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Illiterate !ndia

books Updated: Jan 20, 2012 19:23 IST

Advaita Kala, Hindustan Times
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It’s not the so-called important things alone that define a country. A nation is judged also by the way it values less ‘important things’ — such as writers. There is childish irony in that one of Salman Rushdie’s early novels, Shame, can be the befitting description for the way in which the Indian-born British writer has been made to feel unwelcome by a gaggle of people living in the Stone Age and yet all the while in 21st century India.

And the government of India, nuclear power and self-described success story on the global stage, couldn’t do much except shrug to make the writer feel protected enough to come to the Jaipur Literature Festival. Without actually slamming the door on Rushdie, our government essentially did nothing to make him not fear stepping into our backyard, his old country.

India has had the ignominy of siding far too many times with the enemies of creative expression, who always bandy themselves about loudly as victims.

This was the case when Rushdie's 1988 novel The Satanic Verses was banned in India by the then government — before any other government in the world. This is the case 24 years later when a state government, citing 'law and order' concerns, pretty much sealed the fate for the visit of one of contemporary literature's most valuable writers. In true magic realistic style, fundamentalists turn into anguished victims in this land of ours.

To find it exceedingly odd that Rushdie's previous visits to India — he even attended the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2007 — were without such dire consequences is to not understand how politics swallows up anything and everything in this country. What this shameful episode, this shrugging off of responsibility to protect free expression, points to is a nation that values nothing except the mob, however small it may be and however inane its demands. As it also points to the state of our liberal class, which stayed quiet as a mouse, preferring to understand the logic of a shriek and pretending to be deaf and dumb to a great writer whom other democratic countries and liberal societies would be proud to host.