Surviving the Ayatollah’s murderous fatwa is for Salman Rushdie a personal triumph of love over hate, says Shougat Dasgupta. The same cannot be said for a world ever more hate-ridden, ever more fearful
TWO, PERHAPS three years ago, watching a BBC documentary, I saw Syed Shahabuddin recall, eyes still glinting through his spectacles at the memory 20 years later, an article about Salman Rushdie’s forthcoming book, The Satanic Verses: “The moment I read it [the article, of course, not the book, never the book], I felt it was hot potatoes.” He pronounced the ‘a’ in ‘potatoes’ with a short, sharp burst as in ‘tack’. Shahabuddin petitioned the government to ban the unreleased, unread book. This book, he told the BBC interviewer, “was going to be a bundle of troubles, was going to set the country on fire, was going to spill blood.” The weak, elections-focussed Rajiv Gandhi government took a preemptive, alarmist action, arguably precipitating the anger and hysteria that culminated in the Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous Valentine’s Day fatwa, a decidedly unloving edict uttered as a dying croak.
Rushdie’s novel, his fourth in an increasingly celebrated career, was released in England on 26 September 1988. On 5 October India became the first country to ban the book. In the government’s defence, it did admit that the ban “did not detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie’s work”, a far better review than those The Satanic Verses received from even such redoubtable men of letters as George Steiner who pronounced it “unreadable”. Other countries followed India’s lead. Protests mounted in intensity around the world until on 14 January 1989, about 1,000 British Muslims gathered, almost festively, in the Northern English city of Bradford to burn the book, tethered to a wooden stake. The demonisation, quite literally, of Rushdie was proceeding apace. A month later, with lives having already been lost in rioting in Pakistan, the metamorphosis of writer into devil, Salman Rushdie into Satan Rushdy, was complete.
After 23 years, about half of it spent in hiding, Rushdie has published Joseph Anton, released worldwide on 18 September, his own account of ‘the Rushdie affair’, an effort to reclaim his story from the newspapers and magazines, to exert a novelist’s control over a period when he could not have felt less in control. A decade after the fatwa was declared, though as Rushdie points out in his book no official paperwork had ever been seen, Iran said it was no longer interested in seeking Rushdie’s execution. The threat still remains, as does the manufactured outrage, brandished ghoulishly at any politically opportune moment. Even now, as much worse rioting takes place in parts of the world, including Rushdie’s beloved Kashmir, over The Innocence of Muslims, an Iranian group has raised the bounty on his head to $3.3 million.
In Joseph Anton, Rushdie uses the memorably creepy scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds in which our feathered friends gather singly and then in bunches on a climbing frame, as children sing a nonsense rhyme and Tippi Hedren lights a cigarette, until the frame is as dark with birds as the minatory sky is with clouds as a metaphor for growing Islamic radicalisation. The fatwa was the first bird. It is a characteristically artful image. The dark-winged birds huddled together evoke dark-robed greybeards. I confess when I heard that Rushdie was writing a memoir, mixed with curiosity and impatience was a fear that he would, to borrow from Morrissey, bear more grudges than lonely high court judges (speaking of dark-robed greybeards). Certainly, Rushdie settles scores in Joseph Anton, with his ex-wives, with various writers who slighted him during the fatwa years. As Rushdie writes of two women who were part of an ‘International Rushdie Defence Committee’, “[t]hey saw him in many moods, depressed, belligerent, judicious, self-pitying, controlled, weak, solipsistic, strong, petty and determined”. It is a tribute to his honesty in Joseph Anton that we get the same picture.
The title of the autobiography, as most of you will know by now, is a reference to the code name he picked for himself while in hiding, combining the first names of Conrad and Chekhov, two of his favourite writers. The joke name he chose was Ajeeb Mamouli. Rushdie, who studied at Cambridge under a brilliant medievalist and likes a good, portentous name as much as any writer of morality plays, is making a keen point about identities. ‘Joseph Anton’, even if a portmanteau of favourite writers, is a name that represents the loss of identity, a cipher. The Special Branch cops protecting Rushdie deracinate it even further, make it more impersonal, calling him Joe. ‘Ajeeb Mamouli’ restores a little of Rushdie back to himself. A novelist, particularly one like Rushdie, takes the ‘normal’ and imbues it with strangeness, with wonder. Now, in hiding for writing a book, Rushdie needs to take the strange, the extraordinary and make it normal. Ajeeb Mamouli/Mamouli Ajeeb, a fine description of the novelist’s work — the work of the imagination.
Joseph Anton is written entirely in the third person. It would be an unwise device if employed by any autobiographer other than Rushdie. The astounding strangeness of his life under the fatwa — the constant changing of address; the “dry cleaning” that meant even going to a friend’s house for dinner was a circuitous exercise in subterfuge; the wife who was turning out to be a pathological liar; ‘Satan Rushdy’ taking on a life of his own, like Woody Allen’s ‘Hostility’ in Stardust Memories or, indeed, the monster inside Sufiya Zinobia in Shame — requires Rushdie to look back at himself, from the relative tranquility of the present, as if at a character in a novel, to subject himself to authorial probing and prodding. That said, Rushdie is still engaged in autobiography: a project, however honest and self-lacerating, that is still an act of self-justification. Third person can give the illusion of the novelist’s objectivity, as if Rushdie could really see himself as he might see Saleem Sinai. Sameen, Rushdie’s sister, reading his finished draft of The Satanic Verses, tells her brother that as she read the description of a character’s death, based closely on the death of their father, she “kept wanting to say ‘I was there, too. He didn’t say that to you, he said it to me. You didn’t do that for him, I did it.’ But you have left me out of the story, and now everyone will always think that this is the way it was.”
A terrible effect of the fatwa has been to rob a funny, angry, difficult, often beautiful book of its place in literature
My own brush with The Satanic Verses came a few weeks after the fatwa. I was a schoolboy in Kuwait, not yet a teen, and had gathered with others around an Egyptian friend whose father had bought a copy on a business trip to London. In a country where censors meticulously blacked over the word Israel in school atlases and replaced ‘Persian’ with ‘Arabian’ in reference to the Gulf, the pristine hardback was valuable contraband. Till then samizdat to us meant sharing pages from British tabloids in which the bare breasts had been censored sloppily with a fading marker. We soon lost interest. Most of us were members of the “apocryphal page 15 club of readers”, as Rushdie describes those who could proceed no further. I did persist further and though I understood nothing some of the book’s music stayed with me. For a couple of years after, if I thought my sister was being a tattletale I’d chant “Spoono, spoono, spoono…” A terrible effect of the fatwa has been to rob a funny, angry, difficult, often beautiful book of its place in literature, or rather the literary conversation.
This is not to say that it’s not possible to have read The Satanic Verses and been offended by the sections in which the delirious, almost deranged Gibreel Farishta dreams his blasphemous dreams. I read a letter to the London Review of Books from an MT Al-Rashid that I’d like to quote at considerable length:
“If Khomeini thinks that a man’s blood is needed to wash away the harm of his words, then Khomeini and his cronies — not Islam — are responsible for Iran’s decrees. I personally was offended by Rushdie’s book (I have read it) and thought it vulgar in presentation and fickle in theme, but was hardly roused to such levels of hysteria as to want to kill him. Instead, I was amused at the sight of a Cambridge graduate in history so shamelessly borrowing from Mustafa Akkad’s movie The Message (a point that can be amply proved and which has gone unnoticed in the general mayhem). If he has offended God, then God Himself will have to deal with Rushdie. If anyone is to be fought here on earth, it is the men who speak in the name of religion and claim for themselves providential authority.”
Al-Rashid’s remarks are the kind of sophisticated, even if negative, response lost in the tumult that greeted the novel. Though I think the Rushdie, whose essays were collected in Imaginary Homelands (a writer whose jib was cut sharp, as if by a tailor on Savile Row), would’ve understood the tangled politics, resentments and history that led to his ‘heretical’ text being burnt on an English street. That Rushdie, forced into retreat by the howling indignants, has been lost to a Rushdie forced to pick sides. It’s a theme that recurs in Joseph Anton, the need to pick a side. With us or against us.
JOSEPH ANTON is a long book. Rushdie has had the bad fortune, to modify that rumoured Chinese curse, to live an interesting life. There is great tenderness for his parents, his sons, the many friends who stood by him, even at times for his wives and the book is infused with love. Of course, there are longueurs, particularly Rushdie’s many, many (many) encounters with celebrities and I was glassy-eyed through much of his account of being married to Padma Lakshmi. Importantly, for Rushdie, though, his book has a happy ending. But the near quarter of a century since Khomeini’s fatwa has been a generally regressive one, particularly the decade since 9/11, to which Rushdie alludes often and with some sentimentality. Rushdie’s best fiction is a celebration of complexity, multiplicity, contradiction, not the simplicities, the ‘us and them’ of this weighty but curiously slight memoir.
Shougat Dasgupta is a Literary Editor with Tehelka.