The writer and publisher: no holy marriage this!

BY MURZBAN SHROFF| IN Media Freedom | 21/02/2014
When a writer is attacked or hauled to court, who really stays on for the good fight?
Author MURZBAN SHROFF breaks his silence.

(‘Breathless in Bombay’ is a collection of 14 short stories by Murzban Shroff. The word ‘ghati’ was used in one of them -‘House of Mine’ and a local activist, Vijay Murdas, filed an FIR against Shroff in February 2009. Police investigated the case and found nothing objectionable in the use of the term and the Bombay High Court observed that Shroff was ‘just an author and not a trouble-maker’.
 
This account was shared with a few friends of the author and The Hoot has his permission to publish it. Also, click here to read
Book bans: Tale of three books).
 
To all you writers or independent publishers or well-wishers of literature and most certainly advocates of free speech, I feel impelled to share this: my take on the Wendy Doniger book ban and my own experience with my publisher during the vigorous litigation against my work, Breathless in Bombay.
 
I share this 1) to break my silence 2) because I am encouraged by the response to this on FB, where readers mentioned they were, indeed, happy that I had spoken up on a long-brushed-aside issue.
 
On book bans & pusillanimous publishers
 
In regard to the withdrawal of Wendy Doniger’s book by its publisher, there have been some fleeting references to my own book, Breathless in Bombay, which, from 2009 to 2011, faced vigorous litigation and a threat of being banned.
 
In this context and with the sole intention of sharing an experienced reality, I submit the following clarifications:
 
1) I did not get any support from a single writer based in India. A well-known Marathi poet who offered to garner the support of Marathi writers disappeared a day after making me the offer.
 
2) The then-editor at Picador India was quick to remind me that the terms of my contract restricted the publisher from offering me any legal support.
 
This I can say: she faithfully stood by her contract and even expanded the scope of it, with her complete and total indifference, punctuated, occasionally, by the right euphemistic noises.
 
What was deeply disappointing was that there was not a single comment from the Indian publisher in defense of the work. This being the same editor who had written to me a warm elaborate letter testifying to how proud they were to have me on their list and how they were sure Breathless was a significant piece of city literature that would regale its readers for years.
 
3) In contrast, the editor at my American publisher, St. Martin’s Press, not only came to court with me, here in Mumbai, but gave me sustained support, writing in to other advocates of free speech.
 
4) The real support came from International PEN – its American and UK chapters, to be precise - who took up the matter with the PMO and the Chief Minister’s office. Needless to say, true to character, the custodians of our constitution were ominously silent.
 
What International PEN’s support did for me was: it made me feel I wasn’t alone in the good fight, but it also made me wish I could have seen such solidarity from a similar organization/publisher in my home country.
 
It was left to the courts – in Mumbai and in Madurai - to finally release me from this ordeal, which lasted for almost three years.
 
In conclusion, I would say it is foolish to believe that the writer-publisher relationship is the holy marriage that one would like it to be. We, as writers, tend to be so grateful for the euphoria of a shared wavelength that we fail to see other realities beneath the surface.
 
And those realities are often tucked away, insidiously and unilaterally, within the fine print of the publishing contract.

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