When Jawaharlal Nehru Read ‘Lolita’ to Decide Whether an ‘Obscene’ Book Should Be Allowed in India

After a consignment of Vladimir Nabokov’s famed book landed on Indian shores, a debate over its ban spanned Customs and police to the finance minister and PM.

by Shubhneet Kaushik in Scroll: In May 1959, DF Karaka, the founder editor of The Current, wrote a letter to then Finance Minister Moraji Desai about a book. Karaka explained that the book glorified a sexual relationship between a grown man and a teenage girl. He included a clipping from The Current that demanded an immediate ban on the “obscene” book.

The book in question was Lolita, written by Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, and published in 1955.

A month earlier, on April 6, 1959, the collector of Customs in Bombay had detained a consignment that included imported copies of the novel belonging to Jaico Publishing House. The collector of Customs referred the matter to the police, the Ministry of Law as well as the Ministry of Finance.

The police commissioner of Bombay and the local branch of the law ministry were of the view that the book did not fall under the category of “obscene literature” and should not be held. Even though the collector of Customs also concluded that the book could not be considered “grossly indecent or obscene”, he did not release the consignment.

Jaico Publishing House opposed the decision of the collector of Customs to hold the consignment containing the copies of Lolita. The managers of the firm were also aware of the letter that Karaka had written to Finance Minister Desai. In response, they sent a letter arguing that the novel was not obscene or pornographic.

This letter included cuttings from publications such as The Times of India, The Indian Express, Shankar’s Weekly, The Daily Express, The Blitz, The Observer, The Spectator, and The Daily Mail and others that had published positive reviews of the novel. Around that time, Lolita had been temporarily banned in France, England, Argentina, and New Zealand.

The complicated matter of Lolita was then referred to Desai, a puritan Gandhian with an obsession with natural cures and prohibition. Desai did not hide his dislike for such a book. In a short note on Lolita, he pointedly remarked, “I do not know what book can be called obscene if this cannot be. It is sex perversion.” Desai also suggested that the Home Ministry should be consulted before a final decision was taken on the matter.

Finance Secretary AK Roy consulted Joint Secretary N Sahgal and suggested that the file regarding the import of the controversial book be submitted to Jawaharlal Nehru as some representatives of Jaico Publishing House had also requested a meeting with the prime minister.

Nehru’s remarks and his notes regarding the Lolita affair survived in the Nehru Papers preserved at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and were published inThe Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru.

In a note to his personal secretary Kesho Ram, Nehru had mentioned that he would meet the representatives of the firm. Nehru also said that he had not yet read the novel, but had read reviews of it and was aware that it had created “a minor sensation in literary circles in England and America”.

Nehru was against the idea of censoring a book that had any claims to literary merit. More so, he did not like censorship by an authority such as the collector of Customs, or by police officers.

As this controversy around Lolita was brewing, publications such as The Times of India, Statesman, and Shankar’s Weekly published pieces suggesting a committee of experts be constituted to consider the censorship of controversial books.

At the same time, the honorary secretary of the Federation of Publishers and Booksellers Associations in India also came forward with a suggestion to set up a Censor Board to look into publications suspected to be “grossly indecent or obscene” and decide whether they should be allowed to circulate in India.

Fifteen days after the first note, Nehru wrote another memo for Kesho Ram. By this time, Nehru had read the novel and formed an opinion. Nehru’s remarks on Lolita are quite revealing and worthy to be quoted in full:

“Reading this book Lolita, I felt that it was a serious book and in its own line rather outstanding. It is hardly a book which can give light reading to anyone. The language is often difficult. It is true that some parts in it rather shocked me. The shock was more due to the description of certain conditions than to the writing itself. The book is certainly not pornographic in the normal sense of the word. It is, as I have said, a serious book, seriously written. If there had been no fuss about it, no question need have arisen at all of banning it or preventing its entry. It is this fuss that sometimes makes a difference because people are attracted specially to reading books which are talked about in this way.”

In this note, Nehru also pointed out that he would not hesitate to ban horror comics or books that deal with sex and crime and have no literary merit. Nehru further mentioned the high price of the book Lolita, with each copy costing Rs 30, and highlighted the problem of India’s scarce foreign exchange reserves in importing such books.

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