Monday, November 03, 2008

A white tiger reaps the grapes of wrath

A recently released book called Obscene in the Extreme captures a seemingly minor but significant chain of events that followed the release of the classic Grapes of Wrath in 1939.

Grapes of Wrath, written by John Steinbeck, was set during the Great Depression and is an exposition of the pain and suffering borne by a family of sharecroppers ousted from the land they tilled in Oklahoma. Steinbeck held strongly liberal pro-labor, pro-union views, and the book showcases the rough treatment that the poor family receives at the hands of large growers in California where they migrate to.

The book was very well received (going on to win the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes for Steinbeck) and was generally thought to successfully expose America to the plight of those affected worst by the Dust Bowl and the depression. However, the book was poorly received by farmers and growers who thought that the book went overboard with its depiction of living and labor conditions on farms in California and elsewhere.

An incident of note was a resolution passed by Kern County Board of Supervisors in August 1939 (Kern County being a part of California's booming fruit industry) banning the book in the county's libraries. The wording of the resolution included the allegation that the book:
"offended our citizenry by falsely implying that many of our fine people are a low, ignorant, profane and blasphemous type living in a vicious and filthy manner(and) presents our public officials, law enforcement officers and civil administrators, businessmen, farmers and ordinary citizens as inhumane vigilantes..."
(Read the quote carefully, for you will be asked to recount it shortly).

As a matter of fact, Obscene in the Extreme gets its title from a similar statement released by one prominent grower against the book. This grower, Bill Camp, also encouraged one of his workers to burn a copy of Grapes of Wrath in protest. The picture got wide publicity, iconized as symbolic of the threat to free speech (and the book was motivated by it, depicted below).


















The reason Obscene in the Extreme came to mind is because of a book review of The White Tiger that I just read on Mutiny.in. I have not read the book, but the review makes me squirm. Like Grapes of Wrath, The White Tiger is also set among the downtrodden, fictional or otherwise. The reviewer is apparently not happy with the book, and the reasons that he doesn't like it make me think of the Kern County Board of Supervisors. I quote from the Mutiny.in review:
"Beyond a certain point, (the descriptions in the book) become frustrating and annoying. There is a not a single good word about our country. All the narrator of the novel thinks about our system boils down to hopelessness.

Ministers can be bribed, politicians make empty promises, Government school teachers “spit paan” endlessly and pilfer money, policemen can be 'lubricated'...this is not simply oversimplification, but an obvious attempt to misrepresent or worse falsely and disapprovingly represent a huge chunk of people.

See the similarities between the two? The reviewer reminds me of the reasons why Fanna couldn't not be screened in Gujarat, why Salman Rushdie is still on the run, and why Obscene in the Extreme was written.

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