The problem with being a celebrity writer is that all too often the celebrity takes over and the writer is ignored. He is more read about than read. His own life evokes more interest than the lives of his fictional creations. And people with no interest in literature believe they have the right to comment on the writer and his books.
That’s pretty much how it has been for Salman Rushdie. Everybody knows who he is. But not that many people have actually read his books. Even before Ayatollah Khomeini issued his murderous fatwa, Rushdie was already a celebrity, worthy of note and attention. Indira Gandhi sued him over the way he portrayed her in Midnight’s Children. Pakistan banned Shame. Nicaragua invited him to check out the revolution. (That trip resulted in his book, The Jaguar Smile.) British TV sent him to India to make a film about the country of his birth as it turned 40.
The fatwa and the years in hiding only served to magnify his celebrity. He became the world’s most famous literary cause celebre. Tabloids speculated about his love life. Stories and jokes about his hiding places abounded. (‘What’s blonde, has big tits and lives in Australia? Salman Rushdie.’) And when he did appear in public, it was often in glamorous settings: he was lauded on stage by U2.
Some of this celebrity status has haunted the reception accorded to Joseph Anton, his newly published memoir. Much of the book is about the years of concealment and though those chapters have a sad and gripping quality to them, the most interesting revelation about his life on the run is this: the British government did as little as it possibly could to help him.
For years, we have been led to believe that MI5 kept him secure in a series of safe houses at vast expense to the taxpayer. None of this turns out to be true. Yes, the Brits did assign policemen to protect him. But there were no safe houses. They made Rushdie rent or buy accommodation that they deemed suitable, always at his own expense. In fact, the British government probably did less for him, a British citizen under threat, than India has done for Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi writer who came here to seek refuge. (And we haven’t been that good to Taslima!)
The most moving parts of the book—apart from the daily heartbreak of life in hiding—are those that deal with his family. He writes with brutal candour about his relationship with his father, a violent drunk, and about their reconciliation before the old man’s death. He deals frankly with his difficult relationship with his son, Zafar—it is hard to make a child feel secure when he knows that assassins have been sent to kill his father—even including an incident when Rushdie catches Zafar stealing money from his wallet.
His ex-wives come off badly. Did Padma Lakshmi really say, when told that Aishwarya Rai had been named the world’s most beautiful Indian woman, that she had “serious issues with that”? Can she really be as selfish and shallow as he makes her out to be? The portrait is so negative and tinged with so much bitterness, especially when he refers to the billionaire Ted Forstman, who Lakshmi later took up with, as Scrooge McDuck, that you sense a jilt-edged anger that is almost cartoonish.
More significant than the gossip are the serious questions that Joseph Anton raises about the banning of books. Rushdie mangles some of the details but his basic point is valid: The Satanic Verses controversy began in India. He blames the storm on a misleading headline in India Today, but even before that appeared, Khushwant Singh, an advisor to Penguin India, had already warned that the book would provoke Muslim fury.
Rushdie seems to have been unaware of this. When Shrabani Basu of Sunday magazine interviewed him on the eve of the book’s UK publication, and asked about the possibility of a hostile reaction, he was dismissive: it was a funny view of the world to think that a book could cause riots, he scoffed.
The stupendous naivety of that remark should tell us how far removed Rushdie was from the reality of India. He failed to recognise that his own celebrity made him an attractive target. He is right when he now says that Syed Shahabuddin and the other Muslim politicians who called for a ban had not even read The Satanic Verses. But he does not understand that they did not need to read it. All they wanted to do was to pose as champions of Islam in front of mobs of people who never bothered with any books at all.
Rushdie accepts that he may have responded badly when the Indian government banned the import of The Satanic Verses. He wrote an open letter to Rajiv Gandhi, in which he accused him of taking revenge on his mother’s behalf asking, a little foolishly: “Can you be sure that Indira Gandhi’s reputation will endure better and longer than Midnight’s Children?” (“Well, okay,” he admits, “that was arrogant.”)
But Rushdie makes a crucial point. How do we know that there was anything blasphemous in The Satanic Verses? Few of us have had the opportunity to read the book and there was no judicial process or reasoned debate that preceded the ban. We just assumed that it was offensive to Muslims because Shahabuddin said it was. And Shahabuddin himself cheerfully admitted that he had not read the book.
In fact, as Rushdie’s lawyer Geoffrey Robertson has argued, the case against The Satanic Verses is based on that old shyster’s technique of taking the words and actions of negative characters from the book and then claiming that these are the author’s own views; the equivalent of saying that Charles Dickens encouraged teenage thievery and then using Fagin’s words as proof.
For instance, the charge that Rushdie attacked the virtue of the Prophet’s wives is nonsense. In the book, they are portrayed as chaste. It is a measure of the depraved nature of a city featured in The Satanic Verses that whores take the names of the Prophet’s wives. And that perversion ends when the city falls to Islam. Nor is it Rushdie’s view that the Prophet’s friends are “bums” and “clowns”. These are terms used by an unsympathetic character in the book when he is hired to churn out propaganda against the Prophet.
Even if we disregard this defence and accept that the book is offensive to Muslims, that still leaves us with a practical question: When do we regard offence caused to religion as being so massive as to justify a curtailment of free speech? Indian liberals give different answers in different situations. When Christians say they are offended by The Da Vinci Code, we tell them not to be so silly. When Hindus complain about M.F. Husain’s nude goddesses, we call them bigots or fascists. But when it comes to Islam, we take the complaints more seriously. There is an honourable reason for this: we do not want India’s Muslim minority to feel that the Hindu majority allows its religion to be insulted. But there is also a cowardly reason: we give in to Islamic fundamentalists for the same reason that we often give in to the Shiv Sena: because we don’t want a riot.
That was the reason given for The Satanic Verses ban. In retrospect, that position is beginning to look more and more like a mistake. For these days, anybody who wants to ban a book/movie/play/event only has to threaten (or actually inflict) violence to be guaranteed non-stop media coverage and official attention. Even if the authorities do not agree to impose a ban, they fail to protect the cinema hall where the movie is showing or a public space where a writer is speaking (think of Rushdie’s aborted appearance at the Jaipur festival). The effect is the same: denied the protection that is their right, cinema owners, bookshops, festival organisers all surrender to the mob. And liberal values die a sudden death.
The publication of Joseph Anton may be an appropriate occasion for us to consider how easy it has become today to curtail freedom of speech in our country. And to wonder what happens next. As Rushdie reminds us, where they burn books today, they will burn people tomorrow.