Uncategorized | February 09, 2012

The Devil

We’re a little behind the times here at the Missouri Review Blogging Center, because this whole controversy took place a couple of weeks ago and has already been forgotten by everyone. But, I’m hoping that having given it a little time to settle might help in seeing if I changed my mind about the argument regarding Salman Rushdie’s presence at India’s premier literary festival, the Jaipur Literary Festival earlier this year. 

Now, I’m an Indian of a certain age who grew up reading Rushdie, and especially his magnum opus, Midnight’s Children. All artsy kids who have few friends and no romantic prospects in India kind of have to. For those of you who haven’t read the book, I recommend it highly. Perhaps not as highly as the Booker Committee, who keep inventing new awards to give it (Booker of Bookers, Booker of the Last 30 Years, Booker of the Last 40 Years, Booker of Bearded Authors etc.), but it’s a fairly substantial work, and even if you don’t like it, it’s an important book because of Rushdie’s use of the English language, his insertion of vernacular phrases, references, names, and puns, that all come together to create a particularly Indian-English that shows us that literature and language need not be restricted to just one nation or people, but can adapt anywhere. It’s double jeopardy: a book that screams out India’s post-colonial angst while delighting in the language that those angst-inducing colonizers left us. In other words, not to push it too far (since he’s still alive and we should only be sincerely and totally nice to dead people), it’s India’s version of Huck Finn or Moby Dick—a novel that does more than just capture a story, it explores how a people are.

The sad thing is that Midnight isn’t Rushdie’s most famous book. This one is. And it’s not the most famous because it’s his best work—as a matter of fact it probably doesn’t rank in the top 3. It’s famous because the Ayatollah put a fatwa on Rushdie for the book, and because Rushdie spent the next decade under constant Secret Service protection, moved from safe-house to safe-house, his life as he knew it completely upended.

Given what we know of Ayatollahs, one would assume that Salman Rushdie, his book, and the completely misinterpreted and taken-out-of-context passages would still be Enemy #1—religious fanatics, one might have noticed, have long memories. The only purpose of the Ayatollah’s continued anger at Rushdie would be because it reminds us that literature can still be taken seriously, that it’s our strongest resistance against authoritarianism and narrow-mindedness. It’ll make us feel better about never being rich (or even moderately well-off), because as writers we have our morals. Even if those morals lead to crazy people promising to kill us because there’s a bounty on our head.

Probably how Rushdie felt

The 10-year outrage, the constant calls for assassination, the daily threats on his life were put away in 1998 when the Iranians decided they wanted to restart diplomatic relations with Britain, which shows you how seriously those clowns took the whole thing anyway.* But, on the plus side, Rushdie could go back to being a writer. No longer would he have to worry about  offending political sensitivities. The job of the writer is to speak out against injustice, or at least examine how it functions, and without threats to his life Rushdie could return to fulfilling his duties to his profession, could go back to attempting to understand how people work.

This is probably from a different protest, but we have a lot of spare protesters in India

Here’s the thing: Salman Rushdie, born in Bombay, writer of what’s been declared the as-close-to-consensus-as-possible “Great Indian Novel” (this one is not), officially the best novel written in the Commonwealth in the last half-century, the writer who put Anglo-Indian writers on the world’s literary map, cannot have his homeland read his most famous work because Satanic Verses is still banned in India. I’ll repeat that: 14 years after the Ayatollah said “well, no harm, no foul,” the Indian government has still not lifted the ban on Satanic Verses. Which puts the Indian government somewhere to the right of the Ayatollah on religious expression. Let’s put it another way: they could have re-enacted the entire Trojan War in the meanwhile. That’s how slow the Indian bureaucracy is.

Of course, most normal people had entirely forgotten about this, because, well who pays attention to crazy people 25 years after they’ve been crazy? You’d think no one. So, the literary festival in Jaipur invited Rushdie. Then, India’s largest Islamic seminary objected. That would be the Darul Uloom, Deoband. They demanded Rushdie not be allowed in. Rushdie, being a push-over, told them he was coming anyway. Problem solved, right? “Courageous Author Tells Off Protestors.”


They invented a death threat.

They also promised that “rivers of blood would flow” if Rushdie showed up. Which is not only an unnecessary threat, but also worded entirely in cliches. These people need writers to show them the possibilities of narrative and language. What happened next, you ask? Well, obviously, everyone freaked out. Imagine if you were going to have to wade through rivers of flowing blood to go to AWP? I’m not even willing to handle the line at the open bars. Clearly someone would stop the madness and talk sense into somebody.

William Dalrymple, who is a brilliant writer with several good books and was organizing the festival, didn’t think Rushdie should show up, an attitude he later explained. Rushdie didn’t show up. Other writers got mad about this—notably Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar. Their plan was to protest this theocratic turn in India’s attitude towards governing by reading aloud from Satanic Verses when it was their turn to speak. Because the book is still banned in India, they had to download it off the Internet. And then when they read aloud, they were threatened with arrest. For the crime of reading out loud from a book.

(By the way, the protest—at the festival itself—was not about Rushdie even being there. It was about a video-link interview in which he would get to speak. Let me make that clear: He was not in the country. He was in a different country. A country in a different continent. He was Skyping in. Basically what we do when we don’t want to get out of our pajamas and go to a meeting.)

After being threatened with arrest, the four authors were forced to flee Jaipur and then India. The same night. Because what they did was apparently a crime. Hari Kunzru, who is notably bad-tempered, nevertheless wrote this scary account of the events. The organizers then attempted to explain themselves here and here.

One of these guys hates being told he's wrong

The man in charge of these protests, Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani (pictured above), told the protesters that dying during this protest (at a freakin’ literary festival) would make them martyrs. If one follows his train of logic, one must believe that it’s worth dying over a 15-minute Skype interview.

Police, of course, being as good at their job as they are, demanded tapes of the authors reading out aloud from Satanic Verses. 

There are a million things wrong with this whole saga. Primary among them, of course, is the forcible state-sponsored editing of the individual artist. There is also, in what has become a worrying trend, a refusal to countenance any viewpoint that differs from one. This leads to what has been a lengthy Indian struggle of refusing to look carefully at the ugliness present within itself. The attitude is, “We’re perfect. If you say we’re not, we will kill you. Or at least burn an effigy, and a couple of public buses while we’re at it.” This is not an isolated incident either. While I’m fairly miffed at the good Maulana, there’s a pattern of this behavior, a pattern that is growing in  a complaint about a Shivaji biography that led to the Oxford University Press having to apologize, a protest about a Gandhi book, a protest against Taslima Nasrin (ostensibly because she happens to be a woman). Please look at the dates attached to these news stories, as well as the geographical variety in these protests.

Things got so bad, Rushdie had to go back to Med School

Because what the Rushdie fiasco is doing is basically proving that for all of India’s bluster, for all the 10% GDP growth and the rapidly-increasing middle-class, for all the skyscrapers planned and the millions of dollars spent on making the capital city’s airport “world class,” for all the half billion dollar houses built, there’s still the world’s largest slum in direct view of the world’s most expensive house. And instead of attempting to get rid of that mind-numbing poverty, we will protest Slumdog Millionaire. Not because it is a bad movie, but because it “shows India in a poor light.” The Rushdie Affair (dare I say it, Rushdie-gate) only emphasizes that when it comes to self-examination, the Indian government’s attitude is— “if we don’t let anyone talk about it, it’ll go away.”

But we as a country cannot claim to stay true to the principles that govern us if we do not even allow artists the freedom to express themselves, the freedom to question and critique, the freedom to point out when the emperors have lost their clothes. Our most celebrated contemporary painter was driven out of the country for painting Hindu goddesses and had to die in England.

This is not about religion, or religious sentiment, or a demand for unrestricted free speech. What is shameful about these events is that a country touting itself for its economic growth, for its large-scale democracy, for its new-found social mobility, is attempting to silence any opinion that threatens to upset the status quo. It is shameful because those who shout the loudest are stopping a billion people from examining what is still wrong and attempting to fix it. And if we do not allow our faults to be picked out, our feelings to be hurt, our complacency to be disturbed, then we will continue to move towards untenable gender ratios as we continue to systematically eliminate our female populace. We will continue to boast 400 million people unable to feed themselves even a 1000 calories a day. We will have 600 million people with no access to clean water or sanitation.

A long time ago, I had a professor who told me, “writers know what’s wrong while it’s happening. Historians find out twenty years later. And the poor politicians never figure it out at all.” If our leaders do not defend our rights, do not assuage our hurts, do not heal our schisms, then it is writers like Rushdie, Kunzru, and Amitava Kumar to whom we must look. For a country that refuses to deal with what is worst about itself is doomed to lose what are their greatest strengths. We must allow our writers and artists to speak, we must allow them to disagree, we must gaze into the ugliness that is around us and we must not flinch. For otherwise we are merely a country that has suddenly discovered it has muscles and insists on flexing them constantly, at everybody. We must let Rushdie speak—even if we disagree with him—because he will tell us something no one else seems to be willing to.


Only Madonna gets me.


*You might have guessed: I’m trying to get banned in at least two continents before I turn 30. Controversy = Monster Advance On As Yet Unwritten Novel!

*Hey, guess who showed up to the same festival in 2007 without bodyguards and just hung out? It was Salman Rushdie. I guess people weren’t paying attention. It’s easier when you don’t really have to believe what you’re saying.

*I’d like to point out that a lot of the links in this post were lifted from the Complete Review’s coverage of the event (which, as it that website’s wont, was excellent. Principled, comprehensive, and smart. I really like that website. You guys should check it out).