Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Onward, Sir Salman: In support of knighthood for luminous prose

Okay, so I am not a huge fan of the monarchy (product of a republic, you see) or for that matter ridiculous honours from the Queen that can apparently be purchased for a good price. So when the news broke that Salman Rushdie had made the Queen’s annual list of honours being banto-ed, I smiled at the thought of “Sir” Rushdie, spent a brief minute imagining the paroxysms of joy “Lady” Padma must be experiencing, and then flipped the page.

Then came the inevitable flurry of news reports suggesting that the “Muslim world” was outraged by the honour bestowed on Mr. Rushdie. Dear departed General Zia’s son explained in the Pakistani parliament – and apparently with all seriousness - how the honour “justified” suicide bombings. Violent (but controlled) mobs took to the streets in Multan and Rawalpindi, and apparently the British High Commissioner to Islamabad was summoned to explain Her Majesty’s actions. In short, the usual fun and games that accompany living in the 21st century.

I still didn’t think much of it – beyond rolling my eyes (again!) at a bunch of unfunny loony tunes indulging in a bit of off-hours violence in the name of Islam. Then this morning, I found the esteemed Times of London circulating a petition in support of “Sir” Rushdie's knighthood. That got my attention!

Did that mean Her Majesty (or more appropriately Mr. Brown, the PM-to-be) was going to bow to pressure from the aforementioned loony tunes? Was Mr. Rushdie going to be stripped of his title before even being knighted? Worse still, was the UK again falling into the trap of appeasement (much like our own tottering politicos from back home) of a radical minority that insists on demanding privilege upon privilege with no accompanying attempt at civil, political or social reciprocity.

So being the good Rushdie fan, I promptly signed the petition. I must mention that this petition is open only to UK residents, I presume to ensure a representative sampling of the country’s views rather than violent opposition from the apparently “1.5 billion outraged Muslims of the world” (according to Mr. Haq of the Pakistani Parliament) or support from hundreds of millions of rabble-rousing net savvy Indians (remember the Shilpa episode?).

Of course I have since been wondering about consequences of the whole episode – would the current fracas mean “Sir” Rushdie shall spend more time at rock concerts and fashion shows instead of his desk? Or perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise. Perhaps all those bomb threats will curtail his hectic social life and send him back to writing. Oh, for a great novel again from that literary light instead of recycled pulp he seems to have resorted to in the past decade!

More importantly though – and all snide remarks aside - the recent events have reminded me of my discovery of Mr. Rushdie’s opus back when I had turned sixteen and set myself the task of reading through his novels, starting with Midnight’s Children (having been too young to read “adult” literature when it won the Booker).

During those hot summer days in Varanasi, I devoured first Midnight’s Children, then Grimus, and finally Shame. Holding the books with my fingertips so as not to mess up the pages with sweat, I sprawled on the red stone floors of my grandmother’s house, aided only by a pillow under my elbows. Of course, the pillow had to be turned over every ten minutes to its cool side. And after an afternoon of reading, my stomach, knees, back all hurt. But the floor was the only cool part of the house as the unrelenting summer left all linen, clothing, even wood, unbearably hot.

But none of the discomfort mattered. Mr. Rushdie’s novels opened a new world to a teenager who had intuited some of the literary and linguistic realities of writing in English but had found no support from teachers or other writing. Mr. Rushdie demonstrated – and how! – that the English language could be kicked about and reshaped to sound like the language we spoke in the playground and markets. That it needed none of the deference and respect that our teachers (ah, for Catholic schools!) insisted it deserved. That we could ignore the “great (all European) masters” of the novel and tell a story the way we liked. Those were glorious – and much needed - affirmations from a master! Besides, all of it was worth the looks on our teachers’ faces, shocked and blushing above their pristine white habits, when I airily declared that my writing style (shocking as it was) had been influenced by the notorious Salman Rushdie!

At the end of the summer, we moved to New York, a city that I have long since outgrown but is now Rushdie’s home of choice but my collection of Rushdies moved with us. Over the years, I have acquired each of his books and found myself returning to Midnight's Children and Haroun... repeatedly. No longer for inspiration but for pure reading pleasure!

I was in college when Mr. Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. I remember reading the book sprawled on the far more comfortable lawns of the university, basking in the autumn sunlight that turns all of New England gold and red. I remember laughing through much of the book – especially at Gibreel Farishta’s antics and sly references to the Amitabh-Rekha affair. I was an outsider on that New England campus, but The Satanic Verses made me feel like an insider in a world locked to my colleagues. I knew the references, the places, even the language even as they groped in the dark.

Not too much later, the fatwa was declared and Mr. Rushdie forced into hiding. I can’t say I was particularly surprised although the stated reasons seemed a bit untenable. Having studied Islam briefly in school during my father’s sojourn in Pakistan, I searched in vain for the “blasphemous” passages, or at least passages that aren’t already to be found in some form in earlier texts by Muslim writers.

Then on my third reading of the novel, I realised – with the sort of excitement only a young adult can muster – that the Ayatollah wasn’t offended by the “blasphemy.” Mr. Rushdie’s “crime” had been something far simpler and more personal, and of course I had noticed it even at the first reading. Even at the first instance, I had admire his courage in writing the passage where Gibreel looks back to see the radical Islamic leader (quite clearly the esteemed Ayatollah) devouring thousands of his followers. Isn’t it lucky that none of the lunatic religious fringe has bothered reading the novel? How much better to proclaim that the novel insults the prophet than to express offence at being depicted as a murderous, eccentric, irrational opportunist!

That realisation brought another important lesson in becoming a writer. If Mr.Rushdie’s earlier novels had taught me the freedom I could claim – as a writer in English from India – for transforming form and language, The Satanic Verses taught me to value courage as part of the writer’s repertoire of tools.

In the years since those heady days of university, things have changed. Mr. Rushdie’s pen seems to have grown blunt as his social appearances take precedence. Of course, I still rush out to pick up every new novel, only to be disappointed. And amongst certain Indian writers in English, it is now fashionable to run down both Mr. Rushdie’s skill as well as his contribution to all our writing trajectories. And that is indeed a shame – far greater perhaps than the illiterate religious fanatic fringe that threatens violence.

Salman Rushdie's greatest achievement was to blast open the hallowed portals of writing in English for a whole generation of writers from the former colonies. And he did that to the sound of joyous - albeit at times, sly - laughter, with luminous prose that thrilled and delighted. If he never puts down a single word on paper ever again, his oeuvre is worthy of respect. For that alone, his knighthood (and any other honour) is well deserved.

And it is the most appropriate response to the religious loons who demand his head!

Photo courtesy: Times of London


  1. Wonderful post!
    Rushdie is a wonderful humanist writer, one who happens to have been born Muslim. He has called for a Reformation of Islam, much like Christian dissidents before Martin Luther. The early Christian establishment was very much as brutal as the Muslim hard-liners are today with their critics, so the right wing needs to be careful about pretending that 'we're above all that'. Tolerance comes with maturity, and Christians shouldn't cast any stones at Muslims, whose religion is younger, but the vast majority of whom personify generosity & kindness.

  2. Thanks. Fortunately since I am neither Muslim nor Christian, perhaps I could. (Just kidding) ;-)

  3. No, didn' mean to accuse you of being either one, but couldn't resist the temptation to deliver a sermon... Commenting on somebody else's blog just brings out the self-righteous Puritan in me.
    Cast your stones where ye may, sweetie.

  4. ray of light6/20/2007 1:23 am

    brillant! i certainly wish the so called saviours of the faith would 'read' before they leapt. funny how they have to wait for an honour before they remember to 're-implement' that misguided faith vis-a-vis rushdie. and speaking of misguided: too bad they do not speak up just as loudly to the more pressing issues of human rights abuse in iraq, shi'a - sunni divisions and of course the good ol' qamis al usman (palestine). as always a pleasure to read ur writing.

  5. Good one, of course the very peaceful Muslims are justified for destroying the whole world over this. What, the Queen can't Knight someone she likes? She can't knight someone that other people don't like? But I'm sure Sir Rushdie has mixed emotions on this; the Queen has put him in much greater danger.

    At least this incident will lose the terrorists even more of their dhimmidiot appeasers.

    absurd thought -
    God of the Universe says
    appease religious killers

    continue to spoil them
    violent tantrums pay off

  6. Brilliantly put Sunny. I reread Satanic Verses every now and then... never being quite sure which I like more (Midnight's Children, Haroun or...). And every time I read a different book, notice different things; I guess also understand different things. I remember reading it the first time, never having set foot in India, not knowing all that much about India, and certainly not understanding more than ten per cent of it. Yet, the preciseness, and the wildness, and the inovativeness of the prose, the text, the jumbling with words... of course I did notice that. It made me return again and again to his work. 'Fury' made me furious though, as it did so many others, and Shalimar only managed to intrigue me mildly, marginally, a little... I guess that is also why I like your statement that it wouldn't be so bad if all the hullabaloo would chase him into hiding again... back to writing that One book we are all waiting for. Alas, amen.

  7. Love the post.

    It's so strange that somehow whenever Rushdie emerges in popular culture, he ends up reduced to the Satanic Verses, whereas he is so much more than that. And like Michiel above, I can remember the first time I started reading Satanic Verses. I barely understood most of what was written, but somehow, the one thing that permeated through the writing was the sheer exuberance of his personality (never having met the man, I can only presume that it was such!) and the amazing extent of his imagination. For that, and that alone, he is worthy of honour, even if his more recent writing has proved to be a bit of a damp squib.

    Have a shout out to your post on my blog - check it out!

  8. I remember I was in schools. Rushdie was everywhere. He was on the television, in the print, on the radio. It was impossible to escape Rushdie. I laid my hands on the Midnight's Children. I hadn't read anything like this before. A novel in English, written by a writer of Indian origin. He made us proud. I too started nurturing a dream of becoming a writer like Rushdie. But due to many factors (laziness or maybe lack of imagination included)I am still away from the dream. But, I am delighted that you have lived your dream and have been published. With best wishes and regards.

    Sundeep Kumar

  9. Thanks Sundeep. Glad to know that I wasnt alone in that early experience of Rushdie's prose.

  10. HI Sunny,

    Thanks for the post which thumbs nose at the pseudos among Indian writers.

    Thanks for the comment on my blog. I am linking to your blog and hope you do the same. My blog: http://johnpmathew.blogspot.com.



  11. Dear Sunny,

    I think you should take some time out of your busy schedule to read his book The Satanic Verses and then you will come to know about the true reality. Let me help you out and give you some examples out of this books. And if after reading that you still keep the same idea to give freedom of expression to that person, then one simple thing...... GOD BLESS YOU.
    1- The word 'Fuck' has been used total 60 times in the book at following pages: 27, 54, 80, 87, 100, 101, 109, 149, 158, 159(2 times), 163(2 times), 178(3 times), 179, 180(2 times), 207, 245, 260, 261, 262, 265, 268(6 times), 269(2 times), 270(4 times), 271, 278, 285, 306, 313, 351, 380, 410, 412, 421, 429, 430, 435, 441(6 times), 448, 479, 526.
    The word 'Bastard' has been used total 49 times on the following pages: 1, 8, 19, 51, 56, 59, 68(2 times), 73, 80(2 times), 86, 95, 105, 116(2 times), 122, 137(3 times), 142, 164, 169, 174, 198, 256, 259, 266, 268, 280(2 times), 281, 284, 285, 316, 326, 359, 367, 376, 418, 425, 430, 436, 448, 467, 511, 520, 537, 539.

    2- The word 'Cunt' has been used total 6 times on the following pages: 163, 389(2 times), 441(3 times).

    3- The word 'Haramzada' (bastard in urdu) has been used total 2 times on the following pages: 27, 207.

    4-The word 'Mother Fucking' has been used total 3 times on the following pages: 80, 85, 122.

    5-The word 'Sister Fucking' has been used total 1 times on the following pages:80.

    6-The word 'Chootia' has been used total 1 times on the following pages: 80.

    7-The word 'Maggie the Bitch' has been used total 1 times on the following pages:269.

    8-The word 'Damn all Indians' has been used total 1 times on the following pages:137.

    9-The word to describe UK as 'Coffin of an Island ' has been used total 1 times on the following pages:146.

    10-The word 'Mother Fucking Americans' has been used total 1 times on the following pages:80.

    11-The word 'Sister Fucking British' has been used total 1 times on the following pages:80.

    12-The word 'Angrez Bastards' has been used total 1 times on the following pages:59.

    13-The word 'White Bastards' has been used total 1 times on the following pages:284.
    14- The word 'Shiv Sena Bastards' has been used total 1 times on the following pages:537.

    15- 'Nigger eat white man's shit' has been used total 1 times on the following pages:461.

    16-'White woman never mind fat Jewish, non-deferential white women – were for fucking and throwing' has been used total 1 times on the following pages:261.

    17- Remarks about Hindu Gods: On Page 24 “After six movies playing the elephant headed god he was permitted to remove the thick, pendulous, grey mask and put on, instead a long hairy tail, I order to play Hanuman the monkey king in a sequence of adventure movies that owed more to a certain cheap television series emanating from Hong Kong than it did to the Ramayana. This series proved so popular that monkey-tail became de rigueur for the city's young bucks at the kind of parties frequented by convent girls known as 'firecrackers' because of their readiness to go off with a bang.” Further on page 25, “ ‘Even before he replaced false head with fake tail he had become irresistibly attractive to women. The seduction of his fame had grown so great that several of these young ladies asked him if he would keep the Ganesh-mask on while they made love but he refused out of the dignity of the God’.

    18- Remarks about Queen on Page 169, “… he found himself dreaming of the queen, of making tender love to the Monarch. She was the body of Britain, the avatar of the State, and he had chosen her, joined with her; she was his Beloved, the moon of his delight”.

    I hope you will think again whise standing beside that person again.


    K Rana

  12. Rana, I have posted your comment as part of my belief in freedom of expression. Unfortunately, unlike Rushdie, you have no ability to use that freedom of expression either creatively nor powerfully. So just to clarify, I DO stand by my appreciation of what Rushdie has written. You see, I DO use words like cunt, chootia, mother fucker etc (maderchod, behenchod) to describe monsters who make up much of the world polity! Best regards

  13. Well said Sunny, I too use these terms and they shouldn't be isolated from the context and used to create hysteria.

    Sunny, thanks for the comment on my blog. The word "unsullied" was not used in the context of "giving birth to child" it was a comment about her general appearance.


  14. rushdie shud be stoned to death and so shud the queen for knighting him

  15. Once again I have allowed an idiot to post their (anonymous) comment here basically because I believe in freedom of speech.

    For the record, I also think that stoning shows immense COWARDICE because it relies on mob fury and grants anonymity to those who have no courage to stand alone and take responsibility for their violence. But those who threaten to kill writers cant be expected to be anything but cowards.

  16. Just thought you would like to see the response to Rushdie's knighthood on a SA literature discussion forum: "Years ago I wrote that Rushdie (and indeed all writers) had a duty to censor themselves when they knew their writings would be provocative and even inflammatory and cause the death of innocents...Rushdie was raised a Muslim and experienced life and religious fanaticism at first hand in both India and Pakistan. He should have known better, said, "The hell with it!" and went after the dollar. And now he is a knight! British honors can be bought, but whether he bought his knighthood or was awarded it, the list has been cheapened."

    It made me very angry to read this. I hope it angers you too.