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Controversy at the Bangalore Book Launch

February 18th; “When the Lotus Blooms,”  launched in Bangalore City at the CrosswordBook Store in Mantri Mall.

Those that have read the book know about Velandi the parayan. I blogged about it earlier, connecting it to ‘The Help” by Katherine Stockett. My editor warned me against inserting this piece as she felt it would give international audiences the wrong pictiure about India, but I felt compelled to include it because of my belief that in the life of the bramin, the parayan was important and to some extent their existence defined brahmin culture, taboos and caste rules. It was a practice I abhorred, yet I was filled with compassion for them and needed to highlight the importance of their role in society, something they themeselves were scarcely aware of. This section covers about 10 pages and is not in any way the main theme in the story, so I was very surprised when Vaasanthi brought up the use of the word Parayan in context of the current political arena in Tamil Nadu.To my horror a whole can of worms was opened.

The audience became very vocal, giving their reasons for the inclusion or exclusion of this term. I watched awestruck as the converstaion turned to antibrahmin sentiment, DMK ethos, Dalits and then boomeranged with vociferous calls for author’s license and freedom of expression.  ”Words banned today were common in the 1930?s and therefore had historical perspective,” they insisted. Vaasanthi warned that certain sections of Chennai society might find the use of this word objectionable and I should not be surprised if the book ends up being banned in the state. In my defense, I had no idea that the use of the word parayan was banned by law. It is considered as objectionable as the “N” word in the US and rightly so. Untouchability is reprehensible and their treatment abhorrent, which why I have tried to apologize in some way for this distasteful practice which exists in some parts of the country even today.

On a more positive note, the most incredible part of the Bangalore Launch was that it took place in the presence of my mother, Kamu Ayyar, who inspired me to write the book in the first place. It was really special because my sister Dammu, (Dharma Kannan) introduced me and I had my father-in-law and my brothers-in- law Mahendra and Kannan present as well.

My mother had been calling everyone she knew over the last month and  was terribly excited and anxious that everything should go as scheduled. We were expecting her friends to arrive in a string of wheelchairs and walkers!  The Chief Guest, Vaasanthi is a renowned author in Tamil language whom my mother recommended. My Publisher , Mr. Udayan Singh, has a strong presence in the north, but I was on my own in the south, and thankfully my sister Lakshmi had spoken to the store owner Mr. Pasha who was very helpful in arranging the launch at his store. In fact my book was the inaugural launch for this store. So really this event was the culmination of family effort.

After my sister completed the introductions Vaasanthi read out a very well scripted analysis of the book, after which we began a conversation. No matter how hard we tired to steer the conversation away the audience kept bringing it back to the topic of parayans. I was  not really worried. All it meant was that in addition to being my official photographer, my husband Rajiv would have to take on the ominous task of bodyguard as well, at the Chennai Book Launch.

All in all, several books were sold and many friends attended and supported me including celebrity Vani Ganpathy. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a good thing that there was no Press at the event.