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