Rushdie, Verses, Fundamentalists

The latest incarnation of the Rushdie affair, like the original one in 1988, is an unnecessary creation of the Congress party. In 1988, Rajiv Gandhi’s government became the first in the world to ban the book; reaction after that escalated around the world, culminating in the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. This time, the Congress governments in Rajasthan and at the centre have chosen to object to Rushdie’s visit to the Jaipur Literary Festival, on law-and-order grounds, even though he has visited the country several times in recent years and has visited the same festival in 2007. The trigger this time seems to have been a demand by an Islamic seminary in Uttar Pradesh that Rushdie be denied a visa, even though he does not require a visa.

Unlike most of those opposing Rushdie’s visit, I have read the Satanic Verses. I downloaded the Kindle version (not a pirated pdf) a few months ago. I am not an Islamic scholar, so can’t say whether it is offensive to Muslims or not. To me it seemed that the dream sequence in question portrayed Mahound (a fictitious character, but obviously modelled on Muhammad) as being tempted by Satan (via the verses in question) to water down his lofty principles, and accepting some of the old goddesses with an inferior status; however, his principles prevail and he does not succumb to temptation. I do not see why a Muslim should be offended by that. Having prevailed, he proceeds to enforce what most readers would regard as the most fundamentalist laws on his society, which are clearly modelled on actual Islamic laws as preached by fundamentalist clerics. But then I don’t see why those same clerics should object to these things, either. Clearly those who rant against the book have not read it. If anyone can point me to an intelligent Muslim criticism of the book, explaining informatively why it would be hurtful to Muslim feelings, I would be very interested.

This dream sequence, and another involving a butterfly-clad girl leading drought-stricken villagers into the sea, are interspersed with the “real” story in the book, the story of Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha — the former a Bollywood star, the latter a middling Bombay-born London-based actor — and the rise and fall of the former, and the fall and rise of the latter. But that story is a dream sequence too, or reads like one. I am not a fan of Rushdie’s “magic realism”, and would have liked the book much better if he didn’t make his characters fall out of planes and live (or, at least, came up with a convincing explanation of why it happened), grow horns and goat’s feet, develop halos, and so on. Perhaps it’s the rationalist in me, but I prefer the sort of fiction — say the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie (I haven’t seen the sequel), or several Father Brown stories — where what appears to be miraculous and inexplicable turns out to be human after all. When the whole novel is an impossibility, the point of it escapes me. It also undermines Rushdie’s defence that the Mahound episodes were “only” a dream sequence: that would be more convincing if the entire book weren’t a dream sequence.

Such quibbles apart, the book is an entertaining read, extremely funny in places, and does not deserve to be banned. Or, if a ban is deserved, it needs to be justified much better than has been done in the 23+ years since it was published.

To return to current events, Gehlot, the Rajasthan Police, Chidambaram, and everyone else concerned deserve every bit of the opprobrium currently being heaped on them by the liberal media: it is a shameful episode for India. The allegation that Rushdie was made to stay away on false information — that an underworld hit squad was hired to kill him — is particularly ugly.

I am less inclined to blame the Jaipur Literary Festival organisers for their reaction, as many are doing. Their concern is to run a successful festival, and the Rushdie affair has already hijacked the headlines. The last thing they need is legal trouble on account of authors who, without informing the organisers upfront, choose to read from a banned book on stage. These authors, if they dared, could have set up their own tent in the city and read there. To hide behind a literary festival’s skirts — and then blame those organisers for not defending free speech — is craven behaviour.

As for Rushdie himself, he has a right to travel to his country of origin, as he pleases and when he pleases. If there is a perceived threat to him in a public place, the government has a duty to protect him. And if the threats were fabricated, heads should roll. But Rushdie is hardly being silenced. He has tweeted freely before and after the festival, and, I have no doubt, will continue to do so.

I am hoping for further discussion of the Rushdie episode to move to the political and crime pages of the papers, while the coverage of the festival itself focuses on the many excellent writers who are participating. No such luck, I fear: Rushdie is scheduled to address the festival by videolink, and will not disappear from the headlines so easily.