HarperCollins India and the Pixelated Penises

payingforitWhen Canadian comics artist Chester Brown’s graphic novel memoir Paying For It — about his encounters with 23 different prostitutes — was first published in 2011, it received generally favorable reviews and was widely applauded for its honesty. But in the upcoming edition to be released by HarperCollins India, nine of Brown’s close-up drawings of his own genitals will appear pixelated, an instance of pre-emptive self-censorship undertaken by the publisher itself. In an article from Indian magazine OPEN, Devika Bakshi examines how this came to happen in the country that produced and still proudly claims the Kama Sutra.

The censored images are not the only nudity in Brown’s book — far from it, in fact. But they were the ones in close-up and/or depicting sex acts, and the publisher’s lawyer thought there was a chance they might contravene India’s obscenity law, which Bakshi calls “ingeniously vague”:

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.

At the same time, though, the law contains a host of 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.

The section about “ancient monuments,” Bakshi points out, is what makes the Kama Sutra eternally immune from prosecution. Meanwhile, Indian Customs officials recently seized a shipment of modern sex manuals bound for Hachette India and then searched the publisher’s offices for more “objectionable materials.” Nothing else was seized and Hachette has not been prosecuted, but this is the environment in which HarperCollins India opted to pixelate Brown’s penis rather than risk an outright ban from the government.

Bakshi also theorizes that the graphic novel format contributed somewhat to the publisher’s abundance of caution, as literary erotica without illustrations is commonly published uncensored in India. But graphic novels are relatively new to the country, she says, and “might be peculiarly vulnerable to the obscenity police: too visual to escape notice, too lowbrow to qualify for an ‘artistic’ or ‘ancient’ exemption.”

Nevertheless, Bakshi suspects that HarperCollins’ pre-emptive concession is pointless because it’s unlikely to satisfy would-be censors anyway:

‘[I]ndecent’ is…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.

Check out Bakshi’s full article here at OPEN Magazine.

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Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.