The Pixellated Penis and Other Tales of Modern Censorship

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Why fear of India’s obscenity law turned HarperCollins prudish on a recent graphic novel, but doesn’t stop the publication of explicitly illustrated versions of the Kama Sutra

On page 45 of Paying For It, Chester Brown’s graphic memoir—in the sense of a graphic novel, not in the sense of being explicit, though it is also sometimes that—about paying for sex, there is a cloud of grey dots where a condommed penis should be. This is surprising, not only because Brown’s book is a sexual memoir, but also because it is otherwise full of uncensored nudity, or, more precisely, of minimalist line-drawings of unclothed people.

Brown’s cartoon people are by no means smoothed out Barbies and Kens; they have all the parts people are supposed to have. But on the four occasions in the book that Brown chooses to zoom in on those parts—his own—they appear pixellated almost beyond recognition. His cartoon penis is still visible at a safe distance throughout the rest of the book.

VK Karthika, publisher and chief editor at HarperCollins India, which is publishing Brown’s book in India, says this was a discretionary measure to pre-empt accusations of obscenity, taken on the advice of Harper’s lawyer. Four close-up shots, a total of nine panels in 227 pages of eight panels each, were blurred. The logic behind the selective pixellation is that these four sequences—which depict, in order, the putting on of a condom, masturbation, a thorough manual examination conducted by a woman (no, that is not a euphemism), and impending fellatio—are more graphically sexual than others, hence more likely to be interpreted as obscene.

India’s obscenity law, Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code, is ingeniously vague in its definition of what can be called obscene, exemplary of the way semantics can be employed in the service of point-avoidance.

To wit: ‘A book, pamphlet, paper, writing, drawing, painting representation, figure or any other object, shall be deemed to be obscene if it is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or if its effect, or (where it comprises two or more distinct items) the effect of any one of its items, is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.’ Such a law does little to aid an understanding of what makes something ‘lascivious’, what can be considered to ‘appeal to the prurient interest’, or, indeed, what constitutes the depraving and corrupting of persons. Instead of concretising the offence, the law throws a cluster of nervous words wide open to subjective interpretation. It seems to make it possible to deem obscene and therefore penalise almost anything; but in a generous corollary of ridiculousness, it also includes a similarly open-ended provision for exceptions:

‘This section does not extend to (a) any book, pamphlet, paper, writing, drawing, painting, representation or figure, (i) the publication of which is proved to be justified as being for the public good on the ground that such book, pamphlet, paper, writing, drawing, painting, representation or figure is in the interest of science, literature, art or learning or other objects of general concern, or (ii) which is kept or used bona fide for religious purposes; (b) any representation sculptured, engraved, painted or otherwise represented on or in (i) any ancient monument within the meaning of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 (24 of 1958 ), or (ii) any temple, or on any car used for the conveyance of idols, or kept or used for any religious purpose.’

This final caveat is, presumably, what ensures permanent protection for any reproduction, no matter how explicitly illustrated, of the Kama Sutra. The exemption earned by this ancient text on sex, love and living well—commonly understood to be and disseminated across the world as a how-to guide to a baffling array of sexual acrobatics—is presumably a function of the text’s age, or else every other new age sex-manual could claim the same.

This is a rather flimsy distinction, which pivots, no doubt, on the ability to claim the Kama Sutra as a ‘sacred’ text, although defenders of it may be hard-pressed to pinpoint what exactly makes a reductive, photo-illustrated ‘Kama Sutra’ (of which there are many) any more sacred than a generic photo-illustrated compendium of sex positions. Nevertheless, the Kama Sutra’s antiquity makes all the difference; its publication goes on unhindered while other books are seized for presuming to make explicit in their titles the ancient text’s tacit promise of ‘great sex’.

A consignment of books imported by Hachette India was recently seized by the Indian Customs Department when a couple of the titles in the incoming invoice jumped out at officials: Letters to Penthouse and Daily Sex: 365 Positions and Activities for a Year of Great Sex!—the former perhaps because its title included the name of a publication banned in India (never mind the fact that several volumes of Letters to Penthouse have been published in India for over a decade now); the latter presumably for the words ‘Great Sex’. Shortly thereafter, a search of Hachette’s Gurgaon office was conducted by Customs officials.

Thomas Abraham, managing director of Hachette India, says the search seemed a bit mysterious; it was only afterwards “that it was clarified that the search was for ‘objectionable material’, though the tenor of questions suggested that books with sexual content were being looked for”. The documentation made by Customs afterwards, while stating that nothing incriminatory was found, did not specify the cause for the search in the first place. During the search, officials apparently picked up, perused, then dropped Naomi Wolf’s latest, Vagina: A New Biography—they couldn’t have known it was not erotic in the least.

When Hachette’s sales director, Somu Sundar Reddy, was summoned to a deposition, he went prepared with an extended document outlining the differences between pornography and erotica and describing what Abraham calls “the current cultural context”, despite the non-specific nature of the summons. He found the Customs officers fairly understanding, but returned with no greater clarity on the outcome.

Abraham says the only visual elements at risk of being interpreted obscene in the entire consignment were the line-drawing diagrams in Daily Sex, which he describes as “stylistically, the kind you find in Biology textbooks”. Similar diagrams have frequently appeared along with magazine sex advice columns, some fashioned after the Kama Sutra. Had Hachette sneaked those two sacred words into the book’s subtitle, it may not have been seized at all.

Certainly, the sensitivity seems to be about visually graphic material, else how do you explain the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon? To say nothing of the piles of used Mills & Boon paperbacks accumulating at pavement booksellers and magazine stands across the city, nor of the increasingly frequent collections of erotica brought out by reputable publishers without a hitch.

And though the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s women’s wing, Durga Vahini, can find it in their hearts and schedules to spend hours shouting themselves hoarse about an exhibition of nudes at a gallery in a South Delhi enclave where nobody’s likely to be sympathetic to their cause, they haven’t, so far, exercised their passionate censoriousness to have books of nude art and photography seized from bookstores.

This would seem to indicate that things are, in fact, “easing up”, as Karthika puts it. Perhaps this is why she seems largely unconcerned about Harper’s forthcoming publication of a book of artistic nudes by Open correspondent Mihir Srivastava. While they did choose to omit some works that depict male genitalia in favour of tamer nudity, Srivastava’s sketches themselves will not be pixellated.

The graphic novel, Karthika explains, has an audience with “a certain sophistication”, affording it a kind of natural protection from “the wrong eyes”. Even so, it isn’t hard to imagine that the graphic novel, new to the Indian book market, might be peculiarly vulnerable to the obscenity police: too visual to escape notice, too lowbrow to qualify for an ‘artistic’ or ‘ancient’ exemption. And Harper, or at least its lawyer, must have had some inkling of uncertainty about how nudity—even casual nudity—in this form would be received.

Perhaps there was the lingering shadow of Savita Bhabhi, star of the eponymous and enormously popular pornographic webcomic series, which was banned in 2009 on a shaky interpretation of the Information Technology Act of 2000, which regurgitates the same ambiguous blither about lasciviousness and prurience and depravity as Section 292.

Savita’s (ultimately temporary) banishment from the web resulted in an eruption of discourse around censorship and pornography, led primarily by the Centre for Internet and Society. Many critics of the decision at the time brought up the Kama Sutra, pointing out that if explicit sexual images were the problem, we’d have a substantial backlog of scripture and sculpture to erase off our cultural database.

Brown’s book is neither as pornographic as Savita Bhabhi, nor as life-like in its depiction of naked bodies as nude art. Why, then, the self- censorship?

Karthika maintains the pixellation in Paying For It was “not about censorship” so much as “making sure the text was not hijacked away from its context” into a conversation about obscenity. Such a controversy would have obscured the book, which she felt so strongly about publishing that pixellating a few penises was a small price to pay.

It is quite a book. Brown has a wonderful minimalist style and an eye for situational comedy, often at his own expense. His frankness is utterly charming, but it is never allowed to compromise the (relative) privacy of the women who appear as re-named characters in the novel, and whose faces are uniformly obscured by speech bubbles.

It is worth noting that while keeping the book in context may save it from being accused of titillation, it would unlikely do much in the way of protecting it from accusations of encouraging prostitution, nor from those litigious flag-bearers of feminine modesty who have for years found solace in laws like the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act of 1986—which was put to immediate use by Odisha Chief Minister JB Patnaik to recall an issue of The Illustrated Weekly of India from newsstands in his state that year allegedly because it carried an image of a semi-nude woman.

A book about paid-for sex is virtually an invitation for complaints about indecency and about representations of women. Brown’s emphatic pro-decriminalisation anti-regulation stance vis-a-vis sex work—clearly inflected by his Libertarian politics—is not for everyone. But it isn’t thoughtless. And though he allows himself the most convincing voice in the narrative, he does provide alternate perspectives. His endnotes and appendices are dense with citations and caveats.

But ‘indecent’ is, again, one of those words that is hospitable to all sorts of meaning, and no amount of disclaimers is likely to deter the more determined among this country’s plentiful moral vigilantes. Those who will take offence will take it despite the pixellated peace offering. The nine blurry penises are, ultimately, a conciliatory gesture to those who cannot be conciliated.

A rather more compelling rationale for this discretionary self-censorship is that it was intended to dull the potential impact on any children who might accidentally start reading it thinking it was your average comic book. Books, Karthika points out, do not, unlike films or music, come with ratings or Parental Advisory banners (though, thanks to the age-blindness of torrents, those now seem like quaint artefacts, relevant only to those of us who attempted to buy cassettes and CDs of The Marshall Mathers LP or Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water in the early 2000s). And a graphic novel is intuitively more likely to be picked up by a child than your average book is.

In this context, the pixellation seems like a gesture of good faith, a small mercy to the parents of that curious child, who, Karthika imagines, would have less trouble with naked people just standing around than with the graphic close-up depiction of sexual acts. But “books are hardly the stuff of corruption anymore,” Karthika says. The internet took care of that. Besides, she adds, after the Fifty Shades trilogy glided onto (and subsequently flew off) bookstore shelves with barely a smudge of red ink, “I don’t see how any court in the country can ban this.”

All the same, she says, “Why push it?” Indeed, that is the prudent position. But perhaps we ought to push it anyway. Because there’s a point at which rampant prudery becomes more embarrassing than run-of-the-mill prurience. And that point is probably the pixellation of a cartoon penis.