Thursday, 26 January 2012

Salman Rushdie and the Indian Literary Festival: the Saga Continues

‘He is a w**ker of the highest order. I am not at all sorry that the Indians have asked him to f**k off,’ the man delivered his verdict, chomping on the deep fried KFC chicken wings.

Let’s assume that the man was an Asian Muslim, liberal enough to masticate on non-halal meat at the KFC (powered down his gullet by the 400 calories of milkshake which goes by some silly name I can neither pronounce nor spell) but not liberal enough to feel even a smidgen of sympathy for the w**ker.

Let’s also assume that the man is of Pakistani descent, a country generally considered to be the arch enemy of India. If you think the Brits and the French dislike each other, that is nothing compared to the animosity between these two countries.

In usual circumstance a Pakistani can be trusted to tie a rock round his neck and lie down at the bottom of Thames than say anything that might have an outside chance of being construed as praise for his country’s giant neighbour.

But not on this occasion. The Pakistani (how I came to be sharing a table with him at the KFC is an interesting story, but not for this post) attacking  the KFC zinger meal with the gusto of a Taliban attacking a US post in Vaziristan approved wholeheartedly that the man addicted to solitary sexual pleasure was asked to find sex elsewhere by the Indians.

The w**ker is Salman Rushdie, who was supposed to appear at a literary festival in India, but in the end did not because the Muslims clerics  went apeshit over him speaking at the festival, and the organizers chickened out.

Actually, that is not true strictly speaking. The organizers—William Dalrymple and Sanjoy Roy—wanted Rushdie very much to attend. Indeed, at the first whiff of the trouble—when a cleric from a Muslim seminary in India went public demanding Rushdie not be invited—Dalrymple went into the kind of laudatory hyper-drive last heard when Barak Obama was elected as the US president (Yes we can!).

 I can’t help feeling that it was a strategy doomed to fail.

Look at it this way. Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, and incurred the wrath of ‘tens of millions of Muslims’, according to the Muslim cleric in India (and that is just Indian Muslims). He announced that Rushdie (himself a Muslim by birth) had insulted Islam and the Muslims will never forgive him.

Do you see? The clue is in the adverb ‘never’. The cleric said the Muslims will not forgive Rushdie. Not now; not ever. They will not forgive him on any occasion. Absolutely not. Don’t even mention the word forgiveness: in no way the Muslims will forgive Rushdie. Absolutely not. Don’t bother, because we won’t bother. Don’t even mention it. We would rather swim naked in the Ganges with paper-cuts on our nipples than forgive Rushdie. We would rather eat our own snot than forgive Rushdie.

And what does Dalrymple do? He calls Rushdie one of the greatest Muslims to have come out of India who had contributed to humanity more than Gandhi. Therefore—so went Dalrymple’s argument—Muslims should welcome Rushdie with open arms and press him to their metaphorical armpits.

Not a clever thing to do, if you ask me.

Perhaps Dalrymple was hoping to appeal to the better nature of the Muslim cleric. Therein lay his second mistake: these guys don’t have one.

Since it was not Dalrymple’s intention to piss off the Muslim cleric who was already hopping mad that Rushdie was invited for the festival, I can only assume that the man is extraordinarily naive.  How did he think the cleric was going to respond to his heart-wrenching appeal? He (the cleric) was hardly going to say, ‘I am so sorry! What was I thinking? Of course! Salman Rushdie is one of the greatest Muslim figures to have emerged out of the Indian Muslim community.  And there I was; thinking the man is an infidel who has insulted our prophet and should be punished by stoning to death (followed by chopping of the hand that wrote the blasphemous novel). You have opened my eyes, sir! I can’t thank you enough! I shall immediately send a telegram of apology to Mr. Rushdie after which I shall start organizing a welcome party for him that will include my four wives and twelve children.’ Not very likely.

I have to sadly conclude that Dalrymple no more understand the minds of religious zealots than I understand the technicality of the surgery that created Eve from Adam’s ribs.

Anyway, Rushdie, to begin with, was pretty gung ho about it. He declared that he was going to attend the festival; he wasn’t banned from travelling to India; and travel to India he would. And the cleric of the Islamic seminary could put it in his hookah and smoke it.

Rushdie’s intrepid announcement had a number of consequences. 

Firstly the Muslim cleric upped his ante, and he was joined in his condemnation of Rushdie by other clerics (who probably wouldn't be able to pick out literature from an identity parade). 

Secondly, a number of politicians (mostly local) from the two major political parties in India—the Congress and the right-of-the-centre BJP— opened their gobs and came out in support of the Muslim cleric. They were not as loud (and ridiculous) as the cleric, but opined that it was ‘inappropriate’ for Rushdie to come to the festival in the circumstances.

What are the circumstances?

If you thought the circumstances are related to the ‘hurt Muslim sentiments’, you could not be further from truth.

The circumstances, reported in The Guardian and The Telegraph are that several states in the Indian federation are poised for key provincial elections; and in several constituencies, Muslims form significant minorities and can influence the outcome of the election if they choose to vote en mass for one or the other party. That is the reasons the politicians thought it was ‘inappropriate’ of Rushdie to visit India; because neither Congress nor BJP can afford to piss them off. What the politicians meant was that it was inconsiderate of Rushdie to make matters awkward for them.

In the past few years (again, according to reports in the Western newspapers) Rushdie, who is of Indian descent, has visited the country of his birth on many occasions. He has even visited Jaipur, the city where the literary festival was being held. Nobody cared then. We didn’t hear the Muslim cleric howling in protest then, nor did the Indian politicians weighed in with their ill-advised remarks.

There is, therefore, prima facie case to consider that the reason the Muslim cleric was confident his voice would be heard was because the elections are round the corner. That is democracy Indian style, I guess.

The politicians were no doubt further inconvenienced by Rushdie’s refusal to budge. India being an open, democratic etcetera etcetera country, they could not prevent Rushdie from travelling to India, and appearing at the festival if he so wished.

So the police stepped in. Rushdie was informed—either directly or indirectly—by the intelligence agencies that there was a threat to his life if he appeared at the festival; the agencies had obtained information that paid assassins from the Mumbai Muslim underworld would be boarding trains for Jaipur to kill him, if he turned up at the festival.

In a statement read out on Rushdie’s behalf, he announced that while he had some doubts as to the accuracy of the intelligence, he had decided to withdraw from the festival, as he thought it would be irresponsible of him to come to the festival in these circumstances.

Circumstances. They had changed. Again. But had they? Really? The rumours started floating in the festival venue that this was false intelligence; that the Mumbai underworld Dons had more  worthwhile hings to do (smuggle in gold, diamonds, Nepali prostitutes) than send assassins to kill an author who managed to survive Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa.

Salman Rushdie immediately smelt a rat; not just rat—he also smelt a chipmunk, a squirrel, a hamster, a jerboa and a whole raft of rodents. He figured out that there was no plot to kill him. It was an attempt, no doubt engineered by the cynical Indian politicians at whose beck and call the Indian police apparently are, to keep him away from the festival and avoid pissing of Muslims voters.

It was now Rushdie’s turn to feel pissed off. Julius Caesar probably felt less betrayed when Brutus plunged the kitchen-knife between his shoulder blades.

Rushdie announced on twitter, from America (this great figure from the Indian Muslim community whom the British taxpayers spent millions to protect after Khomeini’s fatwa, embraced American nationality a few years ago, citing that Britain was boring; he was right, but truth still hurts):

‘I have investigated and believe that I was indeed lied to. I am outraged and very angry.’

(I do not know what ‘investigation’ Rushdie carried out into the alleged Mumbai underworld plot to assassinate him, but he is a clever man. I am sure that he quickly figured out that the assassins, if they valued their own lives, would not have dared to travel on the Indian trains, as they would have been suffocated (or crushed) to death themselves before the train reached Jaipur. Rushdie must die, but not if they end up dying too.)

The fire-breathing Muslim clerics were not embarrassed that their country faced severe criticism in The Guardian and The Telegraph over the whole affair. They did not beat about the bush. They did not hide behind namby-pamby euphemisms we Brits are so good at. As one cleric told one of the Indian television channels, the matter was simple: Rushdie had written a book insulting Islam. (No, he had not read it; he would not pollute his eyes by reading the infidel’s book; also he couldn’t read English). The man had shown or expressed no remorse for his heinous crime. And the Muslims were not going to forgive him. He was happy that Rushdie was not coming to the festival. Allah be praised!

There were a couple of final twists to the story. The British novelist (of Indian descent) Hari Kunzru and another Indian novelist decided to read aloud excerpts from TheSatanic Verses in the festival (presumably to show solidarity to Rushdie). Kunzru is a good writer (his debut novel, The Impressionist, was very impressive, as was My Revolutions), but he really must desist from such stunts. In any case both the novelists were prevented from reading aloud from the novel by the organizers, which peeved Salman further and he demanded explanation. (The explanation was: The Satanic Verses remains banned in India and reading from the novel probably constitutes a crime in that country.) I think the organizers did Kunzru a favour. Spending a nice weekend in the air-conditioned comforts of the hotel in which the festival was held is one thing, but I don’t think Kunzru would have found the hospitality of Indian jails quite up to the same standards.

The organizers then arranged a video-link conference at the venue with Rushdie. That too had to be cancelled at the last minute. Once again, the Indian police were very canny. They knew that they could not stop the organizers from holding the video conference. So they prevailed upon the owner of the hotel to withdraw permission to the conference (telling him that there might be violence in the hotel and thousands might riot on the streets) which left William Dalrymple feeling ‘personally disgraced’.

What actually happened was about 50 youths (presumably Muslim) entered the venue and started intimidating people. The organizers could not explain how the men managed to breach the security code. The police said they let the men in because they had the requisite delegate passes. Make of that what you will.

The police chief of Jaipur was remarkably unabashed about it. ‘In view of the simmering resentment in the city [against Rushdie], I feared there would be problems in the festival and riots outside, so I advised the owner to cancel the video broadcast,’ he said.

What does all this mean for the world’s largest democracy? On the face of it, it is spectacularly cringeworthy. It is not an edifying spectacle when cynical politicians with eyes on the votes bow down to religious extremism. Rushdie wasted no time in castigating Indian politicians and  Muslim religious leaders. Said Rushdie:

‘Currently the people who claim to be speaking for India's Muslims are either not the true leaders, or they are certainly extremely bad leaders. And the fact that the political system plays with those leaders, wants to placate them, and curry favour with them, that of course is the fault of the political system.’

Rushdie probably has a point. This is no doubt sociological experts would call as the paradox of modern India. On the one hand the country is poised to become one of the economic giants in the coming decades, with a proportion of its citizens—certainly the educated and the well off classes—having the same sensibilities and values of Western civilizations; on the other hand are religious leaders (and, by the looks of it, some politicians) who are living in medieval times. 

That said Rushdie is a tad harsh on the country of his birth. Rushdie might have been born and lived in India when he was young, but it was not India but Britain that intellectually nourished him. In his thinking Rushdie is a Westerner, and (perhaps understandably) takes for granted certain values like freedom of speech in a supposedly open, democratic and secular country. The thing is (I know, I know; it is a cliché) India is at once an ancient civilization and a very young country. India as we know it today has existed for only sixty years, after the British left. What is happening is India trying to squeeze in sixty years what took centuries in Europe. Nobody promised the ride wouldn’t be bumpy.

Ultimately, I believe, the middle classes—the intellectual guardians of any culture—will determine which way India will go. There are almost 400 millions of them, and growing. Which suggests there is hope.

As for Rushdie, I think he should offer unhesitating apology to the Muslim world. He has to accept that there are parts of the world where folk are not as laid back about religion as some of us are in Britain. Where—even in democracies such as India— the Western concept of freedom to say offensive things is not readily appreciated. He might not have intended to cause offence, but cause offence he did. Why not accept with humility that you might have inadvertently offended a culture, and apologize with good grace? 

Salman Rushdie is a great writer, who has written many excellent novels. It would be a shame if he is forever linked with the controversy  surrounding one of the novels (which is also an excellent novel).