December 02, 2020
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Salman Rushdie And Me

It wasn't just about standing up for freedom of expression in India: maybe I was doing something more humble and honest. I was trying to restore a sense of balance to my own personal practice of literary criticism.

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Salman Rushdie And Me
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On the tape, the police will have seen that, during our reading, I told the audience that just before the start of the protests in Tahrir Square last year, the Google executive-turned-cyber-activist Wael Ghonim had entered Egypt with a message ready on his computer. It said, "I am now being arrested at Cairo airport." All he needed to do was press Send.

I joked that perhaps Hari ought to do something similar. Within minutes of my saying this, the festival's producer arrived and asked me to stop reading. I didn't. When the reading was over and we came out, a bank of television cameras was trained on us. A Hindi reporter asked me, "Aren't you guilty of provoking religious violence?" And then, a little later, the police were there, informing us that we had broken the law.

I was staggered at the speed at which all of this happened. We were told that the tweets we had sent immediately before the reading, announcing our plans to read from the banned novel, had gone viral. Here was proof that we were living in the age of social media, and that, as in Egypt or Tunisia, public protest was being conveyed through Twitter.

A lot had changed in the 23 years since the book was banned in India. The old restrictions didn't matter. Hari and I had simply stepped into the festival's tiny office and downloaded relevant passages from the Internet. In fact, the text of the whole novel was there on the screen, readily available for anyone who wanted to read or print it. It's true that the author hadn't been allowed to come, but already we were being told that he would appear among us via a video feed.

I had felt a great sense of freedom—a liberation from fear—as I read Rushdie's words out loud in public for what I believed was the first time in the country of his birth. But then I learned that such a reading had been conducted before. On January 1, 1989, soon after the ban had been imposed, a group of Indian intellectuals had gathered in Delhi to read from The Satanic Verses. The risk that those readers had courted must have been greater than mine. Hari and I were reading at a festival—only a few years old—where glittering stars of the literary universe gather each year; our protest was under the public gaze of the media; and, in an India that flaunts its superpower aspirations, the festival's sponsors are the largest and richest corporations in India. Even powerful politicians are routinely present in the audience and sometimes sit among the writers on stage. What did I need to fear?

Back in 1989, when Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa without ever having read Rushdie's book, the price put on Rushdie's head was $3-million. This year, following the announcement that Rushdie was going to attend the Jaipur festival, a Muslim group in Mumbai offered a rather modest sum of 100,000 rupees (roughly $2,000) for anyone who would hurl a slipper at him.

No, that is not the most depressing part of this story. The tragedy is that, in the 80s and again now, the party in power in Delhi, the Congress Party, is trying its best to court "the minority vote." It is doing so by pandering to its most aggressive, reactionary fringe. Elections were just around the corner in five states at the time of the festival, and the country's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, boasts of a substantial Muslim population. The Congress and its rivals are eager to take on the mantle of the protector of Muslims. As a result, neither the government nor the opposition parties have come out forcefully in support of Rushdie. In fact, on the last day of the festival, even the promised video-link appearance with the writer was canceled because protestors had come inside the festival venue and threatened violence if Rushdie's face was beamed on the giant screens.

Hari Kunzru and I, along with two other writers who also later read from The Satanic Verses, have had seven police complaints filed against us by members of parties of diverse hue. In coming weeks, these cases will be taken up in court. This is serious, of course, but the entire affair isn't without very bizarre aspects. One of the complainants belongs to the right-wing Hindu party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been brazenly anti-Muslim in the past. But, as a competitor for the more than 18 percent Muslim vote in the coming election, the BJP considers it a sacred duty to attack Rushdie.

The Muslims, in whose name books have been banned and writers harassed, are among the poorest people in India, which has been officially confirmed by an Indian-government report released in 2006. Now that elections have begun in Uttar Pradesh for its 403-seat assembly, the Congress Party has taken up one of the report's recommendations and announced a 4.5 percent affirmative-action "subquota" of seats for Muslims. Elections trump ethics. As the social scientist Ashis Nandy told me in Delhi, on the morning after I fled Jaipur, "India is not a democracy, it is a psephocracy," by which he meant that it wasn't the rule of law but electoral calculation that governed the lives of Indians.

The controversy that erupted at the Jaipur Literature Festival is neither only about the freedom of expression nor only, in any representative way, about the sentiments of all Muslims. We cannot distance it from the crazy mix of celebrity, money, and media in the frenetic landscape of a market-friendly India.

Also, although Rushdie might have been the latest casualty of censorship, he isn't the only writer to be so victimized. On the way to the airport in Delhi, I stopped at the home of writer Arundhati Roy for a drink. Just over a year ago, she was threatened with arrest for sedition for having supported the right of Kashmiris to seek justice while living under brutal military occupation. Roy is used to having court cases filed against her. She released a statement to the press: "Pity the nation that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds. Pity the nation that needs to jail those who ask for justice, while communal killers, mass murderers, corporate scamsters, looters, rapists, and those who prey on the poorest of the poor roam free." Her ear planted closer to common sense, Roy said to me that evening, "Relax, boss, have another beer."

It wasn't till I was safely on the flight back to the United States that I even contemplated putting down on paper what I had felt over the past few days. I began to write down my thoughts, but, like Gibreel Farishta in The Satanic Verses, I appeared only to have dreamed them. I had to leave India to be safe. A realization filled with surpassing loss. But did I have to leave India to be brave? The truth was that I was afraid—as in countless films, when the man pleads with his killer, "I have small children." First moment of fear: Hindi TV reporter pushing camera in my face to ask, "Aren't you guilty of provoking religious violence?" Imagination makes us shape better stories, sure, but it also allows us to multiply possibilities. Imagine a different end. I read from The Satanic Verses because it was, in that time and place, a bold and imaginative act. If I were honest, that would be the only claim I submit to the Indian authorities in my defence.

The Jaipur Literature Festival was followed by the Kolkata Book Fair, and, during a press conference there, the Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan questioned Rushdie's "right to inflict pain on a society." In response, Rushdie fired off a tweet: "30 yrs ago @ImranKhanPTI was a fan at my 1982 Delhi lecture and 100% secular. Now my work 'humiliates' his 'faith.' Which is the real Imran?" This exchange, widely reported in the papers in Pakistan and India, was meaningful to me for a different reason. I was in the audience that night in 82, sitting a little behind Imran Khan, in a Delhi auditorium.

I had entered college a year earlier, and had bought a copy of Midnight's Children. A vague ambition to become a writer must have been the reason I acquired the book. Oddly, I wasn't much of a reader. I went to all the events at which Rushdie was present, but I don't think I got much out of them; I certainly hadn't made it to the end of his novel. The first piece of his writing that I read and liked was a brief essay in a 1984 issue of Granta called "Outside the Whale." From its very first paragraph, which pitilessly excoriated Raj nostalgia, the essay directed the reader to look at the world, and certainly at literature, in a political way. The voice was so engaged, witty, and worldly that I embraced it wholeheartedly.

Part of my enthusiasm must have had to do with the fact that I was a new immigrant in America; Rushdie's mocking of the West would have found an answering echo in my heart. But there was a bigger reason. Unlike my new classes on postcolonial theory, where a writer's meaning was glimpsed, if at all, through the thick fog of nearly impenetrable verbiage, Rushdie's words were clear, even conversational. His intelligence was evident everywhere, and yet one didn't feel that his insights were weights dragging you to the bottom of the sea.

Don't get me wrong. I did my best to sound like my teachers, and wrote sentences whose texture was inevitably thicker than cement. Still, Rushdie could always be trusted to provide the perfect epigraph—by turns elegant, cutting, or comic—for the challenging edifices of prose that I was building. I would still construct my academic platforms of multiple subordinate clauses and reinforced concrete, but a line from Rushdie sat on the top, like a glorious, fluttering pennant.

I can't pin down the moment when I began to think I had outgrown Rushdie, but it is a question to which I've given much thought in recent days. It seems very plausible to me that with my deepening investment in non-fiction, and in documentary and journalism, I began to find Rushdie's new fiction dissatisfying. In 1999, for example, when The Ground Beneath Her Feet was published, I read the book eagerly—as I did with all of Rushdie's writing—but I thought that the representations of real events were thin and unconvincing. A politician in my hometown, famous for his corruption, was portrayed cartoonishly as someone with a bad grasp of grammar. I went to interview the man on whom the character in the novel was based because I wanted to show what I had instinctively known was the man's more complex reality.

It should have been possible for me to marvel at how Rushdie transformed news into something magical. Instead, I fretted at the ways in which he so often reduced what was startling, or intransigent, about everyday realities to, at best, a metaphor.

It went downhill from there for me. Criticism is, or ought to be, a judicious act. It is nothing if it isn't a practice of discrimination, even hypervigilant discrimination. Most often, however, it becomes an exercise in shoring up a preconceived argument. You search for evidence to build a stronger case. In effect, you are reading to prove a prejudice. At least that was true of me while reading each new, subsequent work of Rushdie's. A long, negative review I wrote of Rushdie's novel Fury earned me a rebuke from the writer: He told an administrator at the college where I teach, and who had invited Rushdie to come speak, that he wouldn't share the stage with me. My attitude only hardened after that. The incident's unpleasantness intensified when I got involved in a spat with Rushdie on my blog.

It was later, much later, that I began to feel a loss—a sense of the lost affection I had had for words that had once illuminated the condition of the world around me. Maybe it was more a question of the gratitude that a writer must have toward another writer whose words he has borrowed in the past.

This realization was brought home to me via social media. I heard Rushdie on a New Yorker fiction podcast—where I thought he was brilliant—and then, from the day he joined Twitter, followed his tweets. A new relationship sprang up in this medium; with 140 characters, I was no longer judging the whole universe of Rushdie's output. Maybe this allowed me to put him once again on a human scale. Often I wanted to quote back to him his own lines, which is what readers often want to do. It would be like reading his words aloud. That is, after all, what I did in Jaipur.

All the inventiveness and joy of Rushdie's fiction were there in the section from The Satanic Verses I had read out at the festival, when Gibreel Farishta considers the advantages of transforming London into a tropical city: "Religious fervour, political ferment, renewal of interest in the intelligentsia. No more British reserve; hot-water bottles to be banished forever, replaced in the fetid nights by the making of slow and odorous love. Emergence of new social values: friends to commence dropping in on one another without making appointments, closure of old folks' homes, emphasis on the extended family. Spicier food; the use of water as well as paper in English toilets; the joy of running fully dressed through the first rains of the monsoon."

It had been important to do this, to remind readers of the pleasures of the book, even as outside there were calls for book burnings and the author's head.

We were not alone; there are many who have expressed support for us. And yet, amid all the compliments that I have received about standing up for freedom of expression in India, maybe I was doing something more humble and honest. I was trying to restore a sense of balance to my own personal practice of literary criticism.


Amitava Kumar is a professor of English at Vassar College. He is author, most recently, of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb (Duke University Press, 2010). He can be found on Twitter @amitavakumar. This piece first appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education


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