A novel published almost two decades ago by a Canadian author is fuelling a censorship battle that may serve as a proving ground for the next generation of India's extreme nationalists.
A mob of students at the University of Mumbai recently burned copies of Such a Long Journey, the award-winning novel by Rohinton Mistry, complaining about profanity and unfair portrayals of right-wing politicians. The university's leadership accepted their demands to pull the novel from the syllabus midterm, prompting a counterprotest this week by faculty and students in support of the book.
The state government has promised to investigate the ban, but it's already regarded as the first political success for Aditya Thackeray, the 20-year-old grandson of the man who founded Shiv Sena, a hard-line nationalist party. Like his father and his grandfather before him, Mr. Thackeray will be expected to fill a space in India's public discourse roughly equivalent to that occupied by Fox News in the United States.
Building on the notoriety he gained from his attack on the Canadian author, the budding politician plans to announce the formation of his party's new youth wing on Sunday.
"He will get support from the people because he has leadership qualities," said Shiv Sena party spokeswoman Shweta Parulekar. "Having read the book, the complaints are very convincing."
No such protests accompanied the publication of Such a Long Journey. The book won the 1991 Governor-General's award in Canada and was short listed for a Booker in Britain. It tells the story of a bank clerk living in the city then known as Bombay, and describes India's political turmoil in the 1970s.
The university added the title to its syllabus for undergraduate English studies four years ago, apparently without objection until Mr. Thackeray discussed the book with fellow students over the summer. His own school - St. Xavier's College, affiliated with the University of Mumbai - does not teach the novel, but he might have been familiar with the Canadian author's work because he attended the same school.
"He said some students brought the book to his attention because of some slang and abusive language," said C.R. Sadasivan, president of the Bombay University and College Teachers' Union.
"They also claimed they want to defend the dabbawallas," Prof. Sadasivan added, referring to the unique class of delivery men who carry lunch boxes to office workers in India's largest city.
Neither Mr. Thackeray nor Mr. Mistry was available for comment, but the offending reference to dabbawallas appears to be passage of dialogue in which a character complains that one of the delivery men stood so close on the train that the man's sweat dripped on him.
"What to do with such low-class people?" the character says, in the book. "No manners, no sense, nothing. And you know who is responsible for this attitude - that bastard Shiv Sena leader who worships Hitler and Mussolini."
That kind of talk about Shiv Sena remains dangerous, even in fiction.
The party has officially disavowed violence, but has allegedly used threats and physical attacks against those who disagree with its policies; on two occasions in recent years, its supporters were accused of ransacking television offices. Earlier this year, when Shiv Sena threatened to disrupt a new movie opening in the city, the government took the threats seriously enough to deploy five battalions of reserve police to guard the cinemas.
That fear has affected the conversations on campus about the book ban, said Prashant Hari, 20, an engineering student. "They could send two or three goons and rough you up," he said.
Despite the risks, Mr. Hari was among hundreds of students and faculty who have spoken out in favour of the book, using social networking sites and online petitions. The counterprotest spilled beyond the edges of the campus in recent days, becoming a favourite topic among educated residents of Mumbai.
"In intellectual circles it's a hot topic here, you see everybody posting about it on Facebook and Twitter," said Hardik Mehta, a Bollywood script supervisor who declared his love of Mr. Mistry's novels on his blog.
To its supporters, some objections about the book's decency seem frivolous in the Internet age. A selection of pages highlighted by Shiv Sena suggests the party has a problem with descriptions of male erections; the dietary advantages of eating India's sacred cows; the failings of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister; and tame scenes at brothels.
The party also pointed out a section of the book in which a character laments the fact that many street names in Mumbai have been changed, as nationalist sentiment prompted the removal of old European names in favour of ones that honour Indian heritage.
"They're hunting for issues," said Jose George, head of the politics department. "They want to create some divisions in our society, and capitalize on that sentiment."