By Prakash Kona
Is Salman Rushdie the unfortunate victim of a certain kind of global politics which has nothing to do with his writing or a potential martyr for the cause of freedom of expression? It is easy to say, neither or both. Midnight’s Children gave Rushdie literary fame owing to the prestigious Booker prize that it won in 1981. What however put him on the global stage was the fatwa connected to Satanic Verses published in 1988. His reputation ever since has been that of a Bollywood actor, although not always in a way that he would’ve wanted.
As a writer with great talent I found his work to be particularly slow, not deep enough and sometimes repetitive. One could disagree with VS Naipaul; but simply as a stylist it’s a pleasure to read him. As far as elegance and beauty of expression are concerned, very few writers come close to VS Naipaul. His 1987 book The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel in Five Sections is one of the best things he ever wrote. I might agree with his criticism of the so-called post-colonized people, but overall I have serious disagreements with his insights into life in the non-western parts of the world. Salman Rushdie is not a stylist in that sense nor is his understanding of postcolonial societies perceptive enough. His brilliant prose is rarely provocative or for that matter evocative; at best it is descriptive. Midnight’s Children is hardly a serious book but for the first thirty or so absolutely delightful pages dealing with the Kashmiri doctor, Aadam Aziz who happens to be Saleem’s grandfather and his patient Naseem who eventually marries the doctor. Of course, I did go through Satanic Verses, which I thought was boring and not deserving of the attention it received.
My point is that Rushdie’s fame came largely because of western politics, in particular the American hostility towards Iran since the revolution. Media in Europe and the US were delighted with the fatwa on Salman Rushdie and made him more famous than he could ever have imagined achieving simply through the quality of his work. What Rushdie probably failed to realize was that fame or success is a double-edged sword. Hafiz’s memorably sweet poem titled “The Two Bears” is more than just a sweet poem and comments on the downside of being famous.
The Two Bears
After a hard day forage
Two bears sat together in silence
On a beautiful vista
Watching the sun go down
And feeling deeply grateful
Though, after a while
A thought-provoking conversation began
Which turned to the topic of
The one bear said,
“Did you hear about Rustam?
He has become famous
And travels from city to city
In a golden cage;
He performs for hundreds of people
Who laugh and applaud
The other bear thought for
A few seconds
Unfortunately, Salman Rushdie’s life since the Satanic Verses has been more or less that of Rustam, “who has become famous/ And travels from city to city/ In a golden cage.” The other bear who weeps for Rustam knows better: ultimately you can be “grateful for life,” simply for the “silence” and for the “beautiful vista/ watching the sun go down.”
I don’t want to go into the war that the “Christian” west declared on Islam since the time of the Crusades. I do understand the politics of authoritarian regimes like the ones in Iran, but I also am aware that the American embargo does not make it any less authoritarian; on the contrary, economic sanctions incite common people to be more nationalistic than usual. The west has no problem with authoritarianism as long as it is in the third world. The kind of support that grossly nationalistic and anti-people regimes receive from countries like the US is appalling to say the least.
Salman Rushdie, as a Kashmiri Muslim from South Asia, might at some level be seen as postcolonial. If he is not postcolonial enough that’s because the publication industry is catering to the readers in the west. There’s no reason to endorse the view that western readership is incapable of accepting the harsh truth of how neocolonialism continues to thwart mass aspirations in South Asia and across the third world. But, writers like Salman Rushdie, do not tell the truth as it must be told lest it damage their own credibility with the niche they’ve created for themselves. His work does not sustain the ambivalence of a non-western writer living and writing in the west.
Artists are not under an obligation to have a political opinion on anything and everything, except in this stupid age of political correctness, thanks largely to easily-offended groups, who have made it their business to standardize and police public behavior everywhere. Politically correct people with a false notion of human nature along with a morbid desire to seek perfection have done more harm to the world than serial killers. I agree with what the Serbian Filmmaker Emir Kusturica said, when he was forced to withdraw from the jury membership of the 47th International Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival. “It is known that I am anti-imperialist. Attacks on me from this point are meaningless. What I struggled for was United Yugoslavia…my vision for my country is my personal vision. I am not a member of a political party. My statements totally stem from my beliefs. They are sometimes right, sometimes wrong. I always believe they are right but they may not be right.” Kusturica’s work as a filmmaker stands on its own merit, irrespective of his politics. Who has seen and forgotten scenes from his 1993 film Arizona Dream, starring Johnny Depp!
My grievance is not that Salman Rushdie does not have radical political opinions which he is expected to have, coming from a Muslim South Asian background. My criticism is that Rushdie played to the gallery to suit his personal agenda. He never stopped playing the victim for espousing western liberal values in opposition to the “primitive” and “barbaric” east. That’s the identity western media and publication industry imposed on Rushdie and that is what he willingly accepted.
Success is a terrible thing and when it translates into fame, even worse. The need for recognition is human and can serve as a positive stimulus for creativity. However, the very nature of artistic integrity is that you reject the kind of fame that comes for reasons other than your work. Such fame has a price tag attached to it. Unfortunately, Rushdie had to pay the price for that very fame that gave him a global identity as his attacker found a cause in pitilessly stabbing a 75-year old man for no good reason. What is worse is that extremists see in this brutal stabbing a reason to celebrate.
On the practical side, lone wolf attackers, especially among the very young, are slowly becoming commonplace and for lack of social integration there seems to be no shortage of imaginary grievances. The internet is filled with reasons that want to make you feel that you belong. The attack on Rushdie is not only a security failure but also a warning that security agencies need to focus on lone wolves seeking vengeance on specific individuals and the system rather than only look at groups attempting to cause disruption.
Hafiz. “The Two Bears.” https://ravenview.com/two-bears/
Kusturica, Emir. “Kusturica withdraws from jury membership in Turkey.” https://en.trend.az/world/turkey/1764080.html
Naipaul, VS. The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel in Five Sections. Vintage, 1988.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. Jonathan Cape, 1981.