For the last few weeks the bookstands in India cracked under the weight of J.K. Rowling’s book The Casual Vacancy. The media hype over the book made it reach thousands of readers in India, especially the Potter fans. But the sale of the book in India has all on a sudden landed in a soup over indecorous comments found in the book about the Sikh Community. The portion in the book where the Sikh woman’s physical traits are disparagingly portrayed still remains intact. “It should be scissored” demanded the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee (SGPC) which has taken up cudgels on behalf of the religion, objecting to the description of a Sikh girl Sukhvinder in The Casual Vacancy. They have termed it “a slur on the Sikh community and provocative”.
It is a little incredible that a Sikh family came to be a large part of the plot set in rural England but in Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy an episode is wholly devoted to the Sikh family, one member of which is the girl Sukhvinder. She is described by one of the characters as a “mustachioed, yet large-mammaried, scientists remain baffled by the contradictions of the hairy man-woman.” The total episode on hermaphrodite association is objectionable as Sikhism forbids men and women from tampering with their bodies and from cutting their hair.
Many argue that the foul racial and anti-Sikh sentiments expressed are the words not of the authoress but of the characters in the book. This is something like Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock the Jew in The Merchant of Venice, who expressed anti-Christian sentiments. Such comments should not be mistaken for a comment of Shakespeare who also portrayed the Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night.
Today we don’t say that Shakespeare is anti-Puritan. What happens to Malvolio is not because Shakespeare wants it to happen. The characters who are in the drama feel this about Malvolio. This argument may apply to Sukhvinder also. She is the target of the racial people there who insult him, and the name of Rowling cannot be involved. But in India, the SGPC’s chief has demanded that Rowling should either apologize for her provocative language or have the portion removed when the book arrives in India. Failing to do that will invite action on their part, Avtar Singh Makkar has warned. It is unclear what he means by action. The sales of the book in India may be affected by the controversial portion which is still there in the book.
Rowling looks quite unperturbed over the row. But she expressed her regards for Sikh religion. “It’s an amazing religion. My interest was sparked years ago when I was still in my 20s — and a girl I worked with briefly came from a Sikh family” said Rowling over the portrayal of the Sikh family. She herself tried to offer a weak justification by saying that once had the opportunity to work with a Sikh girl and that she was deeply inspired by the religion and its treatment of men and women at par. The question is why she depicts Sukhvinder in that light. It is a humorless world in which the authoress seems to have relished the breakdown of Sukhvinder rather than the recovery. This is not expected from an author of children books.
Rowling spends 500 pages describing the town’s petty politics and the uncharitable nature of a parish obsessed with appearance and class. But the Sikh girl is made the target of all jokes and taunting and the authoress is a silent spectator in spite of her omnipresence in the narrative. It is a wrong timing for Rowling to introduce a Sikh character when the Sikh extremist sentiment is very much alive in the UK especially after the recent attack on the Lt. Gen Brar, one of the leaders of Operation Bluestar.
The novel of Rowling does not highlight on any one figure. But among the cavalcade of characters, the Sikh general practitioner surfaces prominently in the narrative and more than a parenthical aside. The thoroughly un-magical aspects of the characters in the novel are focused for the adult readership. The ending of the book is frustrating. The negative language in the book is used by the bullies. Nevertheless, there is not such need for using provocative language, especially questioning the gender of Sukhvinder. The language of Fats who is found bullying is indecent and negative although the other side of the argument is that Rowling used Sukhvinder to portray corrosive racism.
Her regards for Sikh faith is unquestionable. Problem is that at present Sikh militancy is flourishing in UK. The attack on the Holy shrine in UK saddened the Sikhs. In this context some are trying to politicalize the Sikh issue in Rowling’s novel to steal the limelight since Rowling is a popular writer. This attempt for blanket condemnation of the authoress on a filmsy issue, cannot be blindly accepted.
We should not ignore the fact that The Casual Vacancy deals with such issues as child abuse, prostitution and drugs. Some have seen this as a liberal attack on their values. Thus Rowling is a little harsher in her approach towards all the characters in the novel, not only Fats and Sukhvinder. Seen from this perspective, we may understand why the magic wand is broken and the novelist is on the ground.
The ban on the first realistic book of Rowling in India will only be too much unkindness to the authoress of Harry Potter series. She will be sinned against more than sinning. Earlier, many writers and artists have been boycotted in India on various charges most of which are not fully justified. The making a hill out of mole is not always acceptable. By banning a book, a book is really not banned. Its popularity increases and the sales rise up. Overnight, those who never heard about Rowling will now hear about her. At least they may read Potter series, if not The Casual Vacancy.
In last July, the Sikh community protested against Kuldip Nayar's remarks on Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and demanded a ban on his new book “Beyond the Lines”. Shouting slogans against Nayar and the central government, the demonstrators said the book had hurt the feelings as he called Bhindranwale a terrorist. “Such writings not only hurt the sentiments of millions of Sikhs but its import could have far reaching consequences,” said Harjeet Singh, President of the Sikh Students Federation.
There was once a big protest by Shiv Sena over the paintings of M.F. Husain. The Sikh protest may have some more valid grounds. But such protest against books on religious ground is not anything new in India. It does not mean the Sikhs are biased against Rowling as the Shiv Sena was against Husain.
All that happened with Rowling’s book was probably due to apprehension and fear about Rowling’s real intentions. The recent killing of Sikhs in the Wisconsin Gurudwara already created ripples in the mind of the Indians abroad. In spite of all the reiterations of faith in Sikh religion, it is unfortunate for the literature lovers all over the world that even an ever popular writer like Rowling failed to dispel the doubts.
Religious aggressiveness is not an issue here. It is a matter of interpretation of the intentions of a writer who should take care not to hurt the sentiments of the readers in the book. The adage is known to Rowling herself that a burnt child dreads the fire.