The Cursed Verses of Rushdie

THE BLUE BOOK

The Blue Book is large. The distant red letters doesn’t escape your near-perfect eyesight as you clearly see the five words printed on its fat spine: Salman Rushdie – The Satanic Verses. It is still Kolkata, a distinct nip in the bud hinting at February but reassuringly away from March, barely a few days after the author’s flight landed in the city only to whisk him back ‘where he belonged’. Following his hyped absence at the Kolkata Literary Meet of the Kolkata Book Fair 2013, the author went into a tiring tussle and faced a familiar tune from yet another bureaucratic set-piece. While the green Hakims of the city were busy prescribing antidotes to the easily offended, the secular media rose up in protest. The famed ‘addas’ of the city, be it Hari’s ‘Cha’ or the cheap and not-so-cheap cafes strewn across the map got a literary issue to fight over their steaming ‘bhaars’. Even a seasoned British citizen such as Rushdie would marvel at an average Bengali’s ability to raise a storm over a cup of tea!

Incidentally, you are at a ‘Book Fair’ as well, and this is one of the numerous makeshift book fairs that dot several community grounds in South Kolkata around the time when the state-sponsored ‘Big Brother’ of book fairs bring traffic on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass to a staggering halt. This particular venue, in the heart of ‘Colony-para’, is famous for a seasonal religious carnival.

These grounds are of course, quite ill-suited to host a proper Book Fair. Two-score stalls and the allotted space for munchies cannot turn on such a passionate bibliophile as you. In fact the only reason why you are here at all is quite simple: you are there to look for old copies. Scavenging bibliophiles often hunt (seldom in pairs) these fairs for fair deals on rare and old books. And you have finally hit upon the jackpot.

A middle-aged, cross-eyed man of unassuming build and a three-day stubble spots you poring through the copy of the Blue Book. Maybe the greed in your eyes is quite apparent as he gives you a questioning glance, sprinkled with the smile of a seasoned antique-dealer. You try to fake indifference and ask, ‘How much for this?’

The man replies with a toothy grin, beginning with an aside: ‘It’s hard to come by a copy of this one anymore. I’ll sell it for 700’
You gulp. 700 is not an unfair price per se, the book being beyond rare. But 700 isn’t such a petty amount for you either. ‘How about 400?’ you low-ball.

Being as apt in bargaining as you are at swimming, you gulp again. The man’s face turns sour as he murmurs, ‘Bhai, even you know it’s too less. How about 650?’

You hesitate.

THE FACTS

The facts often tend to sidestep one another as the ephemeral mental chronology is finalized in grandeur. Fact: Salman Rushdie’s notorious work ‘The Satanic Verses’ is not banned in India, at least in the sense that a surprising number are under the impression of. It is, technically speaking, not an offence to possess the book or even read it. There are parallel suggestions, of course: it’s liberally endowed pages can be used as traditional ‘thongas’ for the consumption of a generous amount of ‘Ghoti-Gorom’. The recycle-friendly pages can effortlessly replace toilet wipes and you can even burn the book on a stake, like good old times, and cause minimum agitation to the environment. However, all these hypothetical and crudely brilliant scenarios are rendered moot by the fact that the Finance Ministry of India imposed a ban on the import of the book under Section 11 of the Customs Act, circa 1988.

As Rushdie’s third-person narrator states in his memoir ‘Joseph Anton’, the Finance ministry were quick to add that the ban ‘did not detract from the literary and artistic merit’ of Rushdie’s work. It is quite a ‘literal’ literary risk to pan somebody like Rushdie’s work on the basis of its merit. After all, even though Rushdie’s 1981 masterpiece ‘Midnight’s Children’ is as blasphemous a book as any as far as a diligent supporter of Indian National Congress is concerned, it did win its fair share of laurels. It’s ‘Booker of Bookers’ and ‘Best of the Bookers’-winning take on the first woman Prime Minister of the World’s largest Democracy is controversial at best, quite akin to Rushdie’s 1983 novel ‘Shame’ which is a similar take on the Zia ul-Haque regime of Pakistan.

In fact, come 1984, Mrs. Indira Gandhi would sue Rushdie for libel in a London High Court and win, motivated more from a sense of personal injury since the book went on to claim that she neglected her husband. The supplementary accusations of genocide, warmongering and rampant castrations were ignored by the plaintiff, quite sensibly perhaps, as an Indian Woman is nothing if not a quintessential goody two-shoes sati-savitri, epitomized by the drunken tinsel town divas of yonder years (on-screen, of course).

Rushdie’s tryst with politics had turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag. He was inevitably ‘categorized’ by a section of the reading and non-reading public, yet the class of his work and consequently, the popular awards he was conferred with invariably cemented his place in literary history as well as university syllabi, perhaps the only way known to mankind to attain immortality. However, as Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

The Satanic Verses would emerge four years later in 1988. Former India Today journalist Medha Jain would get hold of a copy and publish a review and interview with the author, nine days before the book was scheduled to hit bookstores in India. The article, which boasted a succulent headline: “An unequivocal attack on religious fundamentalism” and a malignant finishing touch: ‘The Satanic Verses is bound to trigger an avalanche of protests..’ is viewed by Rushdie to be: ‘an open invitation for those protests to begin.’ According to Rushdie, the review allegedly violated ‘the traditional publishing embargo and print its piece nine days before the book’s publication, at a time when not a single copy had arrived in India. This allowed (Indian Parliamentarian and editor of magazine Muslim India) Mr Shahabuddin and his ally, another opposition MP named Khurshid Alam Khan, free rein. They could say whatever they pleased about the book, but it could not be read and therefore could not be defended.’ The publication quoted some of the ‘juicy bits’ among others (especially the ‘bit’ about the Prophet’s wives) and published them devoid of any context, creating space for a substantial amount of misinterpretation. Among the early adopters who did read the book was noted journalist & author Khushwant Singh, who received an advance copy of the book and called for a ban as a ‘measure to prevent trouble’ in The Illustrated Weekly of India.

The plot thickened the following month as the ‘ban’ on the book was imposed officially by the Indian Government on October 5th, 1988. Within weeks, the precedent was lapped up by the menace that was Apartheid-era South Africa and several other nations including Pakistan (whose beaureaucrats couldn’t really see the joke in ‘Virgin Ironpants’ and had happily banned ‘Shame’ as well), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, Bangladesh, Sudan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Qatar. Come Christmas month of 1988, the book would take centrestage as 7000-strong protesters would assemble in Bolton, England and make a post-modern Bonfire of Vanities using Rushdie’s Verses.

 

THE TRIAL

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the then-Supreme Leader of Iran, on the Valentine’s day of 1989, declared a fatwa calling for the blasphemer’s head, with a sweet little bounty in place. While several militant groups across the world responded cheerfully to the news of the fatwa and expressed interest in carrying out the orders, souls perished in riots and bombings in Karachi, Srinagar and even Rushdie’s home city of Mumbai (then: Bombay). Bookstores were attacked in various places in the US and Europe, and the novel’s Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was shot dead on July 11, 1991.

Protests against Rushdie at The Hague, March 1989. Photo courtesy: Dutch National Archives

Although the ailing Khomeini passed away soon after voicing his verdict in 1989, his words have been lauded and periodically re-affirmed and an additional bounty of a whopping $2.8 million was put up by an Iranian foundation in 1999. Salman Rushdie, without a fair trial for the ‘crime’ that he had committed, began a life of hiding and guarded seclusion. Rushdie’s political bar-fights could not have prepared him for the ‘divine’, ‘foreign’ wrath that was about to change the rest of his life! With The Satanic Verses, Rushdie had taken up a battle whose burden refuses to let him go and effectively turned him into a religious refugee.

Artists and pioneers often cave under pressure, exchanging the elusive Peace of Mind with the overhyped Freedom of Expression. Although it is a matter of contemplation whether Rushdie’s Verses can at all be compared to a work like Galileo’s ‘Discorsi’, the former did follow the latter as far as an attempt to get back into the popular fold, an effort at getting a semblance of the obscure peace on the horizon is concerned. Rushdie apologized more than once and even implored the publishers to stop circulating the book at one point, only to realize that nothing was going to pacify his headhunters. The fatwa remained in effect in spite of Rushdie’s best efforts at reconciliation – a fact he finally regretted, terming his repeated apologies the ‘biggest mistake(s) of my life’ in an interview with The Times in August, 1995. Quite naturally, the initial bounty was immediately doubled to $600,000.

Considering the age of mankind, concepts such as ‘textbook democracy’ and ‘Freedom of Expression’ are relatively new to the race, all whose heroes have on a given day, consolidated his/her position by putting down one detractor (the thesaurus suggests ‘disbeliever’ as an alternative) or the other. The oxymoron of a question that keeps arising is therefore, where does ‘freedom of expression’ draw the line? Who is to determine what comes under ‘expression’ and what falls under ‘insult’ or whether ‘insult’ is a form of ‘expression’ too, especially in a scenario that transcends the local laws and political borders & wholly exists in a theological realm, originating in a country that refuses to be chained under the banner of ‘Democracy’ and likes to call itself a ‘Theocratic Republic’.

Another question that shall remain unanswered is whether the ‘Verses’ controversy was a ‘result’ of the book’s contents at all or motivated by other subsidiary issues hogging the limelight at the time. The plot-holes have been traced and thinkers have gladly attached several political motivations behind the issuing of the fatwa. Journalist Robin Wright puts it thus: “As the international furore grew, Khomeini declared that the book had been a ‘godsend’ that had helped Iran out of a ‘naïve foreign policy’”, in wake of the truce with Iraq. The fatwa even took the spotlight away from the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, a win for the God-fearing West and the Islamic state over the atheist Communist forces. Daniel Pipes, the author of ‘The Rushdie Affair: The Novel, the Ayatollah, and the West’ points out that the motive may well have been to divide Muslims in the West by highlighting the difference in ‘conflicting political and intellectual traditions’ extant in the two cultures. It was a ‘good call’ in cricketing terms, with enough emotional backing and the enabling changing times to carry forth the controversy.

However at this point in time, it is pointless to argue whether Rushdie was one of the unwitting perpetrators, or merely a catalyst: a Sikhandi of epic proportions in the scheme of things that would culminate like a jittery stack of dominoes, dividing the world in two distinct halves over the next quarter of a century. Making the Indian Government face the ethical music for creating the precedent is also a juvenile enterprise at best. Misinterpretation is as universal a trait as any, and considering Rushdie’s history, it would not have been long before somebody set the precedent even if the Indian Government had taken the high road.

The point that must be remembered, however, is that every war has the archetypal ‘Collateral Damage’, the by-product of an uncontrolled chemical experiment. A seldom-voiced fact which often tends to be sidelined remains that whatever the book may have said or did not, multiple people perished in the farce that began twenty five years ago. Among the fundamentalists or the ‘fundamentally inclined’, the topic called ‘Rushdie’ is still a favorite item of battery to provoke the masses. The people who are brainwashed over a non-existent piece of allegedly provocative material are not that different from the people who may not even have been aware of the existence of the deadly Blue Book while they were brutally slained over a ‘pious’ cause. At times, allusions and their interpretations merely form a greater excuse, a veil to hide the shame within. Gruesome means justified by a glorious end can only succeed so far as to clear the conscience of the blind believers. A leader must become even more blind to succumb to this temptation. Truth is, even a hundred years from now, when all parties in this travesty will long be dead, the blood will remain in the memory of a yet-unborn who will be enchanted by the brilliant blue hue and red letters, just like you were.

THE DEAL

You hesitate.

“How about 450?” you say with little conviction. The cross-eyed man merely smiles and nods his head slowly. He goes ahead to take care of an enthusiastic little customer who has come hopping into his shop for some second-hand Famous Fives.
You feel at once relieved and disappointed as the man leaves you two on your own so you can say a final goodbye to the volume. You glance around one more time, the names of the other volumes on the shelf unable to hold your attention for long. You spot Aravind Adiga’s ‘Between the Assassinations’. Wasn’t that the book which had a… nah, you’ve too much on your mind to recall correctly. You return to the bird at hand. You feel the luscious pages one more time, try to catch a whiff of the semi-new smell of the book without being seen, heave a classic sigh of despair and slowly, very slowly… at an uncouth eighty eight frames per second, put the book back on the shelf.

Fact: You suddenly feel lighter.

DREADFUL MISTAKE

Even with the enlightened youth in Rushdie’s home country gunning for justice and the blood of rapists (constitutionally underage or not), it can be safely said that as far as his original ‘Home’ is concerned, Rushdie has constantly been at the butt end of a rather unfair deal. The step-treatment meted out by a select populace of his homeland, even twenty five years later: be it the Jaipur Literature Festival or the Kolkata Affair, is something neither a writer nor any self-respecting Indian would like to experience, even with a Knighthood and a British citizenship in one’s kitty. This is one of the prime reasons why the cause of contemporary headline-grabbers such as Rushdie and Tasleema Nasrin becomes so strong. When the Hitchcockian ‘Birds’ converge in the real world, they miraculously become saintly white. And Tippi Hedren never manages to have a happy ending!

But what about the mortals whose only acts of rebellion are mere parodies of a livid acceptance? To us, Home is where the heart is. Home is where all the running stops. But homes have slights too. Your Home has that dark corner, that scary wooden closet and that creaky-sounding ceiling fan that you meant to change a long time ago but didn’t, the one that comes alive at night. Your Home has that man who stereotypically comes home drunk, whips off his leather belt and starts ‘teaching’ the woman. Your Home has that tall, mean lady whose shout runs a shiver down your spine, you can hear your heartbeats at the back of your tongue. And indeed… Your Home is where you refuse to shell out a few more bucks to buy a book that you think Mama won’t like. But you’re wrong. Mama doesn’t care what you do, as long as you keep it to yourself!

“Enough of invisibility, silence, timidity, defensiveness, guilt! An invisible, silenced man was an empty space into which others could pour their prejudices, their agendas, their wrath. The fight against fanaticism needed visible faces, audible voices. He would be quiet no longer. He would try to become a loud and visible man.”

― Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton: A Memoir []

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