Now you Sita, now you don't Naseem Khan meets a writer whose novel has won a great prize, and been banned

It was a blazing hot day last December when The Rape of Sita was published in Mauritius. The 70 or so who had turned up to the launch party heard two critics deliver an appreciation of the book. Then they were treated to a piano recital by Rajni Lallah. "It was very open, very nice," recalls the novel's author, Lindsey Collen.

Trouble started the very next day with a newspaper article denouncing The Rape of Sita. Then came slogans on walls, intimidating phone calls and threats. Collen and her local publishers smartly withdrew the book from publication, "to create time and space for an open debate". Instead, the Prime Minister stood up in Parliament and, on the basis of "a glance at the back page" issued a banning order since the book might "be blasphemous". He instructed the police to "take appropriate action".

In the meantime, the book has won the 1994 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region). It is a paradox that such an august award has been given to a book that is virtually unobtainable.

So what was the nature of Collen's offence? As with Rushdie and Tasleema Nasrin, the root lies in religion. The clue, in this case, lies in the book's title. For "Sita" is no ordinary name. Sita was the much revered consort of the god-king Rama: prototype of the ideal Hindu wife - gentle and shy, pure and chaste. Raping Sita? It would be like raping Hinduism, felt religious fundamentalists.

Lindsey Collen herself - a vivid-faced 41-year-old - does not plead ingeniousness. South African by birth, she has lived happily in Mauritius for 20 years with her Hindu husband and has no intention of going anywhere else. She knows exactly what charge the name "Sita" carries, but she "wanted the title to be evocative, not provocative", for she is essentially on Sita's side.

The Rape of Sita is a delicately textured novel, its technique drawn partly from oral tradition, that interweaves a modern story with mythological pre-history. It takes up the cudgels, with warmth and humour, on behalf of Mauritian Sitas then and now. Mauritian women, in their turn, have understood what Collen was trying to say. Even older, religiously-inclined Hindu women have commended her: "They said, `Now raped women can carry their heads high. If Sita is raped, then rape doesn't sully wo men.' ''

This may be too subtle for the writers of graffiti and the men who threatened Collen herself with public rape. But it is the women's support - both in the left-wing party, Lalit, and outside - that has sustained the writer. From the beginning, they organised her safety. She was accompanied when she had to go out in the first uncertain weeks. They went with her to the police station to complain about new graffiti, phone calls and letters.

Collen may have withdrawn The Rape of Sita for the moment, but she is not going quietly, or without humour. She is determined, for a start, to demand her full rights as a citizen. So the police come, at her insistence, and paint out graffiti, and follow up leads on the threats. At the same time, she and her lawyers press the government to lift the ban.

Of course it has meant pressure. "For a whole three hours on a Saturday in March I was full of self-pity. But at the same time, I have no regrets - even though I certainly didn't mean to offend people. I have a duty not to have regrets. It's important for any author under attack not to do anything that would reduce the terrain of freedom of expression."

So they cautiously play a cool and reasoned game, letting the 250 copies of the book, pre-sold before publication, make their case for them. And those 250 "get round like mad". For a time it was quite difficult to write, because the consequences of the printed word were so enormous, but that has passed. She's working again, on her third book.

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