time now been entangled in a maddening free speech case in his home country:

Use of the word ‘ghati’ in his book Breathless in Bombay has landed first-time author Murzban Shroff in trouble, with an activist claiming that it “lowers the reputation and image of Maharashtrians in the eyes of non-Maharashtrians”.

While 47-year-old Shroff, a Mumbai-born Parsi, maintains that the term is not aimed against any community, activist Vijay Mudras wants the government to seize all copies of the book, which he feels is a serious threat to communal harmony.

More coverage of the case can be found here.

Though this kind of thing is much more a problem in India than it is for writers here in the US, we have seen the phenomenon before--an apparent unwillingness among some people to comprehend the difference between portrayal and advocacy. All Murzban is doing here, of course, is trying to show life as it is actually lived, and it is this, not some imaginary threat of "communal disharmony," that bothers his critics.

We American writers tend to take our free speech for granted, and it's shocking when someone we know is actually threatened with prison time for telling it like it is. You might want to let him know he's got your support.

10 comments:

Gary said...

It looks like he's going to be OK since formal charges have not been made, so far as I can see. I thought Shroff's comment was funny: 'the book is over a year old, and there is no sign of communal disharmony so far.' Of course I cant judge since I dont know anything about the communal situation apart from what I have read. But one of the references, apparently, is to 'ghati buggers', and even though 'ghati' is not a race but the name of an inhabitant of a certain place, there are laws - in the UK as well as in other places - against the incitement of religious or racial hatred. Free speech is not an absolute, not do I think it should be. All in all though - again from what I have read - there does not seem to be any 'advocacy' and thus no incitement is intended. Good luck to him.

jrlennon said...

That's the distinction I'm talking about of couse--the notion that having a fictional character in a book say something inflammatory is very different from saying it yourself, in earnest. If you object to the former, you are essentially objecting to acknowledging the existence of inflammatory rhetoric.

rmellis said...

I tend to think it's better to err on the side of free speech, whether it "advocates" hatred or not. Perhaps it's idealistic, but I do believe that hatred eventually loses strength when it is addressed openly and frankly rather than banned.

Anyway, go Murzban!!!!!

M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M said...

I am sure when we are late, weaving through traffic, we say a lot more than 'ghati'.
It was strange that the matter cropped up so close to the general elections. Seems motivated and like all things political, I'm sure there is more than what meets the eye, because long after the elections are over, I heard that the case was still on. That man seems to have led a mighty sheltered life, to be so affronted by the word 'ghati'. Blah.

Vistasp Hodiwala said...

It's important to note that a senior Indian politician's book on Jinnah was banned under the same section of the law as Mr Shroff's by one particularly virulent State Government in India. The Supreme Court however came down heavily in its ruling and cleared the mess. More importantly, the State has decided against challenging the ruling.

Earlier this year, the SC also expressed solidarity with artistes in yet another long-awaited ruling clearly expressing their opinion on India's iconic painter Mr MF Hussain's right to paint as he wants. It's now upto India's lower courts to understand the spirit of these judgments and ensure that the sanctity of a writer's freedom of speech isn't trampled upon.

jrlennon said...

Those seem like strong precedents for Murzban's case...

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Minoo said...

It is tragic that the world’s largest democracy can not offer protection to her artists, authors and sportsmen. What then is the use of calling India a democracy if any hick can hijack the system, send goon squads out to threaten law abiding citizens, damage public property and generally behave in a way which would discredit the occupants of a zoo? It is sad to see an author, of the calibre of Murzban Shroff, targeted by these Neanderthals who figure they are the moral brigade of India. Maybe they should be sent to Pakistan just to see how tough they really are!

Anonymous said...

Ghati is definitely a racist word like using the N-word to describe African Americans.

This is the definition of word ghati from Urban dictionary - "A derogatory term used to describe people of the maharashtrian descent or maharashtra region in India. An uncultured and ignorant person."

This term is based on race.

Mr Shroff is certainly misleading people by giving a wrong definition for the word.

Person who has filed this case is perfectly within his rights to do so...