Akshaya Mukul tells the story of how he wrote his award-winning Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, which unravels the agenda behind a seemingly innocuous publishing house.
BY NANDINI KRISHNAN
What began for journalist Akshaya Mukul as a conversation with his father in 2008 ended in a 500-page volume that has won awards and raised eyebrows in equal measure. His book on Gita Press was intended to be the chronicle of a little printing press that became a force in the world of religious publishing. It became Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, winner of the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award, the Crossword Book Award, Tata Literature Live! Book of the Year Award, and the Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize for the best non-fiction work in English, and the Ramnath Goenka Award for Books, in 2016; also the story of an enterprise that survived rationing, communism, and a sex scandal in which one of its associate godmen was alleged to have impregnated his devotees. In an interview conducted in person and continued over the phone, the veteran journalist speaks about the
discoveries he made while researching his subject—Gorakhpur’s famous Gita Press and its editor of four-and-a-half decades, Hanuman Prasad Poddar.
In reading the lead-up to the establishment of the Gita Press and what happened after, I’m struck by how similar it seems to what is happening right now—the idea of a Hindu Rashtra, closing in constantly.
Yes, you’re right. I’d started researching the book towards the end of 2010, beginning of 2011, and as I went deeper into it, I realised that yes, arguments haven’t changed about many things, right from ’47 to now. And it’s been a very slow and gradual process. You have to give it to these guys for being at it, slowly and slowly building towards this larger Hindu rashtra that they have been demanding.
And it has not been made possible only because of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha and the BJP later, but also organisations like Gita Press which played a crucial role in taking the message across to ordinary Hindu homes. And that’s what struck me about Gita Press—how through their journal Kalyan, they were reaching ordinary Hindu homes. Not everyone reading was changing his mindset, but this message, this alternate idea about creating a larger Hindu universe was reaching them. They were the building blocks of this larger Hindu nationalist project.
While dealing with many of the issues, the arguments will be the same—for instance, when the Hindu Code Bill came in 1950-51, the one major fear that Kalyan and all those Hindu organisations created was that this will lead to our daughters marrying Muslims or Christians, their coming to our home, cooking beef, violating our daughters, and walking away with her wealth. The same kind of arguments came up with ‘love jihad’ in 2014, when Muslims were being targeted—that was specific to Muslims, of course. I was struck by this when I was [researching the book].
Aniruddha Bahal had done this big sting operation [called Operation Juliet]. Neha [Dixit] was involved in it. And he made me watch the whole thing. I said, ‘My god, they are talking the same language.’ In 1950-51, they were talking about how their daughters are like goddesses, the mother goddess.
So, they’ve been at it. Slowly, slowly, slowly, they have managed and they have been very proud that finally, after more than 60 years, we have a government in Delhi that is on its own majority, it’s a Hindu party that has won and now is the time to do it; although what they don’t realise is that only 31 per cent voted for them. But still, they are gung-ho about it.
If you had to look at the trajectory, from the 1870s onwards, of this whole Hindu rashtra movement do you see a gradual closing-in-closing-in-closing-in, or do you see it as being spurts, and they fall back, and then there’s another spurt and they fall back?
Yeah, it’s been a story of spurts and falling back. You know, when they realise the time is not good for them, they take the backseat. But they will still be working quietly. For instance, if you look at this Adivasi heartland of India—Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, parts of Odisha—with Congress throughout, how slowly, slowly, slowly, they just moved to the BJP… it’s no longer a mystery how it was achieved. It has been achieved by persistent work [irrespective of] whoever was in power, in the Centre or in the state. And Congress ruled most of these states most often.
This group, Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, and various other outfits of the RSS, have been working, creating this alternate—because they were fighting missionaries—this alternate universe for Adivasis, trying to Hinduise them, which they have successfully done. Their belief system, their gods and goddesses were completely different from Hindu gods and goddesses, but they managed to convert them.
The Gita Press played a big role in it. They were very worried about this Madhya Pradesh area, where Christians had started schools and all these conversions were happening. So these guys started to bring them to the larger Hindu fold—like organising Ramkatha. Then they set up schools—the entire Saraswati Sishu Mandir chain and various other schools—for Adivasis, which have been a huge success story. That’s how they have changed things.
When their own government comes to power, they do it openly. Like in Madhya Pradesh, they are part of the system; they run the school system in Chhattisgarh.
They will take a backseat, maybe, when the going is not good for them and there is some other party in power in the state. But they don’t give up. That’s why they have been successful.
As I read your book, I was thinking about how ‘Gita Press’ was just this name at the bottom of The Ramayana and Mahabharata that I had, and to all of us it was such a large part of our lives growing up. And I always thought of it as this innocent little printing press in a small town.
Yeah, yeah, yeah! That’s what even I thought. And that’s how I got into it. Because I thought it needs to be chronicled, their story must be fascinating—at one level, it’s a fascinating story of some Marwaris coming together, starting a press; but then, it was happening in a context. I realised only when I got into their papers that there was a context, and it was not as innocent as one thought it to be. One thought ‘Oh, they’re bringing out religious texts, at a very cheap price, very high quality of production too.’ But then I realised it was a completely political project too, and that dominated.
Nobody would believe me when I would say ‘Do you know, they were writing about all the political events in Kalyan, the journal?’ And they would say, ‘What, really?!’ And you can see it. Because as I scanned all the old issues of Kalyan, I realised my god, at all the flashpoints of history, they were taking a position; and they were taking a position which was the position of RSS, which was the position of the Hindu Mahasabha, and they were reaching out to ordinary Hindu homes.
For the RSS, it would have been difficult to reach out to so many homes. And it became a damn good vehicle for the project. And so, while it continued to do the religious texts, bringing them out and reaching out to everyone, they were also doing this in parallel—and in a very intense manner.
So you didn’t know about this until you got into the research?
You see, I had some inkling because a friend of mine, who had done a bit of research on publishing in the United Provinces, which is now Uttar Pradesh, told me, ‘You know, they don’t seem that innocent. There seems to be a larger story behind them.’ And that got me thinking about this aspect.
One of the first few things that I read were Ph.D.s done around Gita Press in Allahabad and in Banaras, and they were all hagiographical in nature; sometimes, they were reproductions of their own texts and their biographies of [Hanuman Prasad] Poddar and others. And only when I saw his private papers, and the private papers of many other individuals, that I realise it was something else, and then I could put the story together.
So, while I was a little doubtful early on, I didn’t know it was of this proportion. They had this influence. And they were thinking ahead of their times. It was 1934, and he thinks okay, what about south India and the diaspora? And so he starts Kalyan Kalpataru. Yesterday [at the Hindu Lit For Life 2017], one gentleman came to me and said you know, I only read Kalyan Kalpataru. It still comes. It’s big in south India. And it reaches the diaspora in the US and other places. They were thinking ahead. They knew there’s no point trying to get to them with a Hindi journal. That’s why they were successful.
Kalyan has a circulation of more than a lakh, every month. And again, the same thing in English. I met a very old lady here (Chennai), in 2015, when the book came. A book club had invited me and this 75-year-old lady and she said, ‘I read Kalyan Kalpataru every month; it would come to our house and we have collected it.’
It has huge significance. I know people, old ladies, who retain from the time of the wedding, their mother’s gifts of this supplement—they began to bring out a Nari Ank in 1948. And Nari Ank is like, you know, if I give it to you or any other woman, they will just kill me for the kind of stuff it contains. But the thing is, it is still getting reprinted, every year. So someone, somewhere, is reading it and getting influenced.
I was a little startled by all the names writing for Kalyan. And I couldn’t figure out whether Poddar was incredibly clever in getting all these recognised and respected voices, or whether it just a gigantic misunderstanding on both sides, where they didn’t know each other’s true opinions.
Hmm…see, it’s also about the personality of the guy. Maane, this guy, all said and done, was a very persuasive editor. He was liked even by his adversaries. They respected him for whatever he was.
And partly it was the endorsement of people like, say, Prem Chand. Prem Chand, you can see in his letters saying, ‘Oh, come on, I’m not very good in the matters of gods and goddesses, but okay, I’ll write something.’ Nirala, another big Hindi poet, was a completely irreverent soul, otherwise. He had been at one point part of the Ramakrishna Mission, but left everything and became just the opposite, you know, leading a life on the margins, drinking, doing all sorts of things. But even he wrote.
I don’t think they were writing because they were trying to endorse the
journal. They were writing because [Poddar] was after their lives, in many cases. And those who actually believed also wrote—people like Maithili Sharan Gupt, who later became the national poet; his book of poems, Bharat-Bharati, is still seen as a classical text by the Hindu nationals. His brother Siyaram Sharan Gupt was also writing.
But [Poddar] managed to convince a whole lot of people, which included Radhakrishnan, which included C. Rajagopalachari, which included scholars from the West, foreign scholars from the Theosophical Society here, like Otto Schrader. These were pre-Internet days, and he was writing these long letters to them, and he will just get after their life.
It was partly his persuasive skills, and partly that he managed to never become a hate object. He had a persona where he was many things to many people.
I think only Nehru, for some reason, never wrote. Otherwise, the top-ranking Congress leaders at the time all contributed. Rajendra Prasad was extremely close to these people; he came to inaugurate their new gateway in Gorakhpur, as President of India. And though he could not write as President, he continued to be published because he would tell them why don’t you carry that speech I gave in Dehradun or Nainital, in Kalyan. And they (these leaders) would get restless if their collection of Kalyan was incomplete and that sort of thing. Even Muslims wrote.
But then the thing was that the voice of dissent—if it was a journal, all kinds of voices should have been there—was missing; no one was challenging the sanctity of god. That was not allowed.
In fact, one of the issues they brought out was called Ishwar Ank. So he’s writing to Gandhi and writing to C. F. Andrews and others, with four questions on god—did you see god, what happened, can you encounter god…very esoteric, metaphysical questions. And Gandhi answered him once or twice. And then Gandhi realised he was going to use it. So Gandhi says, ‘Are you asking me these questions because you want to use it?’ And he says something, and finally they use bits of it in an article.
But C. F. Andrews, while he kept away from that [questionnaire], also wrote. Andrews was far from this world. But he wrote. If he was alive, I’d have asked him why he wrote. But he was also a scholar of many things, and maybe he thought okay, it’s a journal, let me write. And they were writing on very general topics, like Cult of Krishna or Speaking Truth, which no one can have a quarrel with. Political stuff, they kept away from writing. That was usually done by their own people. But he did manage to convince a lot of people to write for the journal—everyone except the Leftists.
Was that part of a game plan?
Uh…I would not know if it was a game plan as such. But then his whole idea behind Kalyan was this: one of the regrets he had about Hindus was that we speak in multiple voices, unlike Islam, which speaks in one voice. So what should be done is that Kalyan should become the sole spokesperson among the Hindus. Therefore the internal difference among Hindus, the various sub-groups and sects, should not reflect.
So, Arya Samajis would write, Hindu Mahasabha guys would write, many others would write, although they disagreed with many of the things which the other was doing. But he gave them a platform. His idea was to be able to claim, ‘Look, even liberals are writing for Kalyan, even Christians are writing, even Muslims are writing.’
Mohammad Syed Hafiz, professor from Allahabad University, was a great Krishna bhakt, and he would give that example…like look at this Muslim. So he also became an ideal Muslim in many ways. If you’re a Muslim, you should be like this. And when it comes to beef, they would not join issue with scholars who conclusively proved that beef-eating was quite common among Hindus in ancient India. They would instead have a counterargument saying look, but Humayun didn’t eat beef.
Or Abdul Kalam’s vegetarian.
Yeah. Or how Abdul Kalam is vegetarian. Or how in Saudi Arabia cows are protected. So they will not join issue. Instead they will try and create a new narrative. They may say that in some war, Akbar went and when there was beef after the war got over, in the evening, he said no, we should not eat beef, we should consume something else. With such kinds of mythic stories, which have no basis, they would create a counter-narrative.
But again, what they could not resolve and for which people like Ambedkar became a big issue for them, was their very problematic stance on caste. They believed in the chaturvarna system, and they said if you’re born shudra, there’s nothing that can be done about it. If you do enough good deeds in this life, you may be born as a Brahmin in the next life and so on.
That was the reason they got into a massive fight with Gandhi, 1932 onwards, because caste is one thing that was completely non-negotiable for them. But there was ambiguity also. They would say, ‘Oh, we are distributing The Ramayana to everyone, across caste’, and then they will talk of unity of Hindus. How will this unity happen if a large section is kept out of temples, a large section of people can’t inter-dine? They could never resolve these ambiguities. Even now, not in such open terms, but subtly, they oppose caste inter-dining and such things. They will not write as bluntly in Kalyan, perhaps, but their view has not changed on this at all.
To move away from that, there was one place where you confessed to breaking down when you saw how termites had destroyed an archive.
Oh, yes, yes, [Poddar’s] private papers. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
It’s such a shame that there is so little that is archived here.
Absolutely. So little. So little. It’s shocking. When I started getting the papers—and they’d give me one by one, one box, two boxes, and I’d keep going back to Gorakhpur—I had to convince them to let me get it photocopied. They finally agreed.
Then, this gentleman (Dujari) said can you do another set for me also. I must have spent thousands of rupees getting a separate set. I don’t know how long that will last. The originals are in really bad shape. I tried telling him to give it to some archive, a government archive, Teen Murti or the National Archives. But [Dujari and his associates] would not listen, because they are very suspicious.
And not only there, I went to the Commissioner’s record room in Gorakhpur. And Gorakhpur is a very important place in terms of the kind of things that have happened there—Chauri Chaura was nearby; Gorakhpur was the sugarcane capital; it was a railway hub, a very, very important place in the United Provinces. But the commissioner’s record room…my god, the kind of things that were lying in the record room…no one goes there, and it’s jammed full of things, and the papers are just dying away.
The same way, in the police record room, all the old papers have just been thrown away, or god knows what’s happened.
This is the state throughout India, except maybe a few places. But mostly, the state of archives in India is a really, really bad scene.
You spoke earlier about access. And the impression I got in the book was that these people must initially have gone, ‘Oh, here’s someone who’s going to write a hagiography’, and then they found out that was not what you had in mind.
Yeah, that’s what it started with and I had to make it clear right in the beginning. They were very indulgent to me—you know, this is a different generation of people; this Mr. Dujari was in his late seventies—and I felt very conflicted. I was thinking listen, this man is so nice, he’s given me place to stay in the ashram, because I’d keep going to Gorakhpur and he said come on, get done with all the travel, just stay here…and Gorakhpur in the summer can be really killing. So I asked him ‘Do you have an AC room?’ and he said ‘Yes, we have AC rooms, you take it’ and charged a nominal rate, some 100 rupees a day. And I used to eat there. I said no, I won’t be able to live with it, maane, it has to be made clear.
So one day, I sat with him in the evening and he said—Poddar is called ‘Bhaiji’—so he said, ‘Oh, Bhaiji would be so happy [that you’re writing this book]!’ and so finally I said, ‘Listen, what do you think I’m doing?’ So he said, ‘Aap kitaab likh rahe hain (You’re writing a book)’. I said, ‘Nahin, lekin main uss tariqe ke nahin likh raha hoon jo aap samajh rahein hain (No, but I’m not writing the kind of book you understand it to be’).
Toh he asked, ‘Kya likh rahe hain aap (What are you writing)?’ I said, ‘I’m placing him in the larger context and so there might be things that you might not like.’ But then, you know, he’s seen enough in life. So he said, ‘Doesn’t matter. At least, still you will write about him.’
Oh, that’s so…
Yeah, I found that touching. So, as soon as the book came out, I sent him a copy. I called him. He is not good with English, so someone read it for him. And he called back. He said, ‘Well, there are things you should not have said. A lot of things you should not have said. But anyway…who am I to say anything? I’m sure god will forgive you someday for this.’
A few Marwaris got very angry and upset, like why do you have to say things about Marwaris. And I said I’m not saying anything; if there was a sex scandal in the 1920s, involving Gita Press, I had to write about it; and it even involved Gandhi, so how could I have skipped it.
They got bitter about it, some of them; some of them are old Marwari friends from my schooldays in Ranchi, and when they knew about my writing a book, they actually opened doors, like okay, you want this, take it, without realising that times have changed, maybe I am not what they would have thought of me in school, many years have passed. So when the book came out, they said, ‘Oh, you have become like this, this is what you do?’ But more or less, they’ve kind of…I’m sure at some point they’ll forgive me also. (Laughs)
This conflict among journalists is underestimated. We’re told we have to get the story no matter what it takes, you have to tell the truth. But one can forget, oneself, that one is human. And when you go somewhere undercover, or—in your case—when the people to whom you’re speaking have another impression, and have trusted you…there’s some guilt, right?
That’s very true. There is guilt. You know, despite my having told him what kind of book it will be and what I was going to write—and I didn’t dither from my line. I was not for a moment thinking, ‘Oh, I should be kind to him’—but it has stayed in my head somewhere ki okay, I’ve told him, but…in fact, the first time after the book came out, I called Mr. Dujari, and he couldn’t take my call or something. Then he called back, and I was in two minds whether to take his call, what was he going to say. Finally, I took his call and he said, ‘I’ve heard the book has come out.’ I said, ‘Yes, it has. And I’ve sent it to you already, and it will be reaching you soon.’ He said, ‘So what have you written?’ and I said, ‘More or less what I told you’, and he said okay…
I couldn’t explain the whole book on the phone. So someone read out the book to him, as I said, and he called back. Then he sounded a little hurt. It kind of took me some time to get over it. There is a sense of guilt despite my having told him up front that listen, this is what it’s going to be.
Someone told me, in fact, that these guys are going to be very wary of you in the future, or of opening their archives. And I said but I’m not distorting anything. And that’s precisely why they couldn’t refute the book. Normally, they would have gone the whole hog and said this is wrong and that is wrong. So my whole idea was that every fact that I state must be cited and footnoted. Otherwise it can become very tricky and sensitive. I took a longer time, but I cited everything. I ensured that every piece of paper to which I refer, I have it with me, I’m seeing it twice, and I told the editors who went through it to tell me if they think evidence needs to be cited. And they did point out, okay you’re saying this, but where is the footnote, so I would edit that.
But now it’s been more than a year, and they (the bhakts) have been more or less quiet. There are some people who keep talking against it. I wanted to speak about the book in Gorakhpur, but some of my friends advised me that it’s not worth it, don’t do this, because it’s like going there and trying to provoke them—unnecessarily, it does not serve any purpose. Even BHU (Banaras Hindu University), my friends wanted to do an event, but then they themselves said it will be a very hostile crowd, and if things get out of hand…and they’re all lumpen these days. I don’t mind a hostile crowd that is asking questions and trying to engage with you. But in this case, someone will get abusive, someone will throw something. I don’t want to become the news. And I said let it be. Except for Bengaluru, it’s been a very good experience.
I don’t know if it pertains to the book, but in reference to the same thing, when someone trusts you, they might tell you something without knowing whether you’re going to use it and they may not explicitly say don’t use it…
No, but I ask. I always do that. I always say, listen, I’m going to use it; are you okay with it? I do that.
But they may not know the context…
Yes. In what way I’ll use it or…well, yeah, that’s a valid question. Of course, nobody knows the context or what conclusion you’re going to draw out of it. Yeah, that’s a valid point. No one has objected to things I have quoted.
Although now, a scholar from Cambridge who went to Gita Press and said he read this book, was apparently told, ‘Can you just leave now?’ Later, he called me and said, ‘Listen, they almost threw me out of Gita Press.’ I said you shouldn’t have told them you read the book.
So, yeah, they’ve become wary.
The problem is that the archives of Gita Press are not with Gita Press. They were completely opaque about it. It’s Dujari, a very close associate of Poddar, who opened the room—[Poddar’s] private papers were lying elsewhere in Gorakhpur, not with Gita Press. So the Gita Press guys felt very helpless about it, that oh, he’s showing it. And by the time they realised, the book was almost out, so they couldn’t do anything about it.
That reminds me—I simply can’t reconcile this: Poddar used to ask people to return or destroy his letters, but he has preserved most of his communication so carefully, and though he was ill for a long time before he died, he made no attempt to destroy them. Why do you think that is?
Actually, asking people to whom you have written to destroy the letter was quite common at the time; even Gandhi has done this. And in the case of Poddar, I think most of the letters got typed out by his office. He was very good at keeping records, though the later generations didn’t maintain it and it’s all in a bad way right now. Even some of the letters that I have are typed versions, which were made into bound volumes. All the letters that came and went were being typed in his office. The originals might have been destroyed, but the records have been maintained. For instance, the exchange with Govind Ballabh Pant about his name being recommended for Bharat Ratna [which he turned down], has been recorded though the originals are not there.
And we know, which is quite ironical, that they wanted these letters to be burnt because that has also been written down, you know? And that’s common in that generation. I’ve seen that in the case of many leaders, saying destroy this letter if you’ve read it, and then maintaining records.
He even preserved letters that don’t portray him in good light.
Yeah, that’s true. A lot of times, you can see the man has a different side to him. He was seen as a spiritual guru to many, but see how he corresponds with this American Irene Wolfington, who seems madly in love with this man called Radha Baba living at Gita Vatika, and the way he treats her—he says if you don’t behave in a certain way, I won’t have your visa extended. And he has direct access to home minister Gulzarilal Nanda, and he’s able to ask for favours. Eventually, she was thrown out of Gita Vatika. He could be very petty at times, very mean at times, and the proof is all there in his papers.
Did it surprise you that all of this material was available, in the context of how careful he usually was about his image?
See, that generation had a tendency to preserve all their papers. And it’s a good thing that they did, because otherwise so much could not have been written or known about the time. I don’t think they realised that 50 years down the line, someone would bloody look at it and do a book. (Laughs) So, whether it’s his references to Irene Wolfington or his long correspondence with Raihana Tyabji, he maintained all those letters out of habit. I don’t even think he thought he was doing anything wrong in restricting Irene Wolfington’s interaction with Radha Baba. Even his relationship with Raihana Tyabji is very fuzzy—at one level, it’s like a gopi-Krishna relationship, and we don’t know what exactly happened between them.
You mentioned Leftists earlier. One of the funniest things in the book is this reference to ‘Indian communism’, when these guys tried to hold up Mirabai as an Indian communist and compared Karl Marx and…
Yeah, yeah, yeah. This whole big tome that Karpatri Maharaj wrote, saying Marxwad aur Ram Rajya… you know, they were very worried about communism, which was on the rise worldwide right from the ’30s and even making inroads in India. They were very worried because, one, they thought it was against businesses, against capital, and since it was a Marwari enterprise, it was important to protect the business interest; also they saw it as being against religion; and they were also confusing Congress policies with communism, which they attacked; then in the 1960s, when Naxalism was at its peak in Bengal, they’re talking of coming together and taking the help of even the RSS and fighting communism.
So Karpatri Maharaj wrote this absolutely silly book which they published…and they continue to print it, so it’s getting read by people, and it’s a pretty sad book which was written over two-three trips to jail during the cow protection movement. It only proves how political this whole enterprise was. And they would say all kinds of things about communism—how in a communist country, women become the property of everyone, for instance—deriding communism without getting the basics right.
Gita Press faced some almost impossible challenges—from the sex scandal in Gobind Bhawan, to selling newsprint it was allotted for profit, to publishing a provocative letter by a Noakhali rape victim who was practically inciting communal hatred. How did it survive those?
Let’s go one by one. The sex scandal in the 1920s was hardly talked about. Only Hindu Panch and Chand wrote about it, they ran a campaign against it, against Marwaris too, asking why is everyone quiet, why isn’t the media talking about it—almost like what is happening now—and they asked is it because all the newspapers are owned by Marwaris. In the end, even Gandhi had to get involved. But maybe because the incident had happened in Calcutta, they managed to distance themselves. I tried to look at the news reports of the scandal in Calcutta newspapers, but you don’t find them. One reason could be the ownership; another may be the might of G. D. Birla, who was very upset that because of this sex scandal (where it was alleged that Marwari women had affairs with godmen and servants in the absence of their husbands), people may stop sending their daughters to schools run by Marwaris. They survived that scandal with great difficulty, and I think it was mainly because [the Marwaris] closed ranks.
As for the scandal of their selling newsprint for profit, Poddar was getting increasingly disenchanted with the way Gita Press was run, though he was still editor-in-chief, and he was a towering figure. He was a patriarch given respect on paper, but a lot of people in the trust were not listening to him. Time and again, he would say, ‘This is not the Gita Press which was started in 1923. This is not my idea of Gita Press.’ The deterioration had set in. New people in the trust were trying to make money on the side, selling newsprint. Poddar was increasingly distancing himself from the press, even living [at the other end of] Gorakhpur. He kept his papers to himself, they never went to the Gita Press archive.
Despite all this, until his death in 1971, the clout of Poddar managed to save them from all of these scandals.
Even the Noakhali incident, pamphlets were being printed in various places, and they were all raided—it was a serious offence, but the ICS officer in charge does nothing except warn the editor; I don’t think anyone else would have got off as easily. Poddar was an extremely well-connected man. No other press could have survived. When Chand brought out issues on Marwaris and Kayasthas, they faced such problems from the colonial government. Whereas Kalyan faced no such thing—only one or two issues were banned; and people never thought of them as political, it was seen as religious and doing noble work.
You’ve made a reference to a book by Pandey Bechan Sharma (Ugra) called Chocolate (1927), which speaks about homosexuality among middle-class married men, Hindu and Muslim. You know, one grows up hearing about all these cases against the likes of Manto and Chughtai, but somehow he doesn’t seem to have got in as much trouble.
Yeah, Ugra didn’t face that many problems. In the Hindi literary world, though, it was a complete shocker: like, what is he writing, what is he alluding to, what is he saying? The American anthropologist Lawrence Cohen sent me his article on the Holi literature of Benares. During holi, these stories which we would not call pornography, would be published in a journal on the eve of Holi—and you find that homosexuality is very common in those stories.
But for a high class of literature to talk about it, it became a big scandal. But [Ugra] didn’t face the kind of problem Manto faced. Even now [writing about homosexuality] in this country is a big problem—despite having so many great writers and literature coming out around that, we are still not comfortable around it. So, purists and conservatives attacked Ugra and he became a bit of a pariah for some time, but he was a big name and he continued, unabated.
You make a fleeting reference to another scandal—comfort women for the Indian army. You have a woman called Anusuya writing to Poddar about how she and other women were made to have sex with 24 jawans for 15 minutes each, and paid 10 rupees per jawan. What came of it?
I don’t know what happened. I tried to dig up more on it, but everyone in the army said you will never find written records for it, but it’s very common. During the Gulf war, in the Nineties, apparently 5,000 women were brought for soldiers posted there. I spoke to a lot of retired army men, to my friends who covered defence and so on, and everyone said this is a done thing, getting women for the army, there’s a system in place; but you won’t find a written record.
So, when this lady who was offended by what was happening wrote to Poddar, asking him to do something about it, he wrote to Swarn Singh, who was defence minister at the time. But I couldn’t find out what happened after.
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