August 15, 2020
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In Exile From Himself

Rushdie still shows streaks of that old subversive. But he's a lapsed rebel.

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In Exile From Himself
R. Prasad
In Exile From Himself

As the knighthood furore dies down, two observations hold good. First, Salman Rushdie remains one of the great English-language novelists of the last century. Second, those who use 'offended sensitivities' to create political unrest do no favours to their community.

Rushdie has deservedly won recognition for his best work. Though no prize comes without political baggage, he may yet be in the running for a Nobel. What the knighthood and ensuing outcry tell us about our times is that a once visionary and complex writer has been transformed into a pallid celebrity, people who are famous mainly for being famous. (Rushdie's recent novels, where he is too busy being a pastiche of himself to actually write well, indicate a preoccupation with celebrity culture). Meanwhile, those claiming to represent hurt Muslim sentiments now resemble electronic puppets—only a provocative push of the button is needed to set off a destructive frenzy. Why walk into the deliberate trap every time with such cooperative willingness?

Although Rushdie is no Bush neocon, he has become a very different kind of political animal from the writer who evoked in brilliant prose the interconnectedness of all forms of chauvinism and tyranny. His early fiction is peopled by monstrous yet curiously human tyrants from across contexts, often based on real-life prototypes: Thatcher, Mosley, Zia, Khomeini and Bal Thackeray among others. Midnight's Children is an elegy for the betrayal of the independent nation by Indira Gandhi, depicted as 'the widow'. Still, Rushdie lamented Mrs Gandhi's assassination. In Shame, his novel of a place that may or may not be Pakistan, shameful events happen everywhere: honour killings and racist attacks are shown to be kindred phenomena.

Rushdie supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq on ostensibly humanitarian grounds, but continued to speak for liberal causes. He flayed police brutality in New York, the juridical pursuit of Arundhati Roy and the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. He spoke out for other writers under siege by fundamentalists. That said, Rushdie doesn't seem to have condemned the suppression of the play My name is Rachel Corrie. Nor has he confronted repeated attempts in the American legislature and varsities to muzzle 'anti-American' teaching.

After the fatwa and relocation to America, Rushdie changed from a fiercely principled writer into one who was less willing to be consistently and equally critical of all tyranny. A man who had written of the 'folly' of trying to contain writers within passports now invoked an insistently American 'we'. This was less a subversive 'we' that spoke in the name of the voiceless masses than a pronoun that conflates government, foreign policy and people. He who once showed how fundamentalists and chauvinists of all kinds were brethren-in-arms now proclaimed: "We must send our shadow warriors against theirs, and hope that ours will prevail". Attacking something called "anti-Americanism", he claimed that to criticise US foreign policy was to not recognise that it is 'individuals'—not governments—who make history.

More telling is how fundamentalism is no longer a category that operates across contexts and cultures but clearly targets only Islamism: "Such people are against...freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable governments, Jews, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex". As though there aren't Jewish fundamentalists also opposed to exactly the same things with the addition of Palestinian existence! Is America a shining example of a multi-party political system and accountable government? Rushdie's list of 'what matters' mentions "a more equitable distribution of resources" but stresses "kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches and cutting-edge fashion"—preoccupations quite specific to metropolitan glitterati

Had he not compromised himself so severely, it would be easier to acknowledge the continuing relevance of some of what Rushdie says. He has rightly called for a fast-growing version of "a self-exculpatory paranoid Islam" which blames "outsiders" for all the ills of Muslim societies to be examined and resisted. He stresses the "restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal"—a call he might have extended more forcefully to the driving forces in American politics today. Trouble is, what he once undertook in the name of shared human values and goals, he now identifies largely with the West, using parochial terms like 'the enlightenment' and 'reformation' to call for change in non-Western cultures.

Rushdie should return to a more wide-ranging engagement with the present and with the cultures outside the West which shaped him as a young writer. Equally, so-called representatives of Islam who find only books and images offensive—not poverty, intra-faith violence, shame killings and dictatorial regimes—need to stop being such willing puppets for every provocateur, real or imagined. Until this happens, the only winners will be those who espouse the specious but self-fulfilling prophecy of the 'clash of civilisations'.

(Priyamvada Gopal is the author of Literary Radicalism in India. She teaches English at Cambridge University.)

A longer version of this article appears here.

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