Salman Rushdie —Of Blood, Fear and Blank Pages

    By Shankar Mony

     

    In Albert Camus’ The Outsider, the indifferent main protagonist, Mersault, in prison while waiting for his final sentencing, makes a telling observation. He says – in one of the fundamental takeaways of the book – that ‘in the long run one gets used to anything.’Salman Rushdie, who is now seventy-five now, has for long been a living embodiment of that particular tenet. Particularly since Valentine’s Day 1989, when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued the fatwa for the blasphemy against Islam he perceived in The Satanic Verses. And Rushdie, who initially could not believe that such a thing could occur, or be taken seriously, was soon set right having been assigned round the clock security for the better part of ten years. Indeed, the fatwa was not only to be carried out on Rushdie, but on all who were involved. Subsequently, Rushdie’s Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death in 1991, his Italian translator Ettore Capriolo also having been attacked and stabbed seriously a few days before that. William Nygaard, Rushdie’s Norwegian publisher, was shot and critically injured. And most horrifically of all, the book’s Turkish translator, Aziz Nesin, was targeted by a group of arsonists, who set fire to a hotel in Sivas, Turkey, after Friday prayers, killing thirty-seven people, while Nesin himself was fortunate to escape as they did not recognize him when they did see him. The Sivas Massacre is mourned and commemorated by Alevi Turks every year.

    It is often forgotten that Iran was a weakening country then, that the Ayatollah used Rushdie and his book as political tools to give Muslims a sense of solidarity and to give Iran pole position as the arbiter of all things Islamic in a race with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the book was not even banned in Iran initially, even being reviewed in their papers. But after a few mullahs read out certain parts of the book to the Ayatollah, including a character who was unsympathetically written and clearly intended to be a caricature of him, Khomeini saw red. But the fatwa was more of a political tool than a response to any deep theological offense.

    All the deaths and losses hit home for Rushdie, who was also undergoing personal tribulations. His marriage fell apart, and he spent a lot of time worrying about his son. He went ahead and issued a statement saying that he did not agree with any of the sentiments expressed by any of the characters in the novel, a backward step that he felt ashamed for later.

    But he went on writing. In the long run, a man gets used to anything. Even in this new reality, he was first and foremost a writer. In a book he wrote at the height of the fatwa, the main protagonist loses his ability to tell stories. The son steps in and saves him. The book was a collection of stories for his son, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Rushdie’s son’s name is Zafar Haroun), and it is not hard to see the subtext in the writing of Haroun. More tellingly, the writing of the book reminded Rushdie of the thing that was closest to his heart. Refusing to bow to the pressure, Rushdie got married again while under police protection, and moved to New York. He became a citizen of the brightest city in the world and started to make more and more public appearances. He remarked about getting a reminder from Iran every year about the fatwa on February 14, his ‘unfunny Valentine, he called it. But he did also state that the fatwa was only being observed in name, and not in action. Indeed, The Satanic Verses was Rushdie’s fourth book. Since the fatwa, he has written sixteen more, hardly evidence of hiding or holding back. All the violence had seemingly died down, and it was possible for a man to live normally, or at least as normal as a man can live knowing that more than a billion people have been instructed to kill him. After all the turmoil and needless deaths, it was time for everyone to move on. And it seemed as if that was what had happened. Rushdie believed it. And we believed it.

    But everyone walks at their own pace, and Rushdie could not have imagined what would happen in August of 2022, when he was attacked seriously by a twenty-four-year-old man at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, a man who had not even been born when the fatwa had been issued. A man who admitted to only reading a couple of pages of the book, but who had formed a negative opinion of Rushdie based on videos. “I don’t like the person. I don’t think he’s a very good person,” he said about Rushdie. “I don’t like him. I don’t like him very much.

    “He’s someone who attacked Islam, he attacked their beliefs, the belief systems.” All this was based on two pages and a few videos. Not unlike the Ayatollah himself, who had not read the entire book.

    So, once again, Rushdie ‘vanishes into the front page’, as Martin Amis put it so memorably back in 1989. And if we think of Rushdie v the fatwa as a standoff, who do we think can claim victory? Is it Rushdie, because he is still alive, because he still lives fully and completely with multiple marriages and divorces, sixteen published books, a very funny appearance on the American sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm talking about ‘fatwa sex’ as a benefit for a man under a fatwa who shows no fear, and a vibrant life in New York, where he was taken in as one of their own and participated in the life of the city. Or was the winner the fatwa, for the deaths listed above, the translators and publishers and entirely random strangers in Turkey who all fell victim? There is no result in this battle; the battle goes on. Rushdie has claimed some resounding victories with his books, not the least of which is his latest, Victory City. The book has at its centre a divine woman, Pampa Kampana, who lives to the age of two hundred and forty-seven, having planted seeds to give rise to a kingdom and having had her life intertwined with the country she created (the kingdom is based on the Vijayanagar kingdom, historically). At the end of the novel, Pampa’s last words are,

    ‘I have seen empires rise and fall,

    Have are they remembered now, these kings, these queens?

    They exist only in words.’

    It is hard not to be reminded of the great P.B. Shelley poem Ozymandias, which describes a broken statue, and the pedestal says,

    ‘My Name is Ozymandias, King of Kings.

    Look at my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

    Nothing beside remains.’

    Both of these verses remind us of the impermanence of power, of tyranny, and of kings and queens who rule temporarily but eventually succumb to death and other forces. But, as both poems evince, words do remain. And words have a power, all of their own, which is primarily why they are seen as such a threat.

    The world will now wait and watch over Rushdie, who has lost sight in one eye and one arm. Will Victory City be his last work? Rushdie himself has said in interviews that he is not back to writing and is still waiting for the muse to strike. In 2012, he published Joseph Anton, his memoir about living under the fatwa; the title comes from his code name, created from the first names of his two favourite authors, Conrad and Chekhov. Now, he senses that one day he will write about this attack. How or when is yet to be made clear. But one thing he was clear about, that the book would have to be in first person. For stabbing was so personal, far more personal than a death sentence from five thousand kilometres away. A very personal thing, indeed.

    Encouragingly, he is back in the public eye. In February, The New Yorker published an interview with him, conducted by their editor, David Remnick. It was his first interview since the stabbing. And now he has managed to step out in public – making his first public appearance and a small speech at the PEN America gala in New York in May, mentioning the bravery of those who rushed to help him and preventing the worst from occurring. He appeared in good humour too, telling Remnick, ‘I’ve been better, but considering what happened, I’m not so bad.” His good cheer is inspiring and encouraging to us all.

    It is hard to imagine a world in which The Satanic Verses would be written today. Any self-aware writer would probably foresee a world of trouble, an imminent stabbing and shelve the idea at the concept. If a writer were foolhardy or passionate or enthusiastic enough to complete such a novel, it becomes even tougher to see any publisher wanting to publish it, given the repercussions and cost. Many bookstores that carried The Satanic Verses made sure they didn’t display them in their shop windows. Even though the book came out in an environment of liberalism, the Wall coming down, the changes in Russia, the book was received such.

    Today self-censoring that has crept into every arm of art, be it movies, theatre or television. History is casually altered to support a ruling right-wing view, even in classrooms; cartoonists attacked in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten. Various esteemed organisations like The Royal Court, The Barbican theatre, Berlin’s Deutsche Opera and the Tate Gallery in London altered or cancelled to ensure they were being seen as being fair and also to avoid any other, possibly more violent repercussions. Effectively the fatwa has worked. It has planted seeds of fear and concern, not only in the writers, but also in those parties who would be responsible for bringing it to public consumption.

    How do you measure this cost? The true cost of the fatwa, which incredibly can inspire an uninformed man, born nine years after the event, to take it upon himself to stab repeatedly an author he disliked and the man who came to his defence. How do you stack up the volumes of books and poems and songs and plays not written out of fear of consequence, of movies not made out of fear of offence. It is in these unwritten reams that the true cost lies, a cost that we continue to keep paying even today. In blood and fear and blank pages.

    Shankar Mony lives in Pune, India. He is one of the organizers of Pune Writers’ Group, a creative community serving over 2000 writers. He is working on a novel and a memoir, both in different stages of incompletion. He has an affinity for the Russian writers, V. S. Naipaul and the short fiction of William Trevor and Tobias Wolff.

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