International publishers have been eyeing India, where book sales are growing at double-digit rates, as an antidote to slashed profits in the west as readers turn to e-books. But the cost is that they may not be able to publish all the books they want.
Penguin Group has agreed to pull all copies of The Hindus, a book that has been available in India (and several other markets) for several years, from stores in India and “pulp” them, according to a court settlement reached on Feb. 4. Another publisher could opt to publish the book in India, but would likely be sued as well.
The book, written by a much-lauded Indian studies and Sanskrit scholar, Wendy Doniger, is the third to be withdrawn in India in recent weeks, after lawsuits threatening huge damages to authors and publishers. An Indian publisher pulled Sahara: The Untold Story, about a conglomerate that Indian regulators say bilked small investors out of billions of dollars, and international publisher Bloomsbury pulled The Descent of Air India, an insider tome about the country’s deeply-troubled state airline, both before they were published, because of lawsuits.
India’s strict libel laws are sometimes invoked to keep books and artwork some groups (or deep-pocketed corporations) find offensive out of circulation. Doniger has incited the wrath of right-wing Hindu groups for much of her career, because of her re-interpretation of Sanskrit texts that aims to strip off what she and some other scholars say is an artificially sanitized and asexual form of the religion imposed by British colonial scholars in India.
The lawsuit against Penguin India, Penguin USA and Doniger, which was reviewed by Scroll, accuses her of being a “woman hungry of sex” and emphasizing the “linga as erect male sexual organ,” among other complaints.
Pankaj Mishra’s 2009 review of The Hindus in The New York Times calls it a “staggeringly comprehensive book” about the “British Indologists who sought to tame India’s chaotic polytheisms.” He wrote:
During a lecture in London in 2003, Doniger escaped being hit by an egg thrown by a Hindu nationalist apparently angry at the “sexual thrust” of her interpretation of the “sacred” “Ramayana.” This book will no doubt further expose her to the fury of the modern-day Indian heirs of the British imperialists who invented “Hinduism.” Happily, it will also serve as a salutary antidote to the fanatics who perceive — correctly — the fluid existential identities and commodious metaphysic of practiced Indian religions as a threat to their project of a culturally homogenous and militant nation-state.