Why is Rushdie so important?

Why is Rushdie so important?
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First Published: Sat, Jun 06 2009. 12 30 AM IST

Cause célèbre: He’s never obsolete. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg
Cause célèbre: He’s never obsolete. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg
Updated: Sat, Jun 06 2009. 11 00 AM IST
Just what we need in the dog days of summer: yet another book on Salman Rushdie. Much ink has been spilt on the great panjandrum of Indian literature, much of it academic. In the wake of the now infamous fatwa, Rushdie became a cause célèbre in the media and, less visibly, welcome grist to the scholarly mill. So great was his popularity among post-colonialists and English-lit wonks that by 2003, professors were firmly discouraging their students from penning yet another dissertation on his over-analysed oeuvre.
Cause célèbre: He’s never obsolete. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg
How odd then that Penguin India has decided to treat us to yet another instalment of “Rushdie for geeks”. This one is titled Midnight’s Diaspora: Encounters with Salman Rushdie, an anthology with contributions from the who’s who of the South Asian intelli-rati: Gauri Vishwanathan, Akeel Bilgrami, Husain Haqqani, Sara Suleri Goodyear and Shashi Tharoor.
Rushdie’s books are undoubtedly an academic’s delight. Be they brilliant (Shame) or just plain bad (Ground Beneath her Feet), his novels offer multilayered, densely interwoven material, over-stuffed with tropes, symbols and a dizzying array of political and cultural references. What these novels say, however, about his favourite themes—identity, nation, exile, sexuality, and let’s not forget religion—is both debatable, and, more importantly, richly deserving of an open, vigorous debate. What Midnight’s Diaspora offers instead is the scholarly equivalent of a Rushdie fan club newsletter, albeit a very erudite one.
Ashutosh Varshney, a well-respected political scientist who has co-edited the book, does little to serve his cause in his promotional interviews, where he sounds alarmingly fawning and disingenuous. “To me, the most interesting thing is that Rushdie is not simply a storyteller but a highly sophisticated intellectual, who can take remarkably insightful positions on politics and history,” he declares in one such outing.
Yet it’s Rushdie’s role as a public intellectual—less so, his talent as a novelist—that has been the most controversial. His writings in the immediate aftermath of 9/11—which included a 1 November New York Times op-ed titled, no less, Yes, This is About Islam—were at best unhelpful, or worse, irresponsible, given the anti-Muslim hysteria taking root at the time in the US. And in November 2002, in a Washington Post editorial, he supported the invasion of Iraq, just not for the reasons offered by the George Bush administration.
Rushdie is a nominal Muslim and an avowed atheist with little expert knowledge of either international politics, history or Islam. He also has a very specific world view based on his personal background—an upper-class Indian/Pakistani who has spent much of his life in the West—and history, which includes being terrorized by Islamic extremists. Others with greater expertise may respect or even endorse his opinions, but an entire anthology that doesn’t amount to much more than a “quality defence” of the same isn’t particularly insightful or useful.
In her book, The Scandal of Pleasure, Wendy Steiner reminds us: “Art’s power comes from its contradictoriness. It both is and is not a part of reality; it both is and is not a representation of reality; it both acts on and is irrelevant to politics and history.” But when artists become enamoured with their own politics, we should be able to rely on our scholars to take them to task.
Write to Lakshmi at postscript@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Jun 06 2009. 12 30 AM IST