On the day he thought they were going to kill him, Salman Rushdie, got up at some time in the morning to wait for the news-rooms in India to wake up. He’d dreamed that he was not going to a Literature festival in Jaipur, where he was much in demand, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird (read – tweet) shit.
Hope Marquez forgives me for borrowing these opening lines (and more so for tweaking them) from one of his classics – Chronicle of a death foretold. But, with all the recent focus (and growing) on Salman Rushdie, I could not help draw a parallel between Marquez’s protagonist in the novel, Santiago Nassar and him. Rushdie, if not in any other way, certainly is a perfect alter ego of Nassar in being a victim of a collective social consciousness. What more, just like everyone in the town knew that Santiago is going to be murdered, each of the esteemed guest and writers in Jaipur Literary Festival knew that the storm was coming moment Rushdie was announced as one of the speakers. For a moment this also seemed like a great politically correct ploy to generate more eye balls for the event. (Is it?) Having said so, when I look at the course of event, from the announcement of the organisers, the immediate uproar, the debates (between the intellectuals/the heathens – almost similar), Rushdie’s regret of absence to the organised sometimes honest and mostly fame piggy-backing support for him and his book-that-shalth-not-be-named, (see footnotes if you have to J) the whole episode seemed to be a chronicle of events foretold with the name Rushdie associated in India – the ‘secular-social-democratic’ state. So, why was the episode not avoided at all by the organisers? Was there an expectation that in a country where religious and minority politics are evergreen agendas will suddenly become tolerant to an issue that was raised 24 years ago? Not if you ask me and not in another 24 years because it is a collective will of the people that refuses to change.
The Vicario brothers never wanted to kill Santiago. They wanted someone to stop them and it is why they pronounced their intention loud. Santiago was murdered by the collective will of the people who considered him guilty on the word of Angela Vicario – the woman who he allegedly ‘perpetuated’. The Fatwa against Rushdie by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini was echoed in unison by many Muslim countries and nearer home by the hardliner Muslim bodies – but that was 1988. Over the years Iran has softened their stand on Rushdie but in India politics remain the same, perhaps even more dispersed and hence the chances of the author making a visit are even lesser. Yet, the esteemed organisers overlook this socio-political development of the country– so it was in the calling that this event makes news.
News it did make – in as well as out of the event allowing everyone and anyone who knew (or did not) anything about the author, Indian democracy and politics to make a statement or an argument, so much so that it also popped in after dinner conversations. If I were Rushdie, I would be careful, because this is what Santiago Nassar did not read into as the sign of his impending death. When people start making opinions based on a collective debate, the outcome could be fatal. There were only a select few who spoke for Nassar, most of others willed his death and so chose to be impotent spectators to the murder. The literary fraternity’s support for Rushdie is the select few and their voices cannot save the author from the slingshots of the bigger mass who in their impotency to such situations only can become willing participants to the attack. In this whole episode some have chosen to blame the government. (Chuckle) That is so easy – makes me feel that I could wake up tomorrow with malaria and blame that the government did not kill the mosquitoes. Seriously, this is lame because not all the security in the world can protect a man whose fate has been foretold by a socio-political history.
I do not suggest that Rushdie should be in hiding or that he should not come to India at all (for God’s sake he does not even need a Visa) but if he chooses to do so then he has to embrace the fate that he has sealed with his book and take a stand. Triggering a debate will only oil the rusty lamp. And if there should be a debate then it should not be whether Rushdie should come to India or not, rather it should be if the issue really affects the lives of the thirteen percent Muslim population in India. The ‘few-good-men-and-women’ who support the author will either wise continue to do so across the mediums. His coming to India or not really should not make the big difference. The real need which this event has actually catalysed is – Can we as Indian’s discard a religious socio-political history and come off as a truly democratic state, where art and its form are not licensed by petty sentiments? Not, if we do not begin to address this in our own social framework and practice democracy of thoughts towards religion and community. Till then we will continue to have these periodic debates that will die almost as soon as a four day festival comes to an end. (Or am I wrong?)
Note: I have only read the following of Rushdie – Haroun and the sea of stories, Midnight’s Children, The Moor’s Last Sigh, Shalimar the Clown, East, West, Fury and hence may have a limited outlook to the debate that all of us are so engrossed in. I could not get hold of the Satanic Verses yet, but I believe someone from JLF might just have smuggled a copy. Pity if after all this, someone has not managed to. J