Salman Rushdie & the Hullabaloo

My special thanks to Anwesha Saha, Md Zishan Khan and Trisha Roy, without whose help this piece couldn’t have been written.

***

“Question mark over Rushdie’s participation in Jaipur festival”

 “Muslim groups to go ahead with Rushdie protest”

 “Salman Rushdie’s censoring-out from the ongoing literary festival in Jaipur will be remembered as a milestone that marked the slow motion disintegration of India’s secular state.”

“Four writers who read from The Satanic Verses leave Jaipur to avoid arrest”

“‘Rajasthan police invented plot to keep away Rushdie’”

With this, even the hope of glimpsing Mr. Rushdie on video screen was over.”

“”I’ve investigated, & believe that I was indeed lied to. I am outraged and very angry: Salman Rushdie.”

“UPA behind disruption of Salman Rushdie’s address: Arun Jaitley”

 

Protests against The Satanic Verses

And yet again, it has happened. Rationality, open-mindedness and free speech have been flown down the dirty waters of a filthy drain by a shrewd government and political pressure. Even after all the tumultuous revelations regarding the oppression of the freedom of expression that followed the legendary artist M.F. Hussain’s death last year, nothing has changed, and it seems all those essays and full-page editorials championing freedom in art, culture and literature were a mockery in itself.

Salman Rushdie’s identity is not only that of an eminent Indian-born English writer who had won the Booker and the Booker of Bookers, but of the most prominent harbinger of a paradigm shift in the literary scene of Indians writing in English. He is one of the brightest literary stars the country has ever produced and an inspiration for people who have already made or wish to make a mark for themselves in the world literary scene from India.  And yes, it now stands as a fact that the author was kept away from the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012, the biggest annual literary festival in Asia, thanks to shrewd scheming and religion based political moves having strong connections with the upcoming state polls.

Recently, a lot has already been said in the media (and the above mentioned headlines, which most of you might have followed thoroughly, capture the entire timeline of the issue in a precise manner).  about the freedom of speech of a writer- whether it comes with a right to offend or not; about Rushdie’s right to security- he had the full right to have security against the threat to life; about how Rushdie’s numerous visits to the country of his birth after the 1988 ban on his book The Satanic Verses never created such a mayhem as it has now which clearly indicates how the different political parties got involved in the issue to target different vote banks in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh elections; about the apparent lie that the Rajasthan government conveyed to him in a poor yet clever and successful attempt to keep him afar from the Festival; about how the Central government didn’t confidently come out in support of his visit and fell a weak prey to the fundamental forces operating in the country; about the legal aspects of reading from a banned book even though it is banned only by the Customs act, about the morality of politicians and sentiments of the aam aadmi.

Over the past week I found my thoughts on the entire Rushdie incident to have bifurcated into two parallel directions. On one hand I thought about how easily an issue, with a slight touch of religion, could be turned into a major political issue by instigating the masses and commenting blatantly and irrationally in the media. And on the other, I thought about how the entire JLF thing was hijacked by the Rushdie issue! I agree that the silencing of a writer’s independent voice due to irrational political atmosphere in a literary fest itself, must be the most significant element of all debates and discussions, but giving so much of media space to this particular issue was a little over-the-top which might have given someone the impression that this Jaipur-Whatever-Festival was either some meet for communal politics or some propaganda event for a writer called Salman Rushdie- because, do remember that, we live in a country where lumpen thugs are art and culture critiques. Whatever, the second point is minuscule (or rather absurd!) compared to the first one, so let’s talk about the former.

  The Satanic Verses was published in UK and banned in India twenty-four years ago, in 1988. A lot has happened since then. Violent protests against the author and the book followed in India. The book was banned in South Africa, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, Bangladesh, Sudan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Qatar. In 1989 fatwa was issued against Rushdie by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran  ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. Copies of the book were burnt down and book stores were bombed in many countries. Salman Rushdie apologised to Muslims and even signed a declaration to re-affirm his Islamic faith. The Japanese translator of the book was murdered, the Italian translator seriously wounded and an attempt was made to nab and kill the Turkish translator. The Satanic Verses was a 1988 Booker Prize Finalist and won the 1988 Whitbread Award for ‘novel of the year’.

In between many of my freewheeling discussions with friends and acquaintances the topic of Salman Rushdie has come up a number of times. It’s unfortunate to say, that other than a very prolific English tuition teacher of mine, I haven’t found even one who can talk at length about the literary genius of Rushdie, rather, they say, ‘he is blasphemous’, ‘his last wife was very sexy’, ‘he does all these for glamour’, and a high school mathematics teacher has even told me that, ‘blasphemous writers like him, who marry a thousand times and move about only with ladies, should be shot down’. We live in a country, where a very small section of the population actually reads good books, and fewer still are those who can actually critically analyse a great piece of literature, or for that matter, art. And yet these are the people, who led by politicians with vested interests, can come out in full force on the streets to protest against creative works, and even go on rampage. And this is precisely the mob- a crowd blindly obeying whimsical political decisions, irrational and jobless- which our administration fears, the mob which is used to threaten, to destroy and destruct.  I even wonder that the activists and leaders who have gunned their disapproval at having Rushdie in the festival have even read a single line from the banned novel, leave aside critically analysing it.

Apart from Midnight’s Children, The Enchantress of Florence and Haroun and the Sea of Stories I have also read Midnight’s Diaspora: Encounters with Salman Rushdie, in which intellectuals, critiques, writers and political thinkers provide their interpretations into the complex political and cultural meanings of Salman Rushdie’s writing.  And, my humble opinion is that, it’s not that easy to completely understand and reflect on Rushdie’s work. Moreover, it is very unjust and foolish to club Rushdie entirely with a particular book, make a helluva issue out of what he had written some 24-odd years ago and protest vehemently against his visit to a lit-fest.

Fundamentalism of all sorts is bad and history is full of unfortunate events- Galileo was imprisoned, Socrates was executed, M.F. Hussain had to leave his country and Taslima Nasreen was hounded. Every now and then, you will come up with such issues where someone, or some film or some book has “hurt the religious sentiments”, but at the end of it you will realise that it was a small part of a bigger political game or for that matter business game. The only thing that beats me is, how can we have a better future if there is no diversity in thought, if there is no alternative perspective, no different interpretation of a certain mythological event or a religious texture in the form of art or literature? Is it justified that people should be incited by saying that ‘your religion has been insulted’ by this novel or that piece of art and that protests and hooliganism is the only answer to it?

Rather I think, it is high time that we start understanding that art and culture is something beyond entertainment, they edify thoughts, and thoughts though may be based on the popular beliefs can sometimes take the side of unpopular ones. They can be pondered upon, discussed and elaborated, criticised or praised, thrashed or accepted, but we should neither ban books nor destroy paintings.  Husain painted Hindu deities in the nude not for insulting Hinduism or any other perverted cause, but because he had a certain idea and interpretation of our Indian mythology and he put it in canvas. He was much more Indian than the frauds and thugs who, on the name of protecting and upholding our Indian culture and heritage breed hatred between people of different religions, steal crores of money and indulge in thousands of immoral activities.

Perhaps the Rushdie incident at the JLF was only the tip of the ice berg of problems that hound the Indian society today.  The important question that we must ask ourselves is whether art and culture and for the matter, the media be allowed to be toys in the hands of archaic laws and unjust political motives?

The past has never been perfect and whatever good we see in the present is the result of a number of rebellious thoughts, conflicting ideas and innovative decisions. Why is the country being dictated by the whims and fancies of fanatical leaders, who unfortunately have control over the masses? It seems as though these leaders are the primary abusers of freedom of speech, which they use to continue to suppress the country in a narrow minded thought process.

Napoleon Bonaparte had rightly said, “The world suffers a lot. Not because of the violence of bad people. But, because of the silence of good people.” If we sit quiet against these rampant draconian styles of the country’s administration today, then we will step into a bleak, disintegrated and narrow-minded tomorrow. It’s high time that we think and speak up.

Let’s stand up for Salman Rushdie. Let’s stand up for ourselves.

***

(Abhishek Saha, a third year Civil engineering student at BIT, Mesra, is a freelance writer and photographer. He can be contacted at abshaha@gmail.com.)

10 thoughts on “Salman Rushdie & the Hullabaloo

  1. Anwesha says:

    Here I come, again! 😛
    Your article was indeed bold and thought-provoking. We so need to do away with this sort of differences and unnecessary mayhem, which in a subtle manner, lead to the ruin of our nation. It’s high time that we learn to be liberal towards the ideals of others.
    You article was to-the-point and informative. Only, in some places, it seemed sort of choppy. And as I have mentioned earlier, few statements are better left unsaid, as they may convey a message totally opposite to what you mean. “because, do remember that, we live in a country where lumpen thugs are art and culture critiques.”–can be taken as an example.
    And the last slogan that said, “Let’s stand up for Salman Rushdie. Let’s stand up for ourselves.”, in my opinion would have sounded more “liberal” as- “Let’s stand up for ourselves. Let’s stand up for our nation.”
    Strong voice, anyway. 🙂

    P.S- I liked the new look of the blog. 😉

  2. Ayush Dinker says:

    A religion cannot be stained by someone’s personal views. Its a pity if one person can send a wave of discourse throughout the masses.However, the point here is not that people are making a mockery of what happened years ago. They do it and they do it all the time. The concern is that such people are doing it when we know it – and still somehow they manage to take advantage;.. still end up being at a position where they can take advantage of another such incident.

  3. Mihir Vatsa says:

    How hard is it to question religion anyway? Who wrote Quran, The Bible and Mahabharata/Ramayana? Certainly not the ‘GOD’ with its own hands. They were written by men, like us, who lived some thousand years ago. Why so discontent when Rushdie tries to write it in a different way? Why is there a problem if those banned verses were said not by Gabreel (Gabriel, in Christianity) but Satan himself? Are they saying that one book is the sole foundation of their religion? Did religion came first or the book? If the religion came first, then why so insecure? If the book came first, then what kind of a religion is this? Indra slept with Ahilya in the guise of Sage Gautam, according to our own scriptures, but these saffron gowns have problem with their gods painted nude. Saraswati was Brahma’s daughter and Bramha got lured by her beauty (that’s the reason why you dont find temples of Brahma in India except for that one in Pushkar). Were they holy enough? They drank Som-rasa (wine, if you please) and say humans shouldn’t drink alcohol? How cool!

    The problem with creative writers in India, as I have always said, is that the moment they turn CREATIVE, they end up hurting some ridiculous sentiments.

    Today Muslims are protesting, tomorrow Hindus will protest, day after a particular caste will protest (Aaja Nachle song, for example). You can’t show Taxi Drivers in a bad light, who knows they will protest too. Say they charge more money and are real bastards (sorry for the word and generalization) and next thing you know is that you are flying out of India because you are banned.

    I was in JLF. What could be more ironic than Kapil Sibal reciting poetry when Rushdie is left out?

  4. Khan says:

    Dear Mihir,
    Its not at all hard to question religion..What you need to do is exercise your creative right to freedom of expression to offend others. No religious scripture was written by God himself, men like us wrote them several thousand years ago, fair enough, but in those several thousand years ‘believers’ have developed certain faith (How baseless that faith is, is subject to debate). And definitely, one book is not the sole basis of religion but it has some religious sentiments, emotions and romanticism ( however groundless and irrational they may be) attached to it which is called faith which has a sociological quotient.

    The Quran is the most read but least understood book of the world. People themselves don’t know what exactly is the controversy but this faith is the propelling force behind their agitation. But the point here, my friend, is that we are just cogs of a big sociological machinery which is not resistant against sudden jerks (of challenging their faith). This can’t be changed in days, it needs time, decades, may be even more, and write-ups like this are putting its share in the pie.
    As a matter of fact, we are in such a sorry state that people get offended if Ravi Shastri eats beef in Johannesburg.

    We came to realize the value of Socrates, Galileo, Christopher Marlowe after they were lost in the darkness against the fire of blasphemy. Their thoughts were ahead of time and maybe, so is the case with Salman Rushdie.

    Challenging the Holiness of Gods is again not fair according to me, because it again is one’s faith and it is the same thread of contemporary thought in mythology running from Zeus and Hera(sibling and consort) to Bramha and Saraswati (offspring and consort).

    We need to give time and opportunity to the society to grow and develop, maybe we even have to nurture it because the wheel of time rotates again and again in the same orbit.

    Dickens got this long ago and hence…

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

  5. Str says:

    Hey, Abhishek, amazingly well-written article and better yet, well-articulated.
    IMHO, there are two fundamental issues that you have tried to address through this post. The first concerns the fact that people need to form an opinion on their own. As long as people do not do this, they will always remain amenable in the hands of scheming malefactors (media, politically-driven religious fanatics and so on). You have taken a step in the right direction when you pointed out that not many of the agitators would have actually heard about the ‘blasphemous’ contents of the book, much less, read it.
    The second issue concerns the freedom of speech. There is a contrasting aspect if one takes a look at your article from this perspective. The creators (well, at least, the implementers) of democracy envisioned a state where, absolutely anyone, no matter how offensive, adulatory or just plain dumb his opinion may be, is entitled to express it. I do not debate on whether this stand is correct or not. Along the line of this principle, however, one observes that one is free not only to publish seemingly blasphemous material, but also to express his dissent against the publication and the author. Such a freedom seems to imply absolute chaos. But there is a line that is drawn. The line excludes the performing of those actions that may harm other individuals. Here is where the ambiguity lies and which is exploited by many. The guy who burnt the book store to express his opinion would say, ‘I didn’t harm anybody’. But he did harm the store owner, he did harm the people who used the book store.
    In effect, the solution to the problem lies not in prohibiting people from expressing their opinions, but simply by restricting their means to do so. So Ravi Shastri eating beef may indeed offend somebody; the offended indeed has the right to be offended, and we have no right to exclaim, ‘Hah, what bullshit’. If he does, however, burn down a building to express his distaste; then, certainly, he must be dealt with.
    And excellent points, Khan and Mihir. The image of Sibal reciting poetry made me look like an idiot, laughing at my comp when a class was in progress.

  6. jainrishabh says:

    never knew about the global turmoils that the book bought , the killings of the translators is infact a sad part . Rushdie has now promised to return to India after the betrayal from his motherland. Rushdie can even play a important role helping Indians mature a bit. BTW we must also be aware that its not only Indian politicians who are behind it, there a greater force behind these things and most of the times these are either Hindu extremists sitting in India and other times awfully rich Muslim extremists sitting in middle east. Silencing Hussain was work or former and the recent silencing of Subramanian Swamy on his article in DNA at which then led to his sacking at Harward was work of the later, Free speech is no longer an easy cake now.

  7. An interesting insight this post was ! Thank you for introducing me t the quote by Napoleon Bonaparte “The world suffers a lot. Not because of the violence of bad people. But, because of the silence of good people.”

    I say ” Its time to talk or write , so that others may read “

  8. Ana Araoz says:

    Hey Abhishek! What an interesting article. I’ll definitely add the book to my to-read list and follow your blog to get to know more about you. Until now I just know that you and I have the very same camera and set of lenses 😉

  9. Amit Sharan Singh says:

    Hi Abhishek,
    Nice work!!! My thoughts are very much resonating with what you have written, and am sure its similar with million more out there like me. I would like to ask the people who have been protesting against Rushdie that do they follow their religion in black and white. (No offense intended, but) Hindus talk about holy cow- do they know where does the leather for the shoe they are wearing come from? Islam is against alcoholism, but how many Muslims really follow that? Most of the people including the priests protesting against Galileo, Rushdie and Nasreen were/are a bunch of hypocrites who are just aiming to gain political, social or religious mileage out of the issue.
    Rushdie has already reaffirmed his faith in Islam and all of us should appreciate it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s