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Of Rushdie’s freedom to offend

A defence of a writer’s rebellion against official definitions of ‘truth’ through the imagination, writes Manash Bhattacharjee.

books Updated: May 23, 2009 22:47 IST

Midnight’s Diaspora
Edited by Daniel Herwitz & Ashutosh Varshney
Penguin
Rs 399 | pp 149


The banning of The Satanic Verses in many countries, followed by an insane death sentence against Salman Rushdie on charges of sacrilege, was a terrible event. But despite living through a nightmare, Rushdie’s fabulous audacity produced a children’s book — Haroun and the Sea of Stories — in response. It was an act through which Rushdie tried to tell his detractors: “Look, a writer is a child as much as an adult of imagination. You can try and accuse only half of him!”

Each time a work of literature is banned or targeted, it becomes yet another occasion to justify the Nietzschean assertion that art is superior to truth. Truth as a divinely-ordained, fixed-forever notion has been questioned throughout history. But those in power always monopolise it in the name of either sacred or profane world views. Writers like Rushdie have rebelled against this official discourse of truth through their imagination.

Midnight’s Diaspora is a laudable attempt by a wide spectrum of scholars to return to the questions raised by Rushdie, and critically defend the writer.

The book begins with Ashutosh Varshney interviewing the ‘political’ Rushdie. Rushdie reinforces his old point how free speech should be defended precisely at the point when it offends someone else’s sensibilities. Or else, this freedom will shrink to a point when it would no longer be recognisable. It can be argued taking Rushdie’s view that the issue of what really comes to threaten people’s sensibilities is more debatable than the values of free speech. So this freedom cannot be sacrificed to please galvanised, orthodox sentiments.

Rushdie also reminiscences his old quarrel with Indira Gandhi. After the Emergency, the most sinister black spot on India’s democracy for Rushdie is the menacing rise of Hindu fundamentalism. Rushdie is however unequivocal about Pakistan being a fundamentally flawed political experiment, perniciously staggering between military dictatorships and corrupt civilian governments.

Gauri Vishwanathan’s interview of the ‘literary’ Rushdie begins with his admission of how his desire to become a writer was partly born to disprove his father’s doubts about his talent. Rushdie explains his break with earlier Indian novelists in English by his introducing of the “crowd” into the novel. Rushdie holds the diasporic location of readers as something which concerns him a posteriori, as he never has a reader in mind while writing his novels.

Husain Haqqani’s essay on Pakistan fleshes out the disturbing realities of the country with admirable self-criticality and defends most of Rushdie’s dislike for it. Varshney’s analysis of Pakistan’s history, though, appears unwittingly India-centric. Both essayists contest Rushdie’s definitive judgment against Pakistan as a failed imagination. They argue for a possibility of Pakistani society to “re-imagine” itself despite its political odds. But they don’t offer much ground for their optimism towards the country’s possible revitalisation.

The India-centric gaze turns inward in Shashi Tharoor’s essay. The overdose of Nehruvian tropes by Tharoor about India’s tense yet flowering diversity reads like a political cliché. It also makes one wonder, if Pakistan, as Rushdie maintains, is “insufficiently imagined”. India seems to suffer being excessively imagined, reeling under the contradictions of its own excess.

Sara Suleri Goodyear and Thomas Blom Hansen develop specific themes from Rushdie’s oeuvre. Suleri makes an interesting feminist reading of Rushdie’s novels as narratives of multiple unveiling as it encounters the Islamic discourse of both religion and nation. Hansen writes about Rushdie’s love-city Bombay, and focusses on the increasing strife between competing cultural groups. The Shiv Sena’s rise to power is seen to coincide with the conservative Mumbai-fication of Bombay. But Hansen’s analysis of these crude transformations goes theoretically overboard by drawing in Hegelian and other interpretations. Akeel Bilgrami’s poised philosophical defense of Rushdie against two-pronged attacks by Muslim and Christian critics is the highlight of the book. Bilgrami critiques Talal Asad’s relativistic stand against western liberalism’s commitment to free speech vis-a-vis post colonial cultures, as exemplified in the reception of The Satanic Verses. Asad’s position, Bilgrami suggests, does not rule out free speech not being of value in Islamic society. It is thus from an “internalist” space that Bilgrami defends Rushdie’s right to critically engage with his religion. Bilgrami however distances himself from Rushdie’s sympathies regarding the US occupation of Afghanistan and Iran. The case against fundamentalist and other tyrannies cannot ignore the logic of capitalist imperialism. One longs for, in this regard, the Rushdie who wrote The Jaguar Smile.

Midnight’s Diaspora will certainly interest a multiple audience, across countries and disciplines, in as much a similar way as the authors in this collection have been chosen.

(Manash Bhattacharjee is a political theorist and a freelance writer living in Delhi)