Introducing PEN Delhi - Kiran Desai

PEN International was delighted to launch two new PEN Centres – PEN Delhi and PEN Myanmar – at our 79th International Congress in Reykjavik, Iceland, on 12 September 2013.

We look forward to these Centres making a valuable contribution to PEN’s work to defend freedom of expression and promote literature.

Below is the text of the speech by Booker-prize winning author Kiran Desai to the Assembly of Delegates of PEN International proposing the PEN Delhi Centre.

Introducing PEN Delhi – Kiran Desai

It is a pleasure to be at the PEN Congress on behalf of the proposed PEN Centre in Delhi. Rachna Singh and Nilanjana Roy, who have helped to set up the proposed Centre, would like to express their deep regret at not being able to be in Iceland with all of you today. This is their statement about the Centre, and the processes they have gone through before this Congress. They would like to thank PEN International for its help and support through this process.

About the proposed Delhi Centre:

The idea of having a PEN Centre based in Delhi came about during a conversation between John Ralston Saul and Rachna Davidar in

2010, when Rachna asked John if there was any likelihood of starting a Centre in New Delhi.

John thought that it would be an excellent idea and asked Rachna to get in touch with Ranjit Hoskote at the PEN All-India Centre, which is located in Mumbai. Mr Hoskote suggested that it might make more sense to open a new Centre in Delhi rather than have a chapter of the ALL-India Centre, since India was too vast a country to be represented by a single PEN Centre. He felt that it would make more sense, operationally, administratively and in terms of representation. Aside from being India’s capital, Delhi is also the hub of the English-language publishing industry, and is the largest city in the north of the country.

In 2012 Haroon Siddiqui of PEN Canada came to Delhi to have a meeting with Rachna and provided her with the necessary guidelines to form the Centre in New Delhi and put her in touch with Paul Finegan at PEN International with whom she has worked closely since March 2013 to set up PEN Delhi. In Delhi, Rachna, who is a bookseller and now an organiser of literary festivals, worked along with Nilanjana Roy, a local writer and critic.

Rachna was also regularly in touch with John Ralston Saul and Haroon Siddiqui. Nilanjana and Rachna also asked Salil Tripathi (co-chair, Writers-at-Risk, English PEN) for his advice on several issues. They asked Salil whether he could request English PEN to support their application for PEN Delhi, which they had decided upon after being assured that PEN Delhi would in no way be in conflict with PEN All India. Ranjit Hoskote at PEN All India will also support PEN Delhi’s application, as will Charlie Foran, President of PEN Canada.


The proposed PEN Delhi Centre has an eclectic mix of members, reflecting the wide range of writers and languages it intends to represent across India. Initially, Rachna Davidar and Nilanjana Roy sent out invitations to approximately 60 writers in English and other Indian languages, as well as to translators, publishers, academics, journalists, anti-censorship and human rights activists with history of engaging with free speech issues.

Of the roughly 30 writers who have accepted membership include Nayantara Sahgal, Vikram Seth, Sudeep Chakravarti and Irfan Habib, who write in English, the Kannada writer Girish Karnad, the Malayalam writer Binyamin, Mamang Dai and Anjum Hasan from the North-East; the translator Arunava Sinha; the jurist Leila Seth; the heads of Human Rights Watch and the media/ censorship watchdog group Medianama; the publisher Chiki Sarkar from Penguin; the novelist/publisher, David Davidar, from Aleph; the historians Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib; and many others. Several other writers have indicated their interest in PEN, but have not yet sent back membership forms.

Rachna and Nilanjana have asked existing PEN members to suggest the names of writers whom we could invite to join PEN Delhi in order to make it a truly effective Centre.Once the proposed Centre is confirmed, they hope to extend invitations to as many writers, translators, publishers, academics and free speech activists across North India as possible, with the only proviso being that they must be in agreement with PEN’s objectives as stated in the charter. Film-makers, artists, media editors, journalists and students who have a history of written publications may also be invited to join PEN in the next membership drive. As PEN Delhi’s membership expands, they intend to set up a membership committee at the time of the elections to ensure that PEN membership is available to all writers who need it, and who are in agreement with PEN’s objectives.

The Centre’s proposed list of activities

Subject to the constraints of fund-raising, the proposed PEN Delhi Centre’s members have indicated that these would be key areas of activity.

i) Our first priority would be to create a network of legal and media experts who can be approached to help writers directly under threats of violence and/ or of suppression of their works. We might try to work with Human Rights Watch India and similar organisations who already have expertise in this area. Several members, including some with legal experience, have volunteered to create a set of strategies that PEN Delhi can use in cases where freedom of expression is threatened, so that we can respond with speed as and when a festival, a bookshop, a writer or any member of the creative community finds themselves under threat in free expression cases.

ii) Working with colleges in the region to set up regular workshops and talks on what free speech and censorship mean in the context of our daily lives.

iii) Tie-ups with literary festivals across India, so that we have a PEN session on subjects such as censorship, creative freedoms and the importance of allowing a writer freedom to think, at most major festivals.

iv) Two annual PEN Delhi lectures

v) Banned Books Week: a campaign across Indian bookstores (September 22nd), drawing attention to books from across the world that were once banned or considered dangerous that are now in the public domain.

vi) February 14: Free Reads: events in open-air venues and public areas such as marketplaces where you invite students to read from challenged texts.

vii) PEN Addas: eight addas a year, with the aim on encouraging cross-discipline discussions on free expression as it is evolving in India—involving artists, film-makers, musicians and Internet experts as well as writers.

viii) A PEN website that archives timelines of censorship, the Censor Board, and creates a database of Indian laws/ cases/ jurisprudence on censorship.

ix) As a long-term goal, explore the possibility of resurrecting the public library network in India, or even starting new libraries in conjunction with organisations such as Pratham and the Ashoka Foundation. Work with corporates and perhaps NGOs/ government organisations to create a network of libraries across India, especially in the small towns.

If the Centre is ratified, we will follow election procedure as per the Constitution that has been adopted. Elections will be held as soon as possible once the Centre is made official.

From all of us in Delhi and other parts of India who have worked on the aims, objectives, membership and hopes for the proposed PEN Centre, thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to stand here in Reykjavik, asking for your support.

Over the last ten years, India has struggled with free speech issues: our rankings in the World Press Freedom reports have dropped precipitously, the government’s proposed laws on the Internet have raised concerns that they might curb essential freedoms. A rising climate of censorship and the rise of the politics of offence has made it hard for writers to exercise basic freedoms: the freedom to think, to criticize, to write without fear of reprisal or even violence.

As the PEN All-India Centre has done, the proposed Centre in Delhi hopes to set against this India’s long history of encouraging debate, enjoying argument, and tolerance for the written and spoken word. As the writer Vikram Seth said at the Kolkata Book Fair in 2012: “We cannot let them close our mouths and eyes and ears. We cannot let them break the pen or ration the ink. May the pen flourish.”

For more inforamtion about the 79th PEN International Congress please see:

To follow PEN Delhi on facebook please click here.

For a statement from PEN Delhi in Support of Professor UR Ananthamurthy, please see: