Monday, January 23, 2012

Of Gods and Men: The JLF story (Rushdie, Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Satanic Verses)

[Published in Book Link, Feb 2012 issue -- forthcoming]

Hari Kunzru, JLF 2012
 When Amitava Kumar began the session with Hari Kunzru at Durbar Hall packed to capacity on 20th January, he began with the declaration that they were going to start the discussion about gods and men, but slightly different kinds of god and different kinds of men.

The confirmation of Salman Rushdie’s cancelled visit to Jaipur had  had a predictable impact on all author-participants. Most of them were livid at the organizers’ ‘pusillanimity’ at allowing a handful of religious conservatives to get away with murder – almost literally. To express their solidarity with the victim, Amitava and Kunzru then began to read out certain lines from the Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s contentious book, unfortunately, still banned in India.

They had barely read out about four lines, and were commenting upon the beauty of Rushdie’s prose when the festival director, Sanjoy Roy, stepped in broke the trance – a trance created by those simple four lines of Rushdie’s exquisite prose that made no reference to religion.

Sitting in the front row, bang opposite the speakers when they started, my first thoughts were about what must be going through the minds of all the audience sitting in the same hall. While most had cheered the move with an ear-defying applause, there were some who’d come particularly for Kunzru and not Rushdie and weren’t happy about it. Regardless, the atmosphere was electric for those few moments. There was that unexpected excitement at being allowed a glimpse into what had so far been unfamiliar and forbidden, accompanied by various notches of tension at the same privilege. And, with Sanjoy Roy’s intervention at that juncture, the same performance suddenly somersaulted to low-voltage and did not pick up again for the rest of the session though both the brilliant authors sitting at the helm tried their best to recreate the magic. Sadly, they had to make their quick exits soon after, fearing arrest.

It would be pointless to deny, the organizers’ stance notwithstanding, that this year’s JLF has been revolving around the Rushdie sun. The forced cancellation of his visit perhaps lent more weight to words like dissent, censorship, absolute freedom of expression, strategic silence, oppression and, more importantly, ‘Talibanization of Literature’ and ‘cultural fundamentalism’ – topics mentioned, skimmed over, or chewed upon – in almost all the sessions across the venues or genres.

A session titled ‘Creativity, Censorship, and Dissent’ with participation from well-known writers such as Tahmima Anam, Siddharth Gigoo, Prasoon Joshi, Charu Nivedita, Cheran, moderated by Shoma Chaudhury of Tehelka, took up these very threads on day two of the festival. Ironically, the discussion threw up the interesting idea that in present-day India, there isn’t enough subversive or provocative writing happening. No boundaries being pushed; no power structures being questioned, even by serious writers. Authors have begun to play it safe. And, indeed, it may be true that ours has become a land of the Lotus Eaters – a worrying fact for those who still feel that Literature has a rationale and purpose to serve beyond entertainment.

In Rushdie’s case in particular, two issues have inadvertently, if inevitably, been fused together – hurting or offending sentiments of some members of a certain clan (by allowing a certain author to attend the festival), and ‘illegal activity’ as a form of protest (i.e., reading a couple of lines from his banned book).

With regard to the former, another question strikes me: What about the sentiments of the other party? Do they count for nothing? And, as far as the latter case in concerned, much has been said and written about censorship and book banning by all of us already.

Shoma had a significant observation to make – that the majority of the people so passionately supporting the ban of Satanic Verses haven’t even read the book, but then so haven’t the majority of the people opposing it.

And yet many amongst them would have liked to, but were never allowed an opportunity simply because someone else had already made the decision for them without ever bothering to consult them about the matter. What is that if not an arbitrary act? What is it if not a dictatorship of sorts that allows no voice to the other?

The intelligentsia was open to a face-to-face discussion/debate with the ‘hurt’ party. Most rued the fact that the offended party wasn’t willing to engage in one. It was a deliberate and obdurate opaqueness no one could penetrate, and the state government went along with them.

Amitava Kumar, Hari Kunzru: JLF 2012

At one point during the discussion, Tahmima Anam, whose novel, The Good Muslim appeared last year, condemned censorship. She said, ‘There is no Muslim community, but many Muslim communities.’ And, to elucidate her point, she mentioned a magazine in the UK called The Critical Muslim that has been started by one such community to discuss/debate/challenge differences in ideologies, views, and beliefs, by various intellectuals/philosophers/thinkers. 

Of late the issue of censorship has risen again and again in different contexts, whether it’s Rushdie's work or Taslima Nasreen’s, Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi, or Ramanujan’s essay.

Yes, Section 19 (1) (A) of the Indian Constitution allows freedom of speech, and then perhaps immediately qualifies it. It’s somewhat like being taught ‘the more the merrier’ while simultaneously being warned about what too many cooks do to the broth. As Cherian pointed out, the responsibility that accompanies freedom cannot be legislated or ‘constitutionalized’. In spite of modernization and paradigm shifts in modern thought, even today authors can either opt for ‘strategic silence’ and play it safe in their writings; choose to go into exile before they call a spade a spade; or simply articulate dissent when and where they are and risk getting killed.

It is shameful indeed that the world’s largest democracy cannot stand by its own people.


  1. India certainly a country known for its politics and appeasement policy and sadly our literature has succumbed to the nasty pressure.

    It's true we have moved towards Romance more than writing on our problems.

    Many things are responsible for this is commerce. Who does not want a book that sells like hot cake.

    That's why Chetan Bhagat stands in the podium and condemns Rushdie being a writer himself. And even he is upto commerce to sell his books.

    Rubbish trend.

    Not many people who cry against Rushdie has read the book.

    And truely literature and literateur playing safe, observing caution.

    So sad a trend.

  2. Divya,

    I really think we need to move on. It is not as if Literature is hung, if Rushdie is not there in JLF.

    I would like to talk about freedom of speech and mind you, you have even less of that on the Internet. Hence, we Indians and our Laws all have the same flavour - hypocrisy!

    Let's face it, we are free only on the surface; deep down the shackles bind and how!


  3. I have a friend who has read the Rushdie book while working in a country where it is not banned. Just wonder whether he will have to declare that in the airport when he comes to India.
    Oh no! I am really worried that he will not be allowed to enter India if he does that - because he carries 'within' him some banned material.

  4. Julia, it's not really about Rushdie. He is merely a symbol for all writers all over the world who stand for freedom of expression. No, it's not merely superficial. The pen has always been mightier than the sword. Writers in the past have indeed created storms and shaken sleepers awake. It just hasn't been happening in the modern times, and we can see why.

    Jose, Indeed a valid point. What about people who carry all that banned material within? :)

  5. Who decides what is to BE banned and what is NOT to be banned? If a writer is not allowed the liberty to express and push the boundaries of the smug mind then who will? The irony that most have not even read the book and passed a blanket judgement speaks volumes about the paralysis of a nation projected as the superpower of the future.But I guess only challenges/subversive acts like these can pave the way for reassertion and resurrection of democracy, liberty and freedom. I can't wait to lay my hands on the book though.

  6. Divya,

    Surely you see how the Government is using this issue to buy Muslim votes. You might also be aware that SV is too old to really make so much ado about. Rushdie is smart and he knows what he is doing.

    On the same vain, do you remember Lajja. It was a hopeless text but Taslima milked the cow till it was dry, appeared in many places, purposely talking against religious feelings so as to get attention.

    SV is not in the same league, but really we don't need to make so much ado about SR.

    Lets watch and see him reading today at 3.45pm IST.

    I am not sure why we get so emotional about things, while the Government and the Author strategically exploit the reader to buy the book.

    My partner and I did not support Hussain and his image of Goddess Saraswati in the nude. I thought it would have been great to see Prophet Mohamed depicted in his nudity by late Hussain. Why did he not paint that. We don't support Rushdie too, if he has hurt religious feelings. We are not ashamed to say it, although of the two I am the one who is agnostic.

    You are welcome to take this comment off if you think it is not befitting your post.


  7. Meenu, there is a petition going round to request the PM to lift the ban on the book. You should sign it.

    Julia, you're more than welcome to express your views. That's what our arguments are all about. :) This is a democracy after all.

    1. Divya, Please pass it on to me if you can. Would love to sign.

  8. You know now that even with 2 minutes left for Video casting and interview with Barkha Dutt, the Organisers called off the engagement. Later Barkha Dutt of NDTV interviewed Rushdie on Internet. The entire interview and discussion is here:

    Please note, Barkha Dutt is capable of starting a communal riot just by being emotionally reactive, we know what a case study she had made of herself in the firing and bombing of the Taj Hotel for which NDTV had brought her down to her knees. Hence, if this comment goes up for readers, please use your discretion and understand the discussion more than running a fever of discontent over what Rushdie said or did not say, how India has failed him etc.

    I call all lovers of India, residing anywhere in the world, to come live in their homeland and not theorise sitting in first world countries, where Christianity is the major religion that the people follow.

    It is certainly not an easy job to run a country with so many languages and religions. We have always been open to all religions; this is the true India. We highly resist any one using Art as an excuse to divide us and shame and instigate fury in our fellow brethren.

    Julia Dutta

    1. Julia,
      The dynamics of running a country like India are phenomenal and we all understand and appreciate that, whether we live in India or not. Having said that this is also relevant that one can truly appreciate and understand a situation if one moves a few steps away from it- when one disconnects emotionally from it.
      This episode was uncalled for and could have been avoided. But it wasn't. Barkha was only doing her job and people have the sense to make their own judgments about Rushdie.What was attacked was the freedom of speech and artistic expression and that, we all must condemn.

  9. Sorry, this comment is very personal but will hope for your indulgence, Divya.

    That remark you cited by SHoma CHoudhuri of Tehelka cut deep and i will explain.

    so she says: "No boundaries being pushed; no power structures being questioned, even by serious writers. Authors have begun to play it safe."

    I can only respond as a small writer, of a few books.

    Divya, know the 'strange problems' I had with other publishers regarding DOllmakers' Island. Editors liked it but there was always a but... It *was* different and everyone, even its critics, said it was well written but no one, apart from you, took the risk. And yet if there's a piece of silly chick lit they will look at it seriously

    So if writers play safe, its because they have in a way become conditioned. They know what will be accepted, and in very many cases work to that.

    And if I may try and answer Julia above here - This argument as to why Hussein didnt paint the prophet has been made, so I sort of understand (i hope) what you are saying. Rushdie for his part, took this on but I should not mix these two artistes here. but all I can say is that an artist, being a representative of the idea of freedom of expression is free to choose her inspiration and motif. And I've read Hussein's interviews of his childhood in Pandharpur, growing up watching Hindu deities and then then film posters he painted - what he saw then appeared later in what he painted later, i daresay.

    Thank you for your time!

  10. Most of the things are little too overrated.....freedom of speech, Mr Salman Rushdie, his work and his visit to JLF are few of them.

    Please people move on....not much is written about what happened at JLF....the focus somehow got shifted to what did not or could not happen.

    Come on....When are we going to grow up!!

  11. Meenu,

    Wonderful to come by you, via, Divya Dubey. Since we belong to the same fraternity, I will answer in a language we both know best - the Copywriters language!

    If you are advertising for Fair & Lovely, which is the headline that attracts you most and is sensitive?

    1. Colour is in the mind


    2. The fairer the more beautiful

    Both speak of the same thing - our colour hang up, implying that we are "fair" "Raj" - struck in India, but (1) is subtle while (2) is upfront, and has the potential to hurt sensibilities.

    As advertisers and copywriters we have the freedom to say both, but if we have our sensibilities in its right place, we would not choose the second, because, it is too blatant and not always true. We would be careful to say the same thing in a subtle way.

    I imply the same, in the case of people who show off their Art at the cost of other people's sensibilities. They get quickly noticed and talked about, but the pull is negative.

    I object! I resist! Especially if they are guilty of making India which is a country of many religions and peoples and cultures, look like as if we are a nation full of Hindus and Muslims only!!

    Please spare us, an absolute lack of knowledge of who we as Indians living in this soil really are. We are proud to be in the "grey" zone, although, it would be easier for powerful nations and those who live there to look at us as black and white only. It kills our diversity and the identity of an Indian.




  12. Ritu, I have to disagree with you there. 'Growing up' is also about fighting for your rights; standing up for a cause you believe in; standing up against an injustice. In this case it's important because, as I menioned in an earlier comment, it's not just about Rushdie. It could happen to any other author tomorrow who dares to exercise his/her freedom of expression.

    Julia, again, I agree with only a part of what you say, so I count myself out. Our gods and goddess (if you really believe in them) are much bigger than any these small things. They don't need us to protect them or stand up for them. Who are we to construct them in a certain way (and dictate that's the only way) anyway? If I present a goddess in a shirt and trousers tomorrow, many Hindus would object to that as well. What does it have to do with right and wrong? It's a matter of attitude. To many, nudity can be aesthetic, beautiful. And that includes me too.

    And, while I may choose to construct the images of my gods and goddeses as I like, I leave the others to construct them as they like. I don't think there is or there can be anything about hurting anyone's sensibilities here unless you declare an ownership of the gods, which would be even more ridiculous. Besides, no artist produces a work with the aim of targeting anyone's sensibilities.

  13. Divya,

    "Besides, no artist produces a work with the aim of targeting anyone's sensibilities." Clearly we are not in the same page, Divya. I believe otherwise and its okay that many do not think like me.

    Good luck to sensalism. I always knew it works!

    With malice towards none,

    Julia :))

  14. Nigel Foster (Internationally experienced writer; editor; creative director; publisher; documentary maker; best-selling author, Dorchester, UK):

    Hi Divya; great article! I very much applauded your comment about there being many Muslim communities. I've lived and worked in the Middle East and South East Asia, am well aware that differences of doctrine and practice within Islam extent far beyond the standard Sunni/Shia. So many different communities all believing they;re the true one
    . . . somewhat like Christianity, in fact. However, I have to admit to not being a Salman Rushdie enthusiast. Midnight's Children was good, although possibly over-hyped. Middle class angst is the same everywhere and Rushdie never captured India in the same way as did A Suitable Boy, or that wonderful collection of short stories, The River. The Satanic Verses where, for me, pretentious and over-written and I wonder what would have happened to Rushdie's career if he hadn't been placed under a fatwa as much political as religious. Ironic that his greatest enemies have been the most instrumental in assuring his wealth and fame.
    I don't know enough about Indian politics – despite following the Times of India on-line, and not just for the cricket, especially now – to make a judgement about inviting Rushdie in the first place, let alone reading his work. But I am aware of the problems caused by Hindi and Muslim fundamentalists and it occurs that if you court controversy, for whatever reason, don't be too surprised when you get it. Rushdie has become a symbol of both Western imperialism and Islamic fanaticism. I think there are better, more worthy flag-carriers for intellectual and artistic freedom.

  15. Very good article and pertinent point Divya. I believe the government is curbing creativity of authors though the problem that would arise if they didn't is also something we need to think about knowing the religious community behind it - perhaps we have had enough terrorism to scare us into being in our safe burrows and let Salman be where he is - out of his native country - but sometimes i wonder - for how long? Won't the bubble of scare, restraint and curbing.....burst some day if this stifling trend continues? I wonder if all the various sects of muslims are united in their belief about Rushdie's blasphemy or is there dissent there too?

  16. Nigel, that was teh whole point. We were never even allowed to judge the quality of the work for ourselves.

    Nandita, indeed there are.