Oh, it’s silly season again. (Has it ever NOT been silly season? Silly me for making a silly rhetorical opening to this post). Anyway folks, aam aur khas janta, baba log and bibi log, it’s time, once monotonously again, for quarantines and piety, for bans and shoe-throwing contests, for frothing at the mouth and froth on the telly. Its Rushdie-Nasreen-Husain Time, again ! Ta-Raa ! And like a ‘sanjog’ made by a pretend-god in a made up marquee heaven, the stars of ‘Rushdie Time’ are crossed with the suddenly brightly shining stars of what would have otherwise been a lackluster, effigy-tarpaulined, mid-winter provincial election. Ta-Rant-Ta-Raa ! Not even a Saleem Sinai or a Gibreel Farishta, let alone a jeeta-jagtaa Salman Rushdie in his weirdest magic-realist moment could have imagined himself mixed up in a plot as diabolical as this one. If this was a court case we could call it Satanic versus Moronic. Whatever it is, there is no denying that it is a P2C2E - a ‘Process Too Complicated To Explain’. But explain we must. Process we can. Pyaar kiya to darna kya?
But seriously, just what will it take for assorted nincompoops of all varieties to stop reaching for their own leaking life-boats in the form of fulminations against Salman Rushdie or Taslima Nasreen or (the late) M.F.Husain or A.K. Ramanujan whenever their dark and precious little corner of faith is threatened by the deluge of their own insecurity ? And just when will it be possible to discuss a book, a film or a work of art in this country on the grounds of its merit more and on the grounds of how it affects an idiot’s endocrine system less ?
A spokesperson of the Daurl Uloom Deoband – an institution in the state of Uttar Pradesh (where elections, as we noted, are fortuitously due) that pretends to be a voice of authority in the lives of the Muslims of South Asia when it is in fact a sub-standard coaching centre for the mis-education of a hapless section of candidates hoping to be Sunni Muslim clergy had recently made a statement saying that Salman Rushdie, because he is the author of the Satanic Verses, ought not to be issued a visa for entering India to attend the forthcoming Jaipur Literary Festival.
His statement conveniently ignored the fact that Mr. Rushdie does not need a visa to enter India as he holds a PIO (‘Person of Indian Origin’) Card that entitles him to enter and exit India (for short periods) as and when he sees fit. If you take the Darul Uloom Deoband seriously, I strongly urge you to take a look at their web sites. Here for instance is Answer 5192 (regarding the Shia) from Darul Ifta, the web page of online fat?w? (classificatory statements on matters of faith) emanating from Darul Uloom Deoband.
“The beliefs and faiths of Shiah found in their books are against the Quran and Hadith. Therefore, they are not Muslims. It is not correct for a Sunni Muslim to get married with a Shiah …”
The man who first issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, if memory serves me correct was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the ‘Rahbar-e-Moazzem-e-Enquelab‘ (Supreme Leader) of the Iranian Revolution, probably the most prominent Shia cleric of his time. Two decade and a little more later, the Darul Uloom Deoband’s rector decides to echo a Shia Ayatollah’s stance about a novel. I suppose in these despairing days of winter even those would be ordinarily deemed kafirs can be applauded if the warm promised glow of the fires of book burning are sighted on the horizon. It must be really freezing in Deoband.
Anyway, once the ‘don’t give visa‘ demand turned out to be a damp squib, a handful of worthies, self-appointed spokesmen all, claiming to represent the hearts and mind of millions of Indian Muslims, demanded that Salman Rushdie (whose book, Satanic Verses, continues, shamefully, to be banned in India for more than two decades now) not be allowed in anyway. Bus yun hi.
Some of them threatened to disrupt everyday life, some threatened dire consequences, some auctioned footwear throwing rights, others merely wanted to protest against the author (which they have every right to do, just as the said author has every right to be here). They neglected to pay attention to the fact that Rushdie has been in and out of India several times already in the last decade or so, or that his would-be presence at the Jaipur Literary Festival had nothing to do with the controversial book or its contents.
Meanwhile, the ‘Rushdie’ issue is threatening to become a mighty ‘election campaign’ question in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where every major political contender, barring the BJP – Congress, Samajwadi Party and BSP, has its eyes on what is considered to be the bloc ‘Muslim Vote’. No wonder it is silly season again.
This time, if the Congress endorses the Uloom-Phuloom-Jai Shri-Hocus-Pocus Circus, like the late Shri Rajiv-ji Gandhi-ji habitually did, it will win the benediction of the Moron Maulana Mafia of Darul Uloom Deoband, (Let us now take a deep breath and remember how gracefully Rajiv Gandhi waltzed with the worst kind of Hindu and Muslim reactionaries whenever he got a chance. When he deprived a divorcee called Shah Bano of her legal right to maintenance. When he opened the lock on the door of a disputed structure at Ayodhya. And, oh no, oh yes, when he ur-banned Satanic Verses and ensured that the Salman Rushdie genie could be coaxed out of the Alladin’s Lamp of the poverty of public debate and political imagination in India forever, on an ‘as and when’ and ‘as is where is’ basis.
The cynical satraps who run the Congress party must be thinking that a fit-faat-fatwa from Deoband, leading up to a convenient Rushdie quarantine might translate into a few thugs ‘arranging’ for the delivery of a few more Muslim votes than would have been the case were Muslims in UP to pay more attention to the fact that a Congress leader, Home Minister P. Chidambaram has every intention to continue to insult the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh by insisting that the ‘Batla’ House ‘Encounters’ were genuine. But then, who is to say that P. Chidambaram is any less of a magic-realist than Salman Rushdie.
If the Congress ignores the ‘Rushdie’ issue, the spoils (it is thought by those who think they know) will land automatically, in the laps of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (the pocket borough of Muslim Fundamentalism in North India) or of the Bahujan Samaj Party (the pocket borough of Opportunist Fundamentalism in North India). The BJP, which has been somewhat distraught at the untimely deflation of the hot-air balloon of Anna Hazare and his cronies, has only to gain if the cake of the so-called Muslim vote it covets but can never bite into, is divided by the ungallant rivalrous and triangulated greed of its con-s(h)am-bahubali suitors. No matter who wins in UP as a result of appeasing reactionaries by keeping Rushdie out, the liberty of thought and expression loses. That is why democracy loses ever so often when elections are held in our glorious republic.
But let us not lose heart and head and hind quarter. Hope is at hand. To make things easy for everyone, It appears that the government of Rajasthan (led by the same Congress Party) has decided to either formally, or informally, endorse a quarantine of Salman Rushdie and to breathe, for now, in a friendly but heavy fashion on the organizers of the Jaipur Literary Festival. The aim is simple. It must turn out so that Rushdie is somehow ‘discouraged’ in as hospitable way as possible from making an appearance at the forthcoming Jaipur Literary Festival. Consequently, It appears that the management of the Jaipur Literary Festival has decided to announce a ‘change in schedule’.
Once again, the wonderful, and quintessentially Indian art of consensual dithering while idiots clamour is working its magic. If Rushdie is prevailed upon, or persuaded not to come, the real villain of this piece will have revealed itself to have been the Government of Rajasthan, which, by acting to transfer the benefits of its patently un-democratic and illiberal action to the Congress party’s electoral prospects in a state that is not even Rajasthan, will have shown how cynical the imagination of our political class can be. The Congress will make the Congress gain by saying nothing. And then, when it is asked to take a stand. it will piously say it did no wrong, because it said nothing. It will have dealt the silent-hand of un-doing by doing nothing that outsmarts even the cleverest nay-sayers of Gup and Chup.
In all of this, the broad swathe of the mainstream media has played its usual and stellar role. (How can it not?) First by giving prominent attention to the Fatwa-in-Fief of Farul-Fuloom and then by wringing its hands in contrition at the sad prospects of not being able to air fawning and meaningless ‘exclusive’ interviews with Salman Rushdie. Predictably, in all the high drama that we saw on TV, the Government of Rajasthan was not asked by a single anchor for an explanation as to why instead of taking steps to prevent those who threatened mayhem from doing so, it was bent on appeasing them. That was one hell of a loud omission.
I watched two television discussions last night, on NDTV and on that acme of broadcasting lung power, Times Now. Suhel Seth defended freedom of expression with as much passion when it came to Rushdie and The Satanic Verses as he had displayed while opposing freedom of expression only a few weeks ago while debating the controversy around Kapil Sibal’s lofty thoughts on the Facebook pages that insulted the same religious sentiments that Satanic Verses apparently injures. Arnab Goswami lambasted ‘the liberals who defended M.F.Husain’ asking ‘why are they silent now’ and then showed two ‘liberals’ – Ashok Vajpayee and Girish Karnad, who had both been vocal of their criticism of Hindu fundamentalist attacks on Husain and Ramanujan and were now, (rightly) very vocally critical of the fundamentalist Muslim response to Rushdie. But then, as we know well by now, Arnab Goswami is always right, even when he is always wrong.
A gentleman called Shahid Siddiqui (who claimed to have read the book, long ago in the twentieth century, and then recommended it be banned) appeared on both Times Now and NDTV, like a character in what could easily be a Rushdie novel – someone who has the magic power of carrying his own multipurpose, simultaneously multi-directional TV transmitter inside his own belly so that he can beam himself up to two different channels while saying two different versions of the same nonsense, almost at the same time.
Mr. Siddiqui said things like – “Salman Rushdie had to take back what he had written about Indira Gandhi, when she took him to court, why can’t he take back what he has written about the Propher Muhammad”.
It may come as a surprise to many, but Satanic Verses does not feature the Prophet Muhammad as a character, although Midnight’s Children (Rusdhie’s second novel) does have a character who is explicitly and unambiguously named Indira Gandhi (a.k.a the ‘black widow’). It would have helped if more people (especially those who are up in arms today) had actually read the book. But a strictly enforced ban does sometimes have a detrimental effect on the enterprise of informed criticism.It is true that people tend to read a book more when they can get their hands on it. The friends of bans are the enemies of readers.
In The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie writes in a character named Mahound, who appears in the dream of another character called Gibreel Farishta, a fictional Bollywood Film Star given to seeing strange visions in his dreams in the aftermath of (impossibly, magically) surviving a free fall from an airplane blown up high in the sky by a terrorist bomb. Is Mahound, Muhammad ? The answer to this question lies at the heart of why Salman Rushdie needed to change a single line that occurred on page 406 of the Jonathan Cape edition of Midnight’s Children as the result of a court ruling in the UK at the end of a libel suit brought by Indira Gandhi against Salman Rushdie, and equally, at the heart of why the manufactured Muslim outrage against Satanic Verses is actually without any basis.
Midnight’s Children has a prominent place for the fiendishness of Mrs. Gandhi’s actual political career and personality. Her regime is portrayed as blood-thirsty, manipulative, vindictive and venal (none of which is strictly untrue, as any objective assessment of the Emergency will bear out). But the line on page 406 of the Jonathan Cape edition of Midnight’s Children has her son, also named in the novel as Sanjay Gandhi (the ‘labia-lipped’) accusing his mother, Indira, of willfully neglecting his father and her estranged husband, Feroze Gandhi, when he was ill, to the extent that he had a heart-failure and died. Mrs. Gandhi may well have been outraged at the general mien of Salman Rushdie’s portrayal of her, but she chose to focus her ire on that one line of the Jonathan Cape edition. She sued him, in the court of the Old Bailey in London, not for blasphemy, not for obscenity, not for anything other than the specific charge of libel. She claimed that the allegation voiced in Midnights’ Children by the character called Sanjay Gandhi against the character called Indira Gandhi that she, Indira had committed criminal neglect of her sick estranged husband to the extent that he died because of it was a falsehood. By this time, Sanjay Gandhi, like Jibreel Farishta, had fallen from the sky, not to a life of strange dreams, but to his death. Feroze Gandhi had long gone, and no one is left alive that can say whether he died more of heart-break or of heart-failure. It was Indira Gandhi’s word against Salman Rushdie, and Salman Rushdie’s plea that ‘Indira Gandhi’ was a character in a novel did not persuade the court. A person called Indira Gandhi, it held, was Indira Gandhi. And so, the publisher and the author decided to remove that specific line from page 406. No other reference to Indira Gandhi (no matter how negative, or as some would say, vicious) was removed, or needed to be removed.
Indira Gandhi is Indira Gandhi, even in a novel. But Mahound is not necessarily Muhammad, and that is why Shahid Siddiqui’s comparison of the outcome of the legal process regarding the contentious sentence of page 406 of the Jonathan Cape edition of Midnight’s Children and the Satanic Verses affair is totally misplaced. What can be construed as libel in the first case cannot be transposed on to the second. Life is life and a novel is holy time-pass !
The fictionality of Mahound in Satanic Verses is foregrounded when we realize that the Mahound of Satanic Verses is not the only Mahound there is. He is neither the first Mahound, nor is he likely to be the last one. Mahound has existed as a myth, a character, an image, an archetype in the imagination much before Salman Rushdie thought of him. Medieval European Mystery Plays featured characters called Mahound who whispered evil suggestions into the ears of King Herod as he persecuted Jesus. Sometimes a Mahound would appear to goad the Pharao who harassed Moses before he ‘let his people go’ from Egypt. The Mahound who is imagined as being alive in the time of Herod, or a contemporary of Moses, cannot be Muhammad, who bears witness to his prophesy in Mecca, several centuries after the time of Herod, and even more after the time in which Moses is believed to have lived.
‘Mahound’ is ‘in his paradise above the evening star’ in G.K. Chesterton’s 1915 epic poem ‘Lepanto‘ about the Battle of Lepanto between the Catholic Maritime Powers and the Ottoman Navy that took place in 1571. Is Chesterton’s ‘Mahound’ of 1571 the same as the Prophet Muhammad of the 6th Centure CE? Must Chesterton now be anathema, just as Rushdie is ? Do we now have to countenance of the burning of books featuring my (and Antonio Gramsci’s) favorite detective, Father Brown?
The hysteria around Satanic Verses does not confine itself to Mahound alone. It hinges particularly around Mahound’s companions. Many of those who have not read the book but are particularly fond of fulminating against it say they are repulsed by references to the name ‘Ayesha’. There are four characters called Ayesha, (also the name of one of prophet Muhammad’s wives) in Satanic Verses. All four feature in Gibreel Farishta’s dreams, and none of them can be legitimately considered to be the historic Ayesha. The most notorious of these Ayeshas is a female companion of Baal, Mahound’s adversary in the novel, who (along with Baal’s other female companions) takes the name of the wives of the prophet in order to be deliberately insulting to their memory. Baal is not Mahound, Baal’s companion is not Mahound’s wife. In this case, it is not an author who is being insulting, even as he portrays an insulting character, who is, within the narrative logic of the novel, punished for her action. To state that this pretend ‘Ayesha’ (pretend even within the complex narrative logic of a magic realist novel) is the historic Ayesha who is the wife of the Prophet Muhammad is grossly unfair. It is in fact to wish to transpose the ‘fake’ Ayesha on to the ‘real’ Ayesha. We should ask who is being more insulting here. the author who maintains the distinction between ‘fake’ and ‘real’ while dealing with the name of Ayesha, or the pious and outraged (non)reader who (mis)reads the ‘fake’ on to the ‘real’?
To follow such a line of wilful nomenclatural misreading would also lead us to believe that you cannot have a character called Ayesha in a work of art or fiction. Let us immediately recall all copies of Cheb Khalid’s Rai song Ayesha, Ecoutez Moi. (Bal Thackeray’s demand that the names Sita and Radha in Deepa Mehta’s film Fire be changed in order to avoid insult to Hindu goddesses was an instance of the same logic at work). Were we to acquiesce to such demand, not just fiction, any ordinary discussion of history and current affairs would be impossible. Any critical discussion, say of the trajectory of Lal Krishna’s public life, the legacy of the comatose Atal Behari, the follies of Buddhadeb or the tyrannical acts of the late Shah of Iran, whose name, incidentally was Mohammed Reza Pehlavi, or the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah would be blasphemous - as it would amount to a criticism of the Hindu deity Krishna, the Prophet Muhammad, the rightly guided Caliph Omar, and the Gautam Buddha.
The real irony of course lies in the fact that Salman Rushdie does know his early Islamic history and exegesis really well. No one who has an independent and serious engagement with Islamicate culture and has read Satanic Verses carefully can think otherwise As someone who takes early Islam and the rich scholarship around early Islam very seriously, I have no hesitation in saying that whatever I may or may not think about Rusdhie’s subsequent work, as a novelist and as a public figure, Satanic Verses, I do maintain, is one of the great philosophical novels of the twentieth century. Just as Midnight’s Children, and the sadly unknown and under-rated Grimus, remain lasting contributions to the way we can imagine ourselves anew in the South Asia,
Of course Satanic Verses is a delicate and audacious weave of how much Rushdie really does know and the intricate arabesques of his fertile novelist’s imagination. (Some would say, the ‘devil quotes scripture’ but, that, alas, is half the point of what is so sharp about Satanic Verses). One of the things he probably does know is the hadith (with an impeccable isnad or provenance) cited by Tirmidhi who quotes Thauban and (
) Abu Hurayra (two well regarded and authoritative companions/sahaba of the Prophet Muhammad) as reporting that they heard the prophet say – “It will come to this that thirty imposters will arise and each one of them will put forth his claim to be the Apostle of God.” Ibn
(Post Script: I am especially grateful to Syed Mohammad Talha Nazim’s comment – on the post in the discussion thread on Kafila.org – for a necessary correction in the above paragraph. Abu Hurayra was incorrectly cited by me as Ibn Hurayra. Perhaps the late hour of the night when this was being written and posted, does play tricks with the mind, and sometimes, a sprite in one’s neo-cortex, or the fatigue induced accidental cross wiring of neuronal transmissions between brain, nervous system, fingertips and keyboard, does substitute the typing of a son – ibn for a father – abu. Could we read this as an instance of a Satanic Keystroke ? The erroneous expression ‘Ibn’ has been retained in the text for reasons of transparency, albeit with a cancelling strike-through -- added at 8:05 PM, Jan 18, 2012)
The words ‘Apostle of God’ translates from the Arabic expression – ‘Rasul-Allah’ one of the common ways of describing the Prophet Muhammad. There is no ambiguity about the fact that where there is prophesy, there will also be imposture. Where there will be one prophet, there will be thirty charlatans. The radiance of revelation never fails to cast its own shadows. Faith and doubt are never far apart.
Listen to Muhammad Iqbal, Urdu poet and perhaps the greatest believing Muslim philosopher of twentieth century South Asia, speaking in the voice of the rebellious Satan, or Iblis, to the pious angel Gabriel, or Jibril, in a dialogic poem called Iblis o Jibril – (note the echo here between the things that Iqbal and Rushdie’s Jibreels hear from the angel’s adversary)
gar kabhi khilvat muyassar ho to pooch, Allah se
qissa-e-adam ko rangiñ kar gaya kiska lahu ?
maiñ khaktakta huñ dil-e yazdañ meñ kaante ki tarah
tu faqat Allah-hu, Allah-hu, Allah-hu
(Ask this of God, when next you stand alone within His sight—
Whose blood is it has painted Man’s long history so bright?
In the heart of the Almighty, like a pricking thorn I lie;
You only cry for ever God, oh God, oh God most high!)
Careful readers of both Iqbal and the Quran will not fail to recognize the echo of the phrase ‘closer than the jugular vein’ (The Quran, Surah Qaf) which is said to describe God’s relationship to man, in the claim of the intimacy of the thorn in the heart, and will also not fail to notice the fact that Satan in fact claims a greater resonance between his profanity and the stratagems of God than Gabriel’s piety and God’s majesty. In fact, Gabriel’s piety, symbolized by his repetition of ‘Allah Hu, Allah Hu’, can only be exercised at a safe distance. Iqbal has Satan saying that he is much closer to God than we can imagine. Iqbal is in fact saying nothing new, for generations of devour Muslims, especially in the more heterodox Sufi traditions, have maintained that the radically profane is closer to the sacred than we think or can imagine.
We can read all of the Satanic Verses, if we choose to, not as a calumny of the Prophet Muhammad, but as a meditation on imposture , on the telling of stories, and on the confusion between revelation and its shadows. Whosoever we may be, Muslim, non-Muslim, believer, atheist, agnostic, If we choose to read The Satanic Verses as a screed against Islam and its prophet, we end up revealing our innermost fears of the Muslim other, or even, as the case may be, of the Muslim self, and of the Muslim self’s awareness of itself, and of its capacity to distinguish between reality and fiction, between dream, delusion and prophesy. .
I am not for a moment suggesting that it is illegitimate to be offended by the Satanic Verses. One can be offended by any work of literature of art, even by a scriptural text, any scriptural text. And there is enough reason for offence being taken in the history of human cultural production. But the only really commensurate response to such offence is not to call for bans and quarantines but to produce acts of close, critical reading. Of counter-writing, or polemic and argumentation. But for any of this to happen, one must read. One can even choose not to read, but to prevent others from reading, or from being in the presence of an author is a grossly inadequate response to
Perhaps one day there will be translations of the Satanic Verses freely available in as many Indian languages as possible. People will laugh with Gibreel Farishta, with Saladin Chamcha, Mimi Mamoulian and Billy Battuta in Hindi, Urdu, Bangla, Malayalam, Tamil. When Taslima Nasreen’s Bangla memoir ‘Dwikhondito’ was banned by the enlightened Buddhadeb Bhattacharya as a possible way out of the Nandigram quagmire, several people in different parts of the world downloaded, printed, bound and distributed copies of the PDF of Nasrin’s book. In this way, the ban was defeated, not just in words, but also in deed.
I know of good translations of The Satanic Verses in Arabic and Persian and a fragmentary translation in Turkish. They are available if you look hard enough for them on the internet. I am not going to disclose the URLs of these websites, because if I do, Kapil Sibal, or some learned judge will demand that the entire Internet, and not just the odd Facebook page or two be taken down. If The Satanic Verses can be translated into Arabic, Persian and Turkish, I am sure it can also be translated into Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Tamil and Bangla. I hope diligent translators do one day take up the challenge and do the reading public of the Indian subcontinent a big favour.
Meanwhile, even if Salman Rushdie has to stay away, the Jaipur Literary Festival, and the authors attending it could arrange to do a very simple thing. Simply have readings of small fragments of the Satanic Verses by as many authors attending the festival as possible. These can be done at every session. Or,if that is too much of a bother, and a burden on the schedule, at least at the session in which Salman Rushdie was scheduled to speak. Many of the authors attending are Indians. They don’t need visas, not even PIO cards. And while possessing a banned book maybe a crime. I am not sure that peaceable reading (for educational purposes only) of an extract from a single A4 sheet that has printed on it a select paragraph or two from the said book can be construed to be an offence. If reading aloud is a problem, copies can be made cheaply, and passed around to the audience. A time of silent, contemplative reading can easily be set aside at the beginning of the session(s). After all, even in a court of law, someone has to ‘read’ a supposedly offending text to decide what to do with it. This, I am sure, could be easily arranged. If an organization like SAHMAT gets it act together, it could even put out a petition that thousands will happily sign in favour of welcoming Salman Rushdie, or any author, or artist to India. Perhaps there could be a Satanic Verses Post Card campaign. That would be a good way of staying true to the legacy of Maqbool Fida Husain.
Salman Rushdie may yet lose the UP election. But may a writer’s words always win the higher ground, because the freedom of expression is more important than what happens to Salman Rushdie, or to a single book. So let's read, and never stop reading. Remember, tradition has it that the first revelation sent down to the Prophet Muhammad (now Sura 96 ‘Al Alaq’ in conventional renditions of the Quran) begins with the injunction – ‘Iqra !’ – ‘Read !’
The End. Khatam Shuddh.
This piece first appeared in Kafila