Litany of the Misspoken-to
Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton is one book by Mr Rushdie I intend to read cover to cover. As a result, I am announcing my resignation from the ‘Page 15 Club’ of Rushdie devotees who are ferociously vocal in their praise for the author but never seem to be able to get beyond the first few pages of his titles. Though reviews of the memoir have been decidedly mixed, with our own Pankaj Mishra doing a fine demolition job in The Guardian, I am already halfway through the 633-page tome.
It is the harrowing tale of a literary fugitive moving secretly from house to house in order to escape the assassin’s bullet. Salman seldom writes a thin book; happily, though, most of the material in Joseph Anton is riveting. How Mr Rushdie was able to remain sane in those years is a miracle; how he managed to keep writing with a bounty on his head is a bigger miracle. Those of us who take our freedoms for granted—which means we can go out for a walk in the park or go to a restaurant without a security detail—cannot imagine what Rushdie went through. He came close to madness in which mood he penned the abject ‘apology’ to the mullahs regretting the distress he had caused. The mullahs rejected the apology contemptuously. He does raise the obvious question of how he, a scholar of Islam, failed to anticipate the outrage The Satanic Verses would provoke among Muslims. His answer, for me at least, is disingenuous. Mr Rushdie reminds us that it is our duty to ‘defend his text’ if we value free thought and free expression, which according to him includes the “right to offend”. Alas, Salman Rushdie does not just offend, he exercises the “right to abuse”. My own unscientific theory is that he knew his satanic novel would create a controversy, maybe even the odd riot, but that it wouldn’t be bad for sales. What he did not anticipate is the scale of the outrage on what Muslims saw as an assault on their identity at a time when their faith was being demonised. That is where he fell short—and has had to pay a terrible price for the error.
If you have read my memoir, Lucknow Boy, (please rush to your nearest bookstore if the answer is no), I have outlined my minor relationship with the prickly author of Midnight’s Children. Whatever his other virtues, Salman nurses a grudge. He is a tremendous hater. This comes through in his moving but mean-spirited memoir. Considering what he has been through, Salman Rushdie should have numerous friends in the book-chat world. Surprisingly, he has only a few; he is admired but not liked. If you are guilty of writing anything against him or printing a bad review of his work (as Outlook has), the publication and the critic are permanently in his black book, which I suspect must be bulging.
In Joseph Anton, starting from two of his four wives, Marianne Wiggins and Padma Lakshmi, to John le Carre and a host of other writers and publishers, Mr Rushdie’s endless feuds are recounted in detail. Like many writers, Salman is completely self-absorbed. He can only see things from his perspective. You are either for him or against him—there is no in-between position. Do great, award-winning authors have any responsibility to be equitable and generous too? Ernest Hemingway defined courage as “grace under pressure”, something Mr Rushdie does not seem to possess.
Those Tipples of Sour Note
I know one does not speak ill of the dead but try as hard as I might, I cannot think of anything nice or complimentary to say about Brajesh Mishra. All my exchanges with him were thoroughly unpleasant. Once after a few whiskies at vice-president Hamid Ansari’s house, he asked me why I had turned against Atal Behari Vajpayee. I responded by asking him why he had ordered the I-T raids on my proprietor’s residence in Mumbai and why he threatened me over the phone, denying a story given to us by the Vajpayee household, of how much Vajpayee disliked Arun Jaitley.
As far as his famed competence and knowledge of international affairs was concerned, it was Brajesh Mishra who persuaded Vajpayee to write a letter to President Clinton in 1998 mentioning India’s China apprehensions as the reason for the nuclear blasts. The ministry of external affairs was appalled at this diplomatic faux pas. Incidentally, I noticed no condolence message was issued by the BJP top brass after Brajesh’s passing.
Hang Loose Now
There are many oddities about the T20 World Cup tournament in Sri Lanka. The most bizarre is the sight of the local cheerleaders, covered completely from head to toe. Like most men, I look forward to seeing cheerleaders prancing around. But they must show some flesh!
In Last Week’s
Economist, the voice of God, I counted six “corrections” and “clarifications”. Is this some sort of record for the magazine?
Vinod Mehta is editorial chairman, Outlook, and its founding editor-in-chief; E-mail your diarist: vmehta AT outlookindia.com
I cannot but agree with Vinod Mehta’s shrewd assessment of Brajesh Mishra (Delhi Diary, Oct 15). Having been a serving secretary in the government (1999-04), I can vouch firsthand for Mishra’s nepotism, blatant favouritism and lack of fair play. In my opinion, the collapse of administration at the Centre, which continues today, started with the tenure of the hard-drinking Mishra. And the disasters of Kargil and Kandahar are testimony to his so-called ‘leadership skills’.
Arun Bhatnagar, on e-mail
Salman Rushdie vs Vinod Mehta. It’s a joke, and Mr Mehta is the joker. He writes to please his masters in power. Rushdie is a natural writer and has the right to offend too. Mr Mehta is defending the indefensible.
Brajesh Chaudhary, Delhi
As evident from Mr Mehta’s heartfelt note on Brajesh Mishra, in India it’s customary that none speaks ill of someone until they are dead.
V.N.K. Murti, Pattambi
Rushdie is one of the best writers of our time, and India should be proud of him. To make a fuss about his book that subsequently got banned and incited so much violence, especially by people who never got a chance to read it, seems unfair to people in the West like me. At least some redress has been done, and he is more welcome in India now than he has been in the past.
Marie Jose Ubbiali, Liege, Belgium
It’s rather petty of Mr Mehta to try and trivialise Rushdie’s desire to write Satanic Verses. To reduce SV into a mere sales pitch is to ignore the fact that he was a Booker-winning novelist then, and had a lot to lose (and he did too!) if he wilfully wanted to create a colossal row.
Vinayak Bhardwaj, Cape Town
A narcissistic journalist like Vinod Mehta should keep his likes and dislikes—Rushdie, Brajesh Mishra—to himself. Vaibhav Shrivastava,
Mr Mehta is absolutely right that members of the Salman Rushdie fan club typically never go beyond the first five pages of his books. Even the uncontextual snipes at Prophet Mohammed they pick from reviews.
Manish Banerjee, Calcutta
Does age make people less of a hypocrite? Mr Mehta is becoming more and more honest in his writing.
Rishi Vyas, Kangra
Is Rushdie writes "Satanic Verses" that means "he exercises the “right to abuse”." but if
"MF Hussain" draws Hindu Gods in Nude then you call that as Freedom of expression !!!!.
Vinod Mehta >> I know one does not speak ill of the dead but try as hard as I might, I cannot think of anything nice or complimentary to say about Brajesh Mishra
Surely Sir, we do not expect a Talibani to speak on secularism or a Nazi to speak about the ills of Anti Semitism !!
Vinod Mehta >> Incidentally, I noticed no condolence message was issued by the BJP top brass after Brajesh’s passing.
The BJP is not a party of some individuals , for some individuals and by some individuals. It is a meeting ground for people of related ideologies, who look for a right of center alternative to Nehruvian Misrule. But then we do note that the CONGRESS party and its media messengers such as DEAR OUTLOOK do not spend time to remember the greatness of PVNR or LB Shastri or Feroz Gandhi. Incidental or Coincidental?
VM writes .... "My own unscientific theory is that he knew his satanic novel would create a controversy, maybe even the odd riot, but that it wouldn’t be bad for sales."
If he really did this to help sales, he is a marketing genius. Plenty of corporates would want him.
Of course, after the fact, I think he is the one left laughing all the way to the bank, living the American dream and lots of arm candy to party with (given that almost nothing else about him would be considered even remotely sexy :-)).
And now he will make even more moolah selling us "Joseph Anton".
Then he writes .... "Mr Rushdie reminds us that it is our duty to ‘defend his text’ if we value free thought and free expression, which according to him includes the “right to offend”. Alas, Salman Rushdie does not just offend, he exercises the “right to abuse”."
Basically, you are saying at the end of the day we don't really know what "freedom of speech and expression" really means. You are of course splitting hair between "offend" and "abuse".
Does age make humans lesser hypocrites? Vinod Mehta is becoming more and more honest in his writing. Some one must get him to a shrink before he is decrared insane in his own magazine's cover.
Cheerleaders must show some flesh. How honest is that!
On the earlier occasion he called Economist - all knowing and this time - the voice of God. Guess there is some old wound inside him.
It's rather petty of you Vinod Mehta to trivialise Rushdie's desire to write the book he wrote. Salman Rushdie as you note has long been a scholar of Islam and surely it was on the strengths of his deep erudition on the subject that he chose to write the book. To reduce SV written in Rushdie's playful and perhaps "controversial" style to a mere sales pitch is to ignore the fact that at the time of its publishing he was the acclaimed author of Booker-winning Midnight's Children, a novel which had been feted around the world, even winning an award for the best literature in English in an Iranian literary festival. For him to deliberately want to create controversy and thus affect sales would surely mean willingly reducing his sales in the Muslim literary world! It is somewhat strange that you should scrutinise a writer's just right to offend yet leave unquestioned the motivations of the Muslims who chose to commit murder as a means of protecting their 'demonised' identity. Your theory is not just unscientific. It's also unworthy of an editor whose first call should be the protection of free speech rather than a decided prickliness about a writer whose talents you can't match but whose personal life you choose to pronounce sanctimoniously upon.
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