THE NEWSPAPERS HAD OTHER THINGS on their minds the day Aubrey Menen died, in 1989. He was just about important enough for the New York Times to note that Menen, “a novelist, critic and essayist, died of throat cancer on Feb. 13 in Trivandrum in Kerala, India. He was 76 years old.” The Times of India noted, delicately, that he had been “a bachellor [sic].” But what did this matter? A hundred men had been injured in Srinagar that day in protests against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The next day, Ayatollah Khomeini appeared on Radio Tehran to deliver one of the most devastating pieces of literary criticism in recent history, calling for the execution of that apostate and blasphemer, Rushdie.
It had long been Menen’s fate to have his literary achievements overshadowed by political controversy. Menen shared with Rushdie a distinction India hands out so bountifully: he had had a novel of his banned. In fact, he was among the first in the history of independent India to be so honoured, in the heady days when this put one’s work on a short list consisting mostly of Jehovah’s Witness propaganda and Urdu erotica from Pakistan.
The Times of India gave this ban, meted out in 1955, a couple of lines in a humourless parliamentary sketch: “The deputy Home Minister, Mr. BN Datar, said that the import into India of the book ‘Rama Retold’ by Mr. Aubrey Menen published in Great Britain had been prohibited.” The minister seems to have given no grounds for the ban, and the column moved swiftly on to more interesting news: a survey of the country’s chromite reserves, and the discovery of a hundred prehistoric skeletons in the Garhwal Himalayas.