The Satanic Verses could well have been listed among his best, but for the faux pas
of gratuitously offending Muslim susceptibilities. His knowledge of Islamic theology is sound: there is evidence that there were some verses which had not been revealed to the Prophet by Allah, but inserted by evil design and were expunged from the Quran. But he should have known that Muslims would not tolerate the slightest insinuation on the characters of the Prophet or his wives. The outcome of his folly was Ayatollah Khomeini pronouncing a fatwa of death on him and the book being banned in all Muslim countries, as well as in India. What a hundred book launches could not have achieved was achieved by
the fatwa and the ban. The novel became a world bestseller. Although he became a marked man with a price on his head, Rushdie has probably earned more royalties from The Satanic Verses than any of his other books.
I had a minor role in the episode. As advisor of the newly set up Penguin India, I was consulted about the feasibility of publishing an Indian edition of the novel. I advised them not to do so. I sensed that if we had, there would have been nothing left of Penguin India. I knew my Muslim brethren better than the Muslim-born Salman Rushdie. Of course, I had nothing whatsoever to do with its banning as I regard banning or censoring books or films unworthy of a civilised society. Rushdie never accepted my plea of not guilty. So be it.
The Enchantress of Florence is different in style and content from Rushdie's earlier works. It took him eight years of research to write it: he has appended a bibliography at the end of the novel. It is set in the time of the Mughal Emperor Akbar in Fatehpur Sikri and the Medicis in Florence. It starts with the arrival of a tall, flaxen-haired man styling himself as Mogor dell' Amore, the Mughal of Love, claiming to be the son of Babar's younger sister Qara Koz, a beauty of her times and adept at witchcraft. The stranger is armed with a letter of introduction from the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I of England, expressing a wish to open trade relations with India. He spends his first few days and nights in a serai in Fatehpur Sikri. Evidently at the time Indian serais were better equipped than five-star hotels of today. Besides providing food and alcoholic beverages, they also provided a charpoy to accommodate two adults, and a female furnished by the management to keep tired guests happy. There were many brothels in the Mughal capital of which one run by a retired whore, Rangili Bibi, was patronised by the aristocracy, including the heir apparent Prince Salim (later Emperor Jahangir). Akbar had his own seraglio of hundreds of ladies, including an imaginary Jodha Bai, with whom he had much intercourse.
Prince Salim was an inveterate whoremonger. One day it was agreed that all women in Sikri would go stark naked and menfolk would be blindfolded. Everyone obeyed the rule except Prince Salim. He had a good look at all the city's women going about in the nude. When the misdemeanour was detected, Salim was hauled up before his father. He was flogged and locked up in a dungeon for a few days. Such salacious incidents relieve the otherwise tedious text.
It would not be fair to ignore some of the nuggets of wisdom which are sprinkled in the narrative. Akbar had his navratnas, the nine gems, and his mehfils where he allowed propagators of different faiths—Muslims, Christians and Hindus—to speak their minds without fear. I quote a few, which are no doubt Rushdie's own coinage. "Ideas were like the tides of the sea or the phases of the moon, they came into being, rose and grew in their proper time, and then ebbed, darkened, and vanished when the great wheel turned." Said Emperor Akbar: "Only when we accept the truths of death can we begin to learn the truths of being alive." Akbar did not ask but wanted to know "why one should hold fast to a religion not because it was true but because it was the faith of one's fathers. Was faith not faith but simple family habit? Maybe there was no true religion but only this eternal handing down. And error could be handed down as easily as virtue. Was faith no more than an error of our ancestors?"
At another place, the emperor asks his Christian visitor, Mogor dell' Amore, "which of the wild religions of this heathen land do you find most attractive, or are they all one to you in their vileness? In the eyes of Father Acquaviva and Father Monserrate, we are all godless swine."
"Sire," replied the visitor, "I am attracted towards the great polytheist pantheons because the stories are better, more numerous, more dramatic, more humorous, more marvellous; and because the gods do not set us good examples, they are interfering, vain, petulant and badly behaved, which is, I confess, quite appealing."
"We have the same feeling," said the emperor (for emperor read Rushdie).
A sizeable chunk of the novel is devoted to the travails of Qara Koz and her sister—the innumerable wars they went through, being mistresses of their captors till ultimately Qara Koz found herself in Florence. The city has its bordellos and its street-walkers just as Fatehpur Sikri. But Qara Koz is a signora. She captivates everyone by her beauty and the magic potions she concocts mixing the right proportions of mandrake root with wine. One is much like a time bomb. At the exact minute fixed by her, the belly of the fellow who has imbibed her concoction filled with gas and he exploded in a fart which could be heard at the other end of town and filled the air with the foul smell of shit.
I have not read another book in which the word 'fuck' appears as often as in this one—but legitimately, as he is reproducing dialogue between inebriated Florentine rustics. It is grossly overwritten with a plethora of words in different languages, a veritable verbal diarrhoea meaning nothing. It seems like the fate that befell Fatehpur Sikri. The lakes that once surrounded the Mughal capital and gave it sustenance dried up and the city had to be abandoned to the wilderness of jackals and owls. Salman Rushdie's inkwell has dried up; it is time he bought a new ballpoint pen. Millions of his admirers, among whom I count myself, would like to read what he writes rather than read in the newspapers about his periodically taking on new girlfriends.
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