Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I won't back down! Consequences of Supporting Rushdie's Knighthood

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog-post supporting the knighthood awarded to one of my favourite novelists, Salman Rushdie. Then Spain’s El Pais carried a version of the same article on its op-ed pages.

As far as I was concerned, the article was a personal response to an honour bestowed on a writer who has provided me with many hours of reading pleasure, whose writing has taught me some of the skills I use in my own fiction, and whose early work shall always remain inspirational for me. What I did not begin to imagine was the kinds of reaction that innocuous article would evoke.

Some people wrote in to tell me of their own initial discovery of Rushdie’s fiction. Others took the opportunity to comment on the geo-politics of terror, often in ways that showed their own intolerance and prejudices. Yet others emailed me to tell me that my article was “brave” (when did personal ruminations on literature become brave? How did things come to such a pass?) And a final lot decided to email me and post blog comments that were generally incoherent and illogical but full of righteous anger, venom and threats. In fact, if only for that final category of responses, I am very glad that my blog’s comment section was set up to be moderated (thank you, o great webmaster and sibling!).

More importantly, the article evoked some specific reactions that I believe need to be addressed:

Upon reading my article, some writers and journalist friends informed me that few people from the industry have spoken up in Rushdie’s support because he can be rude, arrogant and unpleasant. Yet what has that to do with his writing? Hemingway was apparently a drunken boor! Henry Miller was crass and foul-mouthed. Do we consider their writing diminished because of their personal behaviour? Shouldn’t a writer be judged for his/her writing instead of their ability to politely discuss the weather? Are we still debating that Midnight's Children is a work of genius, that Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a literary tour d'force, that Imaginary Homelands did not impact and inspire an entire generation of thinkers?

Second is a far more insidiously vicious response that claims that Rushdie should have known better than to have incited the fundamentalists. This one comes primarily from self-styled intellectuals and other “liberals.” It achieves in one fell swoop a whole host of results. First of all, it blames the writer for crossing some imaginary line that offends an imaginary public, a convenient if spectacularly hypocritical form of thought-control. Second, it holds the writer responsible for any harm that may come to him from members of that offended public (Naguib Mahfouz, anyone!); intellectually this is the same sort of logic that would hold women in short skirts responsible for rapes and assaults and yet another example of how frighteningly similar logic is applied by idiots of all ilks.

Third, it posits a particular religious tradition as exempt from basic principles of questioning and rationality as well as liberty of thought and expression. That ensures that this response is simultaneously condescending (“we can question our religion without trouble – a sign of “civilization” - but you should have known better to do the same to yours”) and cowardly (“we know the Muslims are violent so can you not incite them”). Curiously this is the same lot who insist that “moderate” Muslims speak up against the fundamentalists and work to “reform” the religion. Yet there is a curious distance, if not outright disdain, for those who attempt to fulfil that brief including Rushdie, Mahfouz, or Manji.

Finally, a more problematic response came from the apparently illiterate users of the internet who posted inchoate, hate-filled rants about Rushdie. I posted a couple – most coherent of the lot – of these on my blog in the interest of freedom of expression. Unfortunately most of the others were nothing more than invective and pathetic threats. More than one of these expressed a desire to stone various parties involved in the issue starting with the Queen of England to Rushdie as well as his readers!

Of the various threats of violence, I think the stoning ones are the most pitiable. These reveal not only an intense insecurity but also a need for anonymity that a violent mob can provide. For me, these have provided a narrow view into the mob violence that erupts in various Islamic countries at such regular intervals. While I thought Rushdie’s contention that masculine impotence and insecurity as the roots of “terrorism” (in Shalimar the Clown) was a bit simplistic, I have always conceded that this mass emasculation – for historic, social, political or cultural reasons – definitely plays a part in forming those who carry out asymmetrical violence. However, stoning is a particularly cowardly act as it cloaks an act of violence in false social sanction in the guise of a baying mob. It allows those who lack the will to take violent action on an individual basis to create and maintain fantasies of masculine potency by acting collectively. More importantly it allows the cowardly perpetrator to claim anonymity.

I realise that the above explanation may be a little complex for those who are incapable of thinking or expressing themselves coherently or logically.

So here goes a little anecdote for those who have taken the trouble to post on my blog or email me with threats of stoning or other violence: Like Rushdie, I grew up in a household where books were kissed. But more importantly, I also grew up in a home where pens, notebooks, and more recently - with typically Hindu logic – laptops are worshipped.

Every year on Diwali, you see, we are required to offer prayers to Durga – the goddess of war – and to our weapons that she is believed to embody and inhabit. Every Diwali, my family would clean and polish old swords, spears, revolvers and rifles. And at midnight, these would be placed on the altar and anointed with kumkum, turmeric, ghee. We would conduct an aarti, the polished metal of the weapons gleaming through the fragrant smoke of diyas and agarbattis.

While I was still a child, my grandmother began the tradition of placing our schoolbooks and pens on the altar instead of weapons. She said that in the coming world, these would be our weapons. That tradition endures and to this day, I place my laptop, even draft manuscripts, on the altar on Diwali. It is a tradition I plan to uphold and live for the rest of my life.

The point I am making is simple: keep those threats coming!

I am not about to back down from saying what I believe. And I am not about to back down from fighting for what I believe. And I am not – like some writers – about to “self-censor” my writing because some pathetic creature out there may be offended.

This is not about Rushdie! This is about my right to words, stories, opinions. And I will be damned if I let go of those without a fight!


  1. Well said, Sunny!

  2. it is indeed our right and duty to fight for our freedom of expression! aage barho sunny hum tumhare saath hain! :D

  3. Thanks Karen. And Ray of Light! Guess idiotic emails just p*** me off.

  4. Hi Sunny.

    I have been going through your blogs for quite some time now and have been leaving comments whenever the topics interested me. To some one like me who would hardly know the difference between Midnight's Children and Freedom at Midnight, conferring of Knighthood on Salman Rushdie by the Monarchy was of hardly any interest except that may be I would remember it for the sake of my General knowledge.

    We all know that whenever an award or recognition is given to someone there would be a section who would go gaga over it and ofcourse, there would also be people who would disagree and feel the same was undeserving. And frankly, both the sections are entitled to their opinion. But I am surprised when you say that you had not imagined the kind of reaction your post would evoke because your post did go beyond admiring the literary skills of Salman Rushdie. Please note that all I am saying is that you should not have been surprised but should have expected it. It wasn’t as innocuous as you say it was.

    Again I disagree with you when you say that there was nothing ‘brave’ about it. Your article did take a stand against violence and mocked at fundamentalists. To that count it was brave and not simply personal ruminations on literature as you make them out to be and secondly things have actually come to this pass in the world we are living in today. Anyone denying it is only fooling himself or herself. How they have come to this pass is a matter of debate in itself.

    I agree with you when you say that a writer should be judged for his writing skills and not for his ability to discuss the weather. But at the same time you must remember that we are not discussing Booker’s prize here but Knighthood. So if someone feels that apart from his literary skills, other factors should also have been considered, I would say he/she has a valid point. Again, I am not going into the debate whether he should have been Knighted or not, but just expressing an opinion on whether one’s contribution in a particular field should be the sole criterion for conferring knighthood or not.

    No one in his senses will agree that Rushdie should have known better than to incite fundamentalists. But at the same time a Rushdie and Hussain should also refrain from hurting the sensibilities of others. When you exhibit your writings or paintings to a private audience (with their consent) and cross that so called imaginary line I don’t see any harm. But when the same thing is for public at large, one needs to be more careful. However, if one does cross that imaginary line of propriety it doesn’t give any one the right to issue ‘fatwa’ against him and place a reward on his head. The best way to retaliate would be to pay back in the same coin that is through pen or pencil. For a change, from this point onwards I agree with whatever you wrote about mob mentality to stoning.

    And Hats Off to your Grandma. We need more of her tribe in this world today.

    Girish Dua

  5. Dear Sunny,

    I've linked to this new Rushdie piece of yours from my own blog. Thank you for standing firm on freedom of speech. The so-called 'liberals' in the West who will not accept criticism of religion seem more like censors to me than liberals. If we don't watch out we will back to Plato and banning the poets from the repuiblic unless all they write is uplifting panegyrics to whatever ideology is in fashion. Write on, Sunny, and write on all secular and questioning writers too, from everywhere in the world!

  6. Hi Girish: Thanks for your comment. I wouldn't put Rushdie and Hussain in the same category: Rushdie questioned Islam, a religion he was born into and brought up with (however nominally). Hussain chose to paint Hindu goddesses and used them for "freedom of expression" but very quickly "voluntarily withdrew" his film from theatres when Muslims objected to a song's lyrics. Thats hypocrisy but also comparing a prizewinning pedigree Weimeranner to a scraggy street mutt (sorry, love dogs!).

    Btw, reason I think my first post was quite personal was because my blog is not heavily marketed. It mostly attracts friends and the few readers who like my books. :-) Hardly like a big public blog then.

  7. I'm incredibly your blog, and your post on Rushdie, exist. DO NOT LET THE FUNDIE NITWITS SCARE YOU OFF.

  8. Creativity requires freedom of expression. Where there is no freedom there is no creativity. By being afraid we give others power over us. Keep writing, Keep expressing your mind without any fear. Lot of good wishes for you. I like the picture of Durga- destroyer of evil.

  9. Thanks Sundeep. I have always liked images of Durga, and it seemed appropriate to invoke her in this particular context. Seems to have worked as I haven't gotten any ridiculous comments. :-)