SO, what's the Indian verdict on Salman Rushdie? A redundant question, one might be tempted to say, considering that his latest offering, The Moor's Last Sigh, has already made it to the Booker shortlist and has had more than its fair share of rave reviews. But Indian assessments of Rushdie's works have always been based on more than just their literary merit, with reactions to his swipes at the Establishment being the focus of much public debate.
In 1981, Midnight's Children raised Indira Gandhi's hackles, but sparked a new era in Indian writing in English. In 1989, The Satanic Verses unleashed a global storm that has yet to blow over. Now, six years on, Last Sigh, which lampoons Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray and has a dog named Jawaharlal, is waist-deep in controversy even as it becomes the frontrunner for this year's Booker Prize.
Opinion on the writer-in-hiding has as many shades as there are layers in his storytelling. "Rushdie is a writer who says, 'I will go as far as this and even more, even if it means falling over the edge'," says poet Adil Jussawala. The 'unofficial' withdrawal of Last Sigh from Bombay was a scandal, he feels. "A book is not like floating liquor during prohibition that the few who get it savour it. It's a document. Everybody should have access to it."
Interestingly, known Rushdie-baiter Asghar Ali Engineer, director of the Institute of Islamic Studies, agrees this time around and sees Last Sigh as proof of the writer's growing maturity.
At stake here is Rushdie's, and by extension any individual's, right to parody a public figure. Says actor-playwright Girish Karnad: "Unless there is invasion of privacy, a writer has absolute freedom to write what he wants. Banning any book is wrong, no matter who does it: the Union Government or Bal Thackeray.
However, columnist Iqbal Masud, a vocal Rushdie critic, is not opposed to the 'ban' on Last Sigh in Bombay. "Hindus and Muslims are just settling down. I have lived through the awful riots unlike Mr. Rushdie, who is safely ensconced in London," he says. "Having been one of the initiators of the ban on Verses, I couldn't have objected to a ban on Last Sigh."
It is not that simple a matter for Shahid Siddiqui, proprietor-editor of the Urdu weekly Nai Dunia. "Here's a naked demonstration of our double standards," he says. "While Last Sigh is withdrawn by the distributor even before a formal ban, a pro-longed hue and cry is raised when an incendiary book like Verses is banned. Caricaturing imaginary characters and living public figures is certainly not the same as taking liberties with symbols of faith revered by millions."
"There's something heroic about Rushdie's ability to self-destruct," adds Masud. "He has to make enemies. The finer points of politics elude Rushdie. He is not a magic realist as he is often described. He is a realist. He cannot be a realist and run away from his responsibilities. That's dishonesty." So, he argues that the criticism of Thackeray is lopsided because the book spares the Congress, which was equally' responsible for fanning communalism in Bombay.
Sahitya Akademi Chairman U.R. Ananthamurthy, who says he is sad that 'we' have not stood up for Rushdie, best illustrates the Indian liberal's dilemma over these attacks on a writer's right to write. As he admits, "Personally, I would like to take the initiative, but fear of terrorism stops us from coming out in the open. A book has absolute freedom to exist and a good writer is one who exercises this right with restraint. "
The confusion, fears and guilt of the liberals tell their own tale. Says Jussawala: "Salman makes India's liberals uneasy. We're not used to custard pie being thrown at our faces; sometimes it's shit pie. Salman doesn't cringe from the obvious.
And while Bengali litterateur Sunil Gangopadhyay reaffirms that the Indian liberal intelligentsia "has always come out in his favour and will continue to do so", Rushdie can also count on friends in high places. According to the writer himself, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao had asked for a copy of his latest novel, an autographed copy of which was duly sent.
Rushdie may make us squirm, but can we ever flush him out of our system? In ceaselessly striving to reclaim his lost roots, Rushdie does, indeed, as Jussawala sug-gests, keep falling over the edge. But he climbs right back and carries on. And that is typical Rushdie: a firebug too hot for liberal eggheads.