Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 08/27/23 5:35 AM

Column: On the Sanitisation of Well-loved Books

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater

I recently watched Roger Waters, former Pink Floyd songwriter and bassist, the man who wrote the most scathing lyrics that shone a spotlight on war, violence, twisted men and women, twisted politics,  defending himself against charges of anti-Semitism. After I intently searched Waters` monologue  for any signs of irony overt or covert, I realised the irony lay elsewhere.

Anyone who knows the saga of Mr Pink,  he of The Wall fame, will know that the worms inside his head are the grotesque,  horrifying kind. The kind we look at and shiver. Definitely not the kind we emulate. As this creation of Waters, this Mr Pink,  grows in power, he turns viciously on the weak, the poor, the helpless. He dons Nazi robes and calls for the culling of the less- than- ideal human. And Roger Waters was satirising, not praising, this character when he donned a Nazi robe during a concert. That nuance, however,  got lost.

The fields of literature are strewn with similar examples of lost nuance.

This particular juggernaut started rolling with the sanitisation of Enid Blyton books, where the gollywog was eliminated from the list of characters, where people no longer used `triggering` terms like `shut up` and `don’t be an ass.` Then it was the turn of Frank Richards because his Billy Bunter series included a character called Hurree Jamset Ram Singh who spoke the most garbled English ever. The new Billy Bunter editions have the erstwhile Inky (ouch, that politically incorrect nickname!) speaking the Queen`s English flawlessly…and the message that he was very popular among his classmates and not judged for his quaint use of English,  is immediately lost.

The magnifying glass then put Ian Fleming under scrutiny and we will   soon have a woke 007 who treats women with the utmost respect, does not savage his foes instead going in for a `clean kill,`  and probably eschews martinis, settling for a sangria instead. Roald Dahl`s `cashier in a supermarket` will now read `business owner.` Wodehouse is being rewritten, as are Christie, Chandler, Hemingway, Woolf.

Gatekeeping excesses

This is literary gatekeeping taken to an extreme, where we don’t acknowledge that the standards of the past were different. Where we are taking literature out of its political/cultural/chronological context. Where we are linking literature with morality. Where we don’t let our children read of people not like us, people whose dark sides have eclipsed their better nature.

Let me emphasise that the argument here  isn’t about whether these writers were always right – they weren`t — or that many of these works carried definite racist tones – they did.  Disclaimers,  if deemed necessary, can be put in place. However, sanitising everything we consumed, and our succeeding  generations will consume, leaches something meaningful, essential, something vital from literature.

As a friend said, part of the process of growing up is chancing upon books that are age-inappropriate, consuming them avidly if not quite understanding them, then forgetting these books or re-reading them later in life. This is the readerly response, back then and now, too.

It already might be too late to think this sanitation move through. However, we need to reflect on whether our children will be unduly influenced by what they read in a book. The issue is far more complex than that.

Where will all this end? I`m waiting for someone to get offended by George Orwell`s 1984 and demand sanitisation of that,  any day now. Irony will indeed die a thousand deaths  then.

This ran in The Sunday Express Magazine of 27 August 2023.

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1984being wokeBilly Bunterbookscleaning up bookscolumnEnid BlytonFrank RichardsGeorge OrwellIan FlemingJames BondPG WodehousereadingRoald Dahlsanitisation of literatureSunday columnThe New Sunday Express MagazineTNIE

Sheila Kumar • August 27, 2023

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