February 20, 2020
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Delhi Diary

My unscientific theory: Salman knew his satanic novel would create a controversy but that it wouldn’t be bad for sales

Delhi Diary

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

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