When the rector of India’s leading Islamic seminary, the Darul Uloom of Deoband, found that Salman Rushdie was visiting the Jaipur Literature Festival, which began on Friday, he asked the Indian government to cancel Rushdie’s visa. The maulana’s anger dates back to Rushdie’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, which many Muslims have found offensive, even though it is extremely unlikely that most of those who have expressed outrage have read it or know what it is really about.
To placate the offended, India became the first country to ban the novel (a ban which still stays), and his visit to Jaipur was not meant to be about that novel. Born in India, Rushdie does not require a visa to enter India, and the government initially said it could not stop his visit, although in the days leading up to the festival, some Congress politicians joined the bandwagon against Rushdie’s visit, which included Muslim clerics, and opposition parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—some echoing the clerics’ concerns, others arguing that his visit would pose law and order problems.
So what is the fuss about? Yes, there are elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP), but is stopping Rushdie from entering Jaipur the most pressing priority of Muslims in UP, or anywhere else? And even if it is, is such a demand even legal?
Kala Ghoda, the Mumbai precinct which features in his novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Photo by Prodip Guha/Hindustan Times.
Freedom of expression in India has always had caveats, or “reasonable restrictions”, which are loosely defined, giving the state enormous power to restrict the free flow of ideas. Considerable power resides with the Customs Act of 1962, whose section 11 outlines 22 wide-ranging circumstances under which the government can prevent certain goods, including books, from entering India.
In October 1988, the finance ministry used those powers to prohibit the import of The Satanic Verses, because the officials thought the novel’s “dangerous content” could provoke unrest. The government said the ban “did not detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie’s work”, and that it was being banned as “a pre-emptive measure” because certain passages had been identified as “susceptible to distortion and misuse”, and the ban was to prevent such misuse. Rushdie responded in The New York Times, writing an open letter to then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, saying, “thanks for the good review”.
Reporting on The Satanic Verses controversy, I had some surreal conversations with the mullahs and ulemas in India. They warned me how incendiary and mischievous the book was, and how it hurt the sentiments of millions of people. When I asked them about specific passages from the novel, it was immediately apparent that they hadn’t read it. At that time, the late Pramod Mahajan was a member of Parliament (MP) in the Rajya Sabha for the BJP. He had heard that I had a copy of the novel (which I did) and he wanted to know if I would lend it to him so he could wave it around in Parliament, to protest the ban. He hadn’t read the book either, but he said it should not be banned. In the end, I did not give Mahajan my copy. It wasn’t a tool for Mahajan to score political points (and his own party’s record in defending free speech was hardly exemplary). Wouldn’t it be better, I asked Mahajan, if he were to file a petition in a court and get judges to overturn the ban?
Two months after my conversation with Mahajan, Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa on Rushdie, and I saw, stunned, television images of the novel being burned in Bradford and other towns in Britain, even as some British politicians supported the Muslims’ right to take offence. The world was turning topsy-turvy, like in a Rushdie novel.
Exile and home: Rushdie, soon after the fatwa was announced against him. A painting by artist Arpita Singh hangs on the wall. Photo by Terry Smith//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.
That moment was the turning point. Over the years, astute observers like Rushdie’s friend, the late Christopher Hitchens (in his many essays), Hanif Kureishi (in his novel The Black Album), Kenan Malik (in his book From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy), and Nick Cohen (in his engrossing new book on the struggles of free speech, You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom), have pointed out the significance of that book’s burning: Acquiescence with such intolerance under the guise of multiculturalism ultimately encouraged the monster of fundamentalism that Al Qaeda and Taliban were to unleash within a decade.
Intolerance has grown exponentially in India. Words like “blasphemy” are tossed around as though they were part of Indian culture, tradition and discourse: Most recently, cabinet minister Kapil Sibal called Web pages about his party leader Sonia Gandhi that he found insulting, blasphemous, unconsciously giving her the halo of divinity. India’s greatest painter, Maqbool Fida Husain, had to die in exile, because the state refused to protect his right of free expression when vigilantes threatened him and cases continued to be filed against him even after courts had ruled in his favour, dismissing similar cases. Earlier this month in Delhi, another artist, Balbir Krishan, who happens to be gay, and whose art deals with homosexuality, was attacked. The impulse to take offence runs everywhere.
The Satanic Verses is an imaginative, literary exploration of the meaning and origin of faith, and the eternal conflict between faith and doubt. It is about angels and devils, about migration, and it merges reality with fantasy. The central assumption Rushdie’s critics have made—that it is an attack on Islam—is flawed. That assumption sends the fundamentalists into a tizzy. But as Rushdie has explained, and as anyone who reads the novel will know, those passages are the hallucinations of a character losing his mind; they aren’t history, nor are they Rushdie’s interpretation of history. But this is about politics, not literature; it is about manipulating perceptions, not about accuracy.
Rushdie himself has legally visited India several times since 2000, two years after Iran declared that it would no longer support the fatwa. But all of that is beside the point—more germane is Rushdie’s undeniable love for India, and what he has done for India. As Clark Blaise noted in his 1981 review of Midnight’s Children in The New York Times, that novel “sounds like a continent finding its voice”. That it did: It told India’s story as it had never been told before—to outsiders, but also to Indians. No doubt other Indians like Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan and Anita Desai had written important novels in English before him; but it was Rushdie who made the world sit up and take notice of Indian writing. He vividly brought to life the land of his birth, allowing the country’s sounds, smells, sights, and swagger to luxuriate, disturbing the genteel tapestry of the English countryside. He grasped the English language, doing things to it which few had done before, twisting it, turning it, spicing it up, and smearing it with colour; he appropriated it. Some Indians who followed him imitated him; some deliberately wrote differently, carving their own niches; others tried to distance themselves from the looming shadow he cast.
To be sure, there had been other pioneers: James Joyce had done much the same to English decades ago with Ulysses, and G.V. Desani had shown what a skilled writer of Indian origin could do to English, in All About H. Hatterr. Rushdie’s own novels that followed Midnight’s Children continued the trend: in Shame, Rushdie revealed how much he disliked the idea of, and what became of, Pakistan; in The Moor’s Last Sigh, he wrote an elegy about Bombay, as he insists on calling his city of birth, and what politicians were doing to its cosmopolitanism: “Those who hated India, those who sought to ruin it, would need to ruin Bombay,” he presciently warned then. The musical beginnings of The Ground Beneath Her Feet were to be found in the shop, Rhythm House, near Kala Ghoda in Bombay; Shalimar the Clown returned his readers to Kashmir; and in The Enchantress of Florence, in the ideas of emperor Akbar, Rushdie articulated a vision of syncretic, liberal India which eludes the current crop of leaders. India was “a dream we had all agreed to dream”, as he wrote in Midnight’s Children.
You can take the boy out of Bombay, but not Bombay out of the boy.
In a revealing diary (published in his collection of essays, Step Across This Line), Rushdie wrote how, while writing Midnight’s Children, “Living in London, I wanted to get India back; and the delight with which Indian readers clasped the book to themselves, the passion in which they, in turn, claimed me, remains the most precious memory of my writing life…” The “plague years” (as he described the period of the decade of the fatwa) prevented him from returning to India, and Rushdie’s anxiety grew. He further wrote: “Nothing about my plague years…has hurt me more than this rift. I felt like a jilted lover left alone with his unrequited, unbearable love. You can measure love by the size of the hole it leaves behind.”
In 2000, Rushdie travelled across the country gratefully, rediscovering his motherland, revisiting places from his childhood, meeting old friends, and breathing the smells and imbibing the tastes the plague years had denied him. His subsequent visits have been less eventful. He could be seen at Parmeshwar Godrej’s beach house at a party; he would call friends unexpectedly, saying he was in town; and he was in Jaipur, at the festival, in 2007, condemning the abuses in Kashmir and Gujarat.
Delivering the keynote address at the India Today Conclave in 2010, Rushdie noted with alarm the “culture of complaint” that had come to dominate the Indian discourse. He chided India for not defending Husain: “He is even being jeered at for being old. This is the proud face of a philistine India. There is nothing wrong in not liking his art. You can easily opt out. A painting is a finite space of art. If it offends, don’t enter that space. The best way to avoid getting offended is to shut a book… The worst thing is that artists are soft targets… We do not have armies protecting us.”
Writers should not need armies to protect them in a free society. That Rushdie might need protection in India reflects poorly—not on him, but on India.
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.
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