Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Writer and the Fatwa

(First published in The Pioneer, Agenda section, on October 7, 2012)


February 14, 1989, was Valentine’s Day, just as February 14 every year is. For Salman Rushdie it held little significance, as nothing was going right for him on the personal front. Relations with his wife were strained and the celebrated author was struggling with the emotional fallout of a separation that was still to be formalised. But his professional life could not have been more cheerful. Only five months ago, the British edition of his latest novel had been published, and the American edition was scheduled by the year-end.

Following the booming success of Midnight’s Children released eight years ago, he had become the toast of the literary world, rubbing shoulders with legendary writers, powerful politicians and glamorous celebrities from the entertainment industry. For a writer only in his early 40s then, the fame could be intoxicating. If it was, then Rushdie was soon to be grounded, in fact under-grounded, and purged of that exhilarating belief.
On that day in February, he received an unusual response to his new book which had arrived in the British market five months ago. The message was from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini; the book was The Satanic Verses. The then Grand Ayatollah had issued a fatwa — an edict — addressed to Muslims worldwide. It read: “I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the ‘Satanic Verses’ book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran, and all those involved in its publication… are sentenced to death. I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them.” Five months after the book had hit the stands, the religious leader had woken up to the realisation that it had blasphemed Islam to such an extent that nothing less than death to the author would wipe off the desecration.

Noted Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan has in an article published recently in an English language daily emphatically said that the Quran does not provide for any punishment to people who abuse Prophet Mohammed. If he had suggested that to Khomeini in 1989, he would probably have found himself sharing Rushdie’s fate. The Ayatollah had no hesitation in sentencing one Muslim (albeit a somewhat non-believing one) to death; the addition of another of the faith was no big problem for the bearded mullah.
What happens when an author becomes the target of not just one individual, not just one radical outfit, but of anyone and everyone residing in any part of the world that would be even half-willing to execute the fatwa? Whom do you protect yourself from? And how do you do it? Also, what happens to the freedom of speech in a free world inhabited by free people and even freer writers? Where have all those voices and those eager faces that are heard and seen so often in support of free speech, gone? Joseph Anton takes us into that world where some of those answers reside. Joseph Anton is what Rushdie took on as his new name after he went into hiding following the Ayatollah’s edict. Joseph Anton is how he lived the many years since 1989 until he resurfaced after the crisis more or less blew over, in the name that his parents had so lovingly given him. Joseph Anton is Rushdie’s memoir written in the third person; the account of an Inquisition held of a person in absentia, an accused who remains underground throughout the process like a scared rabbit, emerging tentatively but only briefly to maintain a link with the real world.

If he had to be recognised and discovered in those momentous years following the fatwa, he would have been burnt at the stakes; in his absence a bonfire of his blasphemous book did the honours. Had he indeed written something so terrible? Whatever, in the memoir, Rushdie quotes Heinrich Heine, “Where they burn books they will in the end burn people too.” This was a starkly real comment to come from the German Romantic poet and essayist of substance.

But isn’t it all about creative freedom so long as the purpose is not mala fide? Try telling that to the Islamists (or any hardliner with a different terminology). Rushdie as Joseph Anton contemplates: “To be free one had to make the presumption of freedom. And a further presumption that one’s work would be treated as having been created with integrity. He had always written presuming that... it would at the very least be treated as serious work...” Well, it wasn’t, not in many parts of the world — and not in India. This last bit hurt him the most for two reasons. One was the fact that he belonged to India, though he took a British citizenship subsequently; and two, he never imagined that a country which valued free speech so greatly would ban his book — ban it even before the rest of the world woke up to the ‘evil’ written in it. In Pakistan, where his parents shifted after living much of their lives in Mumbai, he had no hope, and so he never felt betrayed by that country. Rushdie writes in Joseph Anton, “Pakistan was the great mistake of his parents, the blunder that had deprived him of his home. It was easy to see Pakistan itself as a historical blunder too, a country sufficiently unimagined.”

So, India broke his heart, because until the ban, the “presumption of intellectual freedom and respect had been ever present (in the country) except during the dictatorial years of ‘Emergency rule’ imposed by Indira Gandhi...” Disheartened and a loss to understand how to retaliate, he penned an open letter to then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi: “What sort of India do you wish to govern? Is it to be an open or a repressive society?” But that ‘secularist’ Prime Minister had earlier rendered null and void through an amendment to the Constitution a Supreme Court verdict giving maintenance to a Muslim woman who was abandoned by her husband. When the Islamic clerics kicked up a row and claimed that the judgement interfered with the shari’ah, Rajiv Gandhi moved quickly to pacify them and negate the apex court’s ruling. How could Rushdie have expected better from that Prime Minister?

Things have got no better since then. One supposes that if a breach in the freedom of speech is not amended strongly enough, it can serve as a precedent for several more to happen. The banning of The Satanic Verses provided a perfect setting for what was to happen in later years. More books were proscribed; foreign authors were barred from entry or from extending their visas; supposedly offensive paintings were vandalised, painters abused and forced to leave the country; cartoonists were threatened and jailed. Rushdie has all but lost hope in India as an idea of a free and tolerant society.
Chained and bound by the fatwa, the author finds an interesting mode to depict his state. The bird, which symbolises freedom, becomes for him in Joseph Anton his metaphor for a juicy target — a sitting duck, so to say, and the duck is a bird, right? Before the storm broke out in the full, Rushdie was vacationing in Mauritius and looking at the birds that flew past the clouds and over the waters. “He should have paid attention to the birds. The dead flightless birds who had been unable to soar away from their predators, who tore them apart... In all 24 of the island’s 45 bird species were driven into extinction,” he comments.

How sad. And now he, like those unfortunate birds, would be the next. “A mullah with a long arm was reaching out across the world to squeeze the life out of him.” And, many years later, in 2001, as the Twin Towers collapsed, “birds were screaming in the sky”. And, in many parts of the world, egged on by religious zealots and consumed by blind hatred for something they neither understood nor wanted to understand, mobs of thousands had taken to the streets in the 1990s and beyond and chanted, “Rushdie, you are dead.” Well, he was in a sense, and out of him was born Joseph Anton.
For all its grim setting, Joseph Anton is not lamentation all the way, nor is it an attempt by the author to project a heroic image of himself during the years of crisis. That would in turn have taken a heroic effort to do — considering the deep fear that had gripped him in those years. It was the fear of not just personal harm but also harm to his son and all those he cared for as family and friend. In fact, the memoir is really a revisit to a nightmare. Yet, there are ample traces of wit in the narration which must be credited to the author’s sense of humour.

Finally, Rushdie confirms to us that minority appeasement by politicians is the same all over the world. He offers a number of instances of that in Great Britain, with so-called leaders falling head over heels to placate the hardliners over the book and condemn The Satanic Verses. One of the Muslim community leaders who spewed venom on him and his writing and inflamed passions was later honoured by the British Government. The poison had spread wide, with several literary giants, after the fatwa, playing safe and suddenly discovering that Rushdie had perhaps overdone the ‘freedom’ bit.
Through this memoir, Rushdie may have hoped to purge himself of the horrors of those days. Maybe to an extent he has managed that, but he has still left behind several uncomfortable questions. Damn these writers, they will not allow us a moment of peace.

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