New Delhi: The Goa Konkani Akademi had refused to purchase and distribute a Sahitya Akademi Award winning book written by poet Neelba Khandekar, citing the use of “objectionable and obscene content”.
According to the Indian Express, Khandekar’s book The Words, an anthology of poems, was among 64 books that were approved for purchase and official circulation by a three-member committee of the state-run body in August 2018. A purchase order for 90 copies of the book was also issued in January 2019. However, the executive committee of the Akademi eventually cancelled the order because of ‘objectionable content’. The Sahitya Akademi awards were announced on December 19 – after the Goa Konkani Akademi cancelled its purchase order, with Khandekar’s book The Words chosen as the winner in the Konkani language category.
The Goa body’s then-acting president Sneha Morajkar cited “objectionable and obscene content” as the reason for cancelling the order. According to the Indian Express, two Konkani words, yoni and thann, meaning vagina and breasts, were found “objectionable”. The words appear in the poem ‘Gangrape’. Ironically, the jury members of the Sahitya Akademi Award described the same poem as “a piece of art”, and the “strongest piece of work” in the anthology of 43 poems.
Prakash Parienkar, who was part of the three-member committee which approved the purchase of the book, told the Indian Express, that the Akademi’s then-acting president Morajkar told them that the body received some letters objecting to the poetry. Parienkar was also a member of the executive committee which finally decided to cancel the order.
He said, “Khandekar’s poetry is very very different as he deals with unique, but real topics… Having read the book for approval, we didn’t find anything in any of the poems vulgar. It was Sneha Morajkar who had found it objectionable. We were told that it could be dangerous if the book goes into the hands of children.”
However, Morajkar told the newspaper that the decision was taken collectively by the executive committee and not by her alone. “It’s being put on me now as Khandekar’s book went to win an award… I saw the words (vagina and breasts) in the book and I didn’t feel bad, but I did ask the three members of the selection committee, all three men sitting in front of me. If it wasn’t a problem, they shouldn’t have agreed to put the matter in front of the Executive Committee and the Executive Committee should not have agreed to cancel the purchase of the books in the special meeting. Now, it’s an afterthought.”
Khandekar has filed RTIs to seek why those two words were found objectionable. After receiving the minutes of the meeting on September 13, 2019, he said the Akademi “has no record of having received any letter of objections from anyone”.
According to the Indian Express, Morajkar initially opposed the purchase of the book, citing letters received from public. Many members of the executive committee agreed. “Another member points that in future the Akademi should frame policies or guidelines on what is ‘objectionable’ before it goes to the purchase stage. While a few members have pointed the exercise could impact Freedom of Speech and also suggested purchasing the book for the Akademi’s library, another, a woman member, has questioned the need to even purchase the book for the members since ‘objectionable words are of women which are not acceptable’,” according to the report.
Meena Kakodkar, a Konkani author, who was a juror of the Sahitya Akademi Award 2019, said that the poem ‘Gangrape’ is very powerful. “In fact, what is happening around us is offensive — not his retelling. That particular poem is so strong, in fact, we discussed it at the jury. It’s a piece of beauty. If the [Goa Konkani] Akademi has refused to endorse it or taken any such order, it’s time they revisit.”
Prakash Padgaonkar, a poet who was also a juror for the award, said that Khandekar’s work is suggestive, strong and representative of the downtrodden. He said the poem ‘Gangrape’ is “new in treatment and hard hitting”. “The general view we gathered from the Akademi was that they want to censure some words and do not want it to flow into the language, as it does in English. Literature shouldn’t have such barriers. Words should flow, and in this case, the poet has chosen them to speak and give his voice to a social evil,” he told the Indian Express.