In Salman Rushdie’s writings, time warps. Hindi, English and French words collide and become new idioms. Sentences run into a huge paragraph that runs into pages. Cultures clash. Grammar develops a death wish. His fiction works on your mind like an abstract art – beautiful, but devoid of discernible form. No other writer could produce a literary video with metaphors like “A helicopter hovers over the nightclub urinating light in long golden streams”.
Whether an abstract art is great or not depends on the artist. A sketch of a cupboard penciled by Picasso could bring in millions to the auctioner. A layman can appreciate Hussain’s film hoardings depicting the beauty of old heroines, but one needs to know him and to have read about him to appreciate his frescos on hotel walls or his rectangle-muzzled horses. To a child or an uninitiated farmer, Mona Lisa is merely the painting of a fat, plain-faced woman. You only see the mystic smile when told about it. Rushdie’s stories are a non-homogenous mixture of several stories; his subjects and predicates would turn my sixth-grade English teacher in her grave. Nonetheless I, like millions of readers across the world, find Rushdie’s abstract, euphemistically termed “magical realism” absorbing and enjoyable.
I love Rushdie’s writings much as I love to read Dostoevsky, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Paulo Coelho and Arundhati Roy, though they don’t all belong to the same class or genre. I skip meals and incur my wife’s wrath while reading Rushdie. Sometimes I had to read a paragraph many times to dig what the author really meant, and sometimes I got the impression that he had put in that portion merely to titillate and confuse the reader. It’s somewhat like the hero and heroine in an Indian movie bursting into songs and strange bodily contortions while making love in (usually foreign) public parks or beaches and suddenly a horde of white-shrouded or colourfully dressed women appear behind them from nowhere and mimic the gymnastics. Characters flit in and flit out, dancers change clothes in a blink. Hero and Heroine mouth songs in a voice that is not theirs; a hundred-piece orchestra accompanies the music without being there. It’s all illogical, magical, hilarious, surreal, almost a sordid cacophony. And it’s too long, like a Rushdie novel. Yet you can sit through many of those intellectually deformed movies without an intermission, and feel disappointed when it’s over. That’s the same feeling you get when you put down a Midnight’s children, The Moor’s Last Sigh or, even more significantly, the Satanic Verses. The expression ‘Magic Realism’ for a literary work was probably invented to fit Rushdie’s writings. His characters are caricatures of living (or historical) personalities – Bal Thackeray, Bhutto, Zia-Ul-Huq, Nehru, Gandhi, Amitab Bacchan – Prophets, prostitutes and goddesses. Rarely, at least not yet, Bush, Blair or Elizabeth. I suppose Rushdie knows which side his slices are buttered.
I suspect that those who awarded the Booker Prize to Rushdie in 1981 did not understand half the oriental vocabulary in Midnight’s children nor appreciate the circumstances, hatred and the multifilament cultural thread that makes up India – Kashmir - Bombay – described so vividly in the book. Nirad Choudhary and Vidyadhar Naipaul might be acclaimed writers, but their fame in the West owes itself to their deprecatory description of the cultures that nurtured them. A detractor might even say that they are brown versions of Katherine Mayo. Sasthi Brata’s “My God Died Young” about the cultural pit that was Bengal was described by a reader as a feeble attempt to get a visa to England, and probably it was. His description of how a widowed aunt blew his little member in his childhood while he went off to sleep every night, no doubt, tickled Indian as well as European pedophilic taste buds. Brata got the visa, but having reached England, he found little else to write about. Slumdog Millionaire was a cleverly titled movie (who would have noticed it if it was titled Q&A – the original name of the book?); and it was the slums and slum children (and the oh-so-subtly depicted blinding of a slum child) won the movie international acclaim; India whose talent lies in imitation swallowed the insult with gleeful pride. Salman Rushdie is an author of that kind of business acumen. The title of his most talked-about novel, Satanic Verses, was sure to grab attention; it threw a gauntlet at the believer even before the polythene packing was torn open.
There is little doubt that Rushdie’s fame and name grew exponentially through the nineties propelled by the Khomeni’s Fatwah calling for his murder. While his books sold, his potential killers died in futile efforts to bomb him and became martyrs themselves. I must admit that the way Rushdie interspersed his mainline story with a parody of Islamic beliefs by way of dreams (and by way of no reason) was in bad taste. What did he intend to achieve, wreak some sort of blasé vengeance on the faith of his people, or to tell the truth as he saw it? HG Wells, in his ‘A Short History of the World’ had written critically of Islam’s Prophet. Muslims c0nveniently ignore those comments; they often quote other parts of the same book to demonstrate how Wells had praised Islam and the Prophet. Perhaps the believers interpret their Prophet’s actions and lifestyles (of his later years) to the advantage of their faith. Rushdie has a different view , which is fine. But to put those views in between pages of a Harry Potter-like (and hence equally ingenious and absorbing) book was designed to offend. Rushdie exercised his freedom of speech to heap insults on the faith (not to criticize the faithful nor to debate the historic facts in Islamic claims). Iran’s Supreme Leader, a Shia, suddenly appeared to assume the leadership of the whole Islamic world (including Sunnis, who hate Shias) by issuing a fatwa for murder. Rushdie was protected by the Christian West; Khomeini had the satisfaction of seeing him being hounded like a rat till he (Khomeini) died.
Many writers, apart from Wells, in the past have written adversely about the seventh century Arabian history without inviting such violent, even if disproportional, animosity. Rushdie went about it in circuitous fiction, ensuring that the book did not fail to grab attention. He named it with the most sensitive portion of their scripture to Mullahs as well as to common faith-sensitive Muslims – the two verses that supposedly came into their Holy Book by satanic intrusion. As far as the free thinkers and religious neutrals as well as the adversaries of Islam were concerned, the literary merits of the book were ostensibly significant and the fictional insult was a side dish. One relished it or was infuriated depending on one’s degree of religious fanaticism.
Pakistani author Muhammad Hanif attending the Jaipur Literary Festival 2012 said:
The whole issue has been blown out of proportion. If you don’t like a certain book, don’t read it, don’t keep it in your house, why to get so agitated about it,”
I do not know of any Indian Muslim – communist, liberal, secular or whatever – who had the courage to make a similar comment even if that line of argument did not cut ice with the Mullahs and the majority that followed their Friday sermons. It doesn’t matter whether the author is Muslim, Hindu or Christian, if what he wrote contained some unpalatable truth, there would be a riot in most parts of the world. Julien Assange is learning that this truth applies to the “free” Western world as well. I keep praying for the safety of Muhammad Hanif – whether he be now in Pakistan or India.
Did Rushdie truly believe in the freedom of speech when it came to heaping unsubstantiated ridicule on a historical person revered by billions? His belief in freedom of expression did not extend to his own detractors. Rushdie’s erstwhile bodyguard, Ryan Evans, wrote a book portraying Rushdie as “mean, nasty, tight-fisted, arrogant and extremely unpleasant” person. Rushdie sued the author and his publisher, pleading that “’this kind of absurd behaviour never occurred”. Rushdie got a facile victory – not for the demeaning allegations contained in the book, but for “nine counts of false accounting”. Evans was ordered to pay £6,280.85 in fines and costs. As regards the allegations against Rushdie’s character, the court said : “It is not our intention to comment on Ron Evans’ recollection and interpretation of specific events.” Evidently, the judge believed that freedom of expression worked both ways.
Think of Lajja, a poignant and graphic description of what happened in Bangladesh immediately after the destruction of Babri Masjid by Hindu hooligans, swayed by BJP’s Advani (as per the author) and VHP. The book I read was an English translation; many pages read like a statistician’s official report – but much of the book, by the very graphic nature of the narration, touches every string in your heart. You cannot identify yourself with Rushdie’s characters – they are too magical and distant. You can, with the four members of the Dutta family. Although Lajja‘s English translation is competent and reads smoothly enough, one might possibly miss the fine nuances in the original Bengali. Taslima Nasreen’s characters , whether or not the particular family described in the book was fictitious, its fate, its life at the time and its psyche strike you as not too far from truth. Some of the scenes are so poignant that they could make you cry even if you might want to skip a few tedious newspaper-like reports that run through several pages.
In 1993, I visited Bangladesh several times to sell television circuit boards to their fledgling electronic industry. The tension was palpable. Lajja had just got banned, but most educated people – Hindus as well as Muslims – seemed to have read it. A Hindu technician told me that what was written was a milder version of what had actually occurred. A Muslim businessman assured me that Lajja was an exaggeration, but he was ashamed of whatever had happened. He asked me if I was shocked. I said no, what they had done in a few weeks, Hindu fanatics with the connivance of the ruling party in India had done to our own Sikhs within a couple of days. Most men, I said, are victims of their own religion. They avenge that victimization by taking it out on people of other religions. Nearly all the businessmen I met were unsympathetic towards Nasreen; as for the fatwa, they said “she asked for it”.
Taslima had not spared the Hindus of India and their bigoted leaders. Advani was mentioned at many places listing the inciters of Hindu fanaticism in India; VHP and BJP are portrayed as the fiends behind killing of Muslims . Evidently, the author relied on the news and rumours spreading in Bangladesh at that time.
It is not easy to understand why Bangladesh wanted Lajja banned and their most famous author of the time assassinated. Unlike Rushdie, she had not spoken ill of her religion. Not at that point of time - even if her feminist views expressed in earlier books could have antagonized the fundamentalists. Somebody could have denied the kind of happenings that was described in Lajja. They could have challenged her to produce proofs for her general statements in the book. They didn’t; they knew there was nothing in the book to challenge; that all that it contained was the shameful truth. Today virtually all her books stand banned in her country; but the fatwa and the ban made her an international celebrity in exile. Whether she made a lot of money out of her books, I am not sure.
In India, Just a couple of weeks after the BJP-Shiva Sena combine won the state elections, Bal Thackeray, who styled himself the “Hindu Hruday Samrat (after declaring that he did not believe in God, that he threw out all the Ganesha idols when his wife died) called for the extermination of Muslims. This was one fatwa that worked; a thousand Muslims in Mumbai were massacred in the 1992 riots. Bal Thackeray was one person who enjoyed complete freedom of speech. Pramod Navalkar, an author himself and a Thackeray minion, issued threats against the publishers of Lajja in India.
Even more hard to understand is the banning of the book and expulsion of the refuge-seeking author by the communist government of West Bengal. The hero of the book is a Hindu-born atheist-communist of Bangladesh. His communist friends (mostly Muslims) are portrayed as secular youngsters, ready to help his beleaguered family although, out of sheer fear, they became somewhat indifferent towards the end of the story. “None of them (Bangladeshi intellectuals) , despite their progressive and secular inclinations have openly spoken out against the ‘fatwa’ and the ban against my books.” moaned Nasreen. The same applied to the young intellectual friends of Suranjan Dutta. “Why, he had heard leftists abuse Hindus as bastards,” says the book.
Lajja by itself had nothing against the religion of Islam, only against the Pakistanis who mutilated Sudhamoy Dutta’s genitals destroying (and his faithfully wife’s) conjugal life, yet held on to his fierce patriotism for Bangladesh nonetheless; and against those who attacked and burnt Hindu homes and killed many of the Hindus, raped and killed Sudhamoy’s daughter Maya (who loved a Muslim boy ) and disillusioned Suranjan (who loved a Muslim girl ) to the point of destroying himself. Nor did the author spare the Hindu extremists of India. It is true that Nasreen might have antagonized some fundamentalist Muslims and Hindu Pundits by her writings about the suppression of women in Muslim (and Hindu) societies, but her open apostasy into radical atheistic secularism and attack on Islam happened after the fatwa for her murder. Unlike Rushdie, it was the fundamentalist Muslims themselves who drove Nasreen to write her later publications, some of which viciously criticized the religion.
Her somewhat self-contradictory statement speaks for itself: “It is not my intention to write anything against Islam, but to tell the truth. It is not just Muslim fundamentalists, but also the true Islam that is against democracy, freedom of expression, human rights and women’s rights. We need to combat Islam in order to create a society in which women will obtain equality and justice. That may include moderate Muslims, but Islam itself is not moderate.“ The reason for her progressive alienation is evident enough. Debonair of India, in its Oct-Nov 1993 issue wrote : “Nobody, even if he boasts of being secular or a rationalist, comes forward openly in support of this ostracized author. Even political parties like the Awami League or Bangladesh Communist Party prefer to keep a safe distance from this firebrand.” The Bangladesh Medical Association, which ought to entertain no religious fanaticism, banned her – a trained gynecologist - from practicing in Bangladesh. So much so for the constitution of the country that “Pledged that the high ideals of nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularity will be protected”.
Why does India deny Taslima Nasreen citizenship, and frown on– virtually ban – her books? Why did the Communist government of West Bengal sent her out of the state which she longed to make her home? Why couldn’t the other Bengali firebrand Mamata Banerjee reinstate her? Is it because they were afraid the publication and circulation of the book (which was bound to be circulated in any case) would have caused religious riots? Why should Indian Muslims riot over a book narrating the cruelty heaped on the Hindus of Bangladesh while the book also takes note of Hindu aggression on Indian Muslims?
Why wasn’t Saamna, Bal Thackeray’s mouth piece that inflamed Bombay for several days, goading his followers to murder Muslims, not banned? Why weren’t the leaders of riots – both Muslim and Hindu – arrested and prevented from letting the violence get out of control? Why weren’t the policemen who openly sided and abetted the marauders dismissed and punished? Why weren’t the actual wreckers of Babri Masjid domes, who could be easily identified from the video grabs, identified and punished? Why are the leaders who goaded mobs to burn, kill and loot innocent Sikhs still laughing in their sleeves?
What is the crime of Taslima Nasreen, the author whose books would be read by but a few thousand intellectuals and juicy-bit-seekers as compared to that of Narendra Modi, whose audience runs into millions and who has become the most lauded chief minister of a large state and Lal Krishna Advani, who thinks he has a legitimate claim to the Prime Ministership of this secular Country? Why wasn’t the proclamation of a Karnataka minister that those who do not want to study Gita in schools can get out of the country and another minister from Madhya Pradesh who wants to make Surya Namaskar compulsory in all schools banned? Why weren’t the perpetrators of such inflammatory sentiments and make a joke of our secular constitution driven out of this Country? Couldn’t their public speeches have caused riots? Why do Hindu ministers insist that everybody sing sing Vande Mataram which was originally composed in praise of goddess Durga, who is no goddess to other religions? Why do Maharashtrian police stations display Ganapati picture in the stations ostensibly positioned to protect Muslim colonies?
Salman Rushdie’s fictional insults and Taslima Nasreen’s fictionalized truths cannot be compared for their contents. Salman Rushdie was one of those maverick authors with a flair for warped but stylish English who won the Booker prize. He is more famous even in this Country though other Booker Prize winners of India are rarely spoken about and certainly not missed at the last Literary Festival (nor noticed even if they were present) – Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai or Arvind Adiga. One reason : The fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini for his murder rendered his books juicy for gossips that easily pass off for intellectual debates. If Arundhati Roy is better known than Adiga, it is because of her court cases rather than for her one-and-only beautiful novel and her substantial skills at oratory.
After gaining unrivaled name and fame, Rushdie apologized from the fortresses of British security to dilute the effect of the fatwa . Taslima Nasreen stood by what she wrote and never stooped to apologize. Instead, she sharpened her resolve bringing out even more home truths about her own life and experiences as a girl born to Muslim family and as an author who dared to question. She continues to be an exile – derided, abused and in danger for life in her own country as well as this, her adopted country. Jaipur Literary Festival missed Salman Rushdie who refused to come unless the government assured him safety, but forgot the writer who steadfastly lives in India despite the daily scare.
Even feminists of India have no time to spare for this beleaguered author. That is literary secularism for you.
Postscript : On 2nd February, the day I thought I had finished this blog, Taslima Nasreen’s seventh volume of autobiography, Nirbasan (Homeless?) was launched in Dhaka’s Bangla Academy campus. The next day, a similar attempt at releasing the book in Kolkata was cancelled under fanatical duress. That is the freedom of expression in secular, democratic India. Give me a break.