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.

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  1. Verses -> Versus ?

    verses, plural of verse,

    verse 1 (vûrs)
    a. A single metrical line in a poetic composition; one line of poetry.
    b. A division of a metrical composition, such as a stanza of a poem or hymn.
    c. A poem.
    2. Metrical or rhymed composition as distinct from prose; poetry.
    a. The art or work of a poet.
    b. A group of poems: read a book of satirical verse.
    4. Metrical writing that lacks depth or artistic merit.
    5. A particular type of metrical composition, such as blank verse or free verse.
    6. One of the numbered subdivisions of a chapter in the Bible.
    tr. & intr.v. versed, vers·ing, vers·es
    To versify or engage in versifying.
    [Middle English vers, from Old English fers and from Old French vers, both from Latin versus, from past participle of vertere, to turn; see wer-2 in Indo-European roots.]

    ver·sus (vûrss, -sz)
    1. Abbr. v. or vs. Against: the plaintiff versus the defendant; Army versus Navy.
    2. As the alternative to or in contrast with: “freedom of information versus invasion of privacy” (Ian Hamilton).
    [Middle English, from Medieval Latin, from Latin, turned, toward, from past participle of vertere, to turn; see wer-2 in Indo-European roots.]

  2. Pramod

     /  January 23, 2012

    Great post! Well-written and thoughtful.

    Did you read the wikipedia article on the controversy? It has a long list of things which supposedly offended Muslims.

    This whole series of events and its handling by our government is so disappointing.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 23, 2012

      Yes, I have read the wiki and other discussions of the book. Most of the objections seem rather minor and sometimes far-fetched. The one thing that may be genuinely offensive is the name Mahound — supposedly that was a derogatory name that was actually used for Mohammed in England, comparing him to a dog. Perhaps Rushdie was aware of this — if so, he is less innocent than he pretends to be — but it’s still not grounds for the reaction to the book. Other than that, the only offensive thing, as I said, is the primitive and reactionary worldview of Mahound, who effectively destroys a rich culture to enforce his ideas of morality. I have no doubt that Rushdie was portraying his lack of sympathy with Muslim fundamentalism here — but I don’t see how those fundamentalists could object to the portrayal of Mahound in this respect.

      If Rajiv Gandhi hadn’t decided to appease the likes of Syed Shahabuddin, Rushdie’s personal history, and India’s history in terms of religious intolerance, may have been differet.

      • Pramod

         /  January 23, 2012

        Hmm. I was quite convinced by the list on the wiki ( that Rushdie was out to mock Islam – the best example seems to be the naming of prostitutes. Now, I don’t think that is reason for banning the book. We really need to be able to criticize ideas without fear regardless of who is offended.

        One thing to keep in mind is that Muslims believe in the divinity of Muhammed and the infallibility of the Quran. So any insinuation that Muhammed was not divine (such as when he was deceived by the Satan into praying to the pre-Islamic gods), or the story of Tafsir which again provides supporting evidence to the claims that Muhammed was not really divine and the Quran is not really infallible are all extremely offensive to them.

        I’m not old enough to know if Rajiv Gandhi is the reason for our religious intolerance. I feel that in general we have a problem criticizing authority figures, and fundamentally we do seem to live in a culture that values “respect” over free speech. This is not to say westerners are immune to these problems. Americans don’t like criticizing the Bible for instance, but no western country has banned Dawkin yet, so I’m assuming the problem isn’t as bad.

        • Rahul Siddharthan

           /  January 24, 2012

          I guess this is why I will never be a religious fanatic… He doesn’t mock the wives of Mahound, but his prostitutes, now made illegal and confined to a life inside their brothel, start imagining that they are mirrors of Mahound’s wives. To me that is not offensive — the devil may quote scripture, etc, and Mahound’s wives have no control over what other people may do. But to some Muslims, it was offensive that the cricketer Azharuddin signed his name on a shoe, because his first name is Mohammed. In any case, none of these things came out, as I remember (I was a teenager then), when Rajiv banned the book. There seemed a misunderstanding that Rushdie was calling the entire Koran “Satanic”, rather than these specific verses which are disowned by Muslim scholars anyway.

          Regarding Rajiv, he wasn’t the origin of our religious intolerance but he certainly exacerbated it. This was one example, the Shah Bano case was another (and probably the worst), permitting the “shilanyas” in Ayodhya was another.

  3. Barathi

     /  January 24, 2012

    Great post. :-)

    I think the reaction was due not to just content but to the fact that he was a *famous* author (Midnight’s Children was already out), calling attention to aspects of Prophet’s life that seems to suggest that he is not really a prophet. These verses are already discussed in rationalist books where it’s directly alleged that he made compromises only to please the local tribe and take them under his fold but once he got powerful enough he blamed satan, removed those verses and proceeded to implement his fundamentalist ideas claiming they were god’s new revelations. But these are obscure whereas Rushdie is a mainstream guy, and they could’ve feared a widespread knowledge of this stuff if his book was allowed. Since there was no internet back then(as the easy knowledge gaining media as we know today) this idea of demanding a ban makes sense.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 24, 2012

      Thanks for the comment. I think you are right — today it would be much more difficult to ban the book, and indeed, I expect that illegal PDF downloads — as well as legal Kindle purchases — will shoot up again in India thanks to the current controversy. I fully encourage the latter, and even the former for those who don’t have an e-reader: I expect Rushdie would be happy to be read even if he’s not getting the royalties for it.

  4. Sacredfig

     /  January 24, 2012

    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.

    Huh??? Support for free speech can surely do without such meekness.


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