One was the world’s most protected man while the other’s life mission is to protect the civil liberties of thousands. One has been the target of very public, very serious death threats, while the other goes about her mission in a low profile way, but with a steely determination that disconcerts her opponents. He is outspoken to the point of being blunt, aggravating his supporters and critics alike, while she spells out her objectives firmly but with a trademark quietness of tone. He struts on the world stage with no commitment to any country. The other, seemingly, has dug her roots in Britain.
The two are on the Queen’s recent Birthday Honours List — Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie, now Sir Salman, and Shami Chakrabarti, lawyer and civil rights activist, is now a Companion of the order of the British Empire (CBE). Their very different contributions have been recognised by the British establishment and their obvious link is that both are of Indian origin. Sir Salman, 60, was born in Mumbai but lives between London and New York. Shami, 38, is essentially a Londoner. Both can be said to be radicals, albeit for contrasting reasons.
There’s more. Rushdie’s knighthood has sparked protests in Pakistan, Malaysia, Iran and India but Charkrabarti’s CBE is universally accepted as a just reward for her years of steady crusading for civil liberties. He has delighted millions with his novels while she has brought hope to those who are on the margins of society.
Sir Salman refuses to live up to the image of a reclusive intellectual and divides his time between writing and celebrity night outs. He appears to enjoy challenging taboos — his ‘stag party’ the night before his wedding to Padma Lakshmi had an all woman guest-list. After the lively evening at a Hampstead venue in London, he drove away well past midnight, reportedly with a female guest.
He delighted photographers when he performed a sort of dirty dancing piece with his wife Padma at a party. On the other hand, he also delivers serious speeches on drama, art and literature and is a regular at intellectually heavyweight seminars at places like the Barbican in London. He writes articles condemning bigotry and obscurantisms: “Fundamentalism is not about religion. Fundamentalism is about power,” he once said. To his credit, he continues to challenge the fundamentalists, despite all the years he had to spend in hiding because his novel, The Satanic Verses, provoked the Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa in 1989. While the literary world largely stood by him, Sir Salman’s well known arrogance and criticism of the British establishment that was protecting him, also irked many.
He did not improve matters when, after the knighthood, he said in a statement issued from New York through his agent: “I am thrilled and humbled to receive this great honour, and am very grateful that my work has been recognised in this way.” Asked well-known columnist Peter May, in his article titled, Arise, Sir Salman, Humbug: “The question isn’t why the writer Salman Rushdie got a knighthood.
It’s why he accepted this honour from a country which he has so often expressed contempt for.”
A fellow writer, Ruth Dudley Edwards, called him “self important, pretentious, attention-seeking and ungrateful”. She described his profile as a writer succinctly: “He was… a wow with the masochistic liberal intelligentsia who loved his savaging of British values as insufficiently cosmopolitan.” By accepting the honour, he “has served only to illustrate his hypocrisy”. She noted: “I would die in a ditch to defend Rushdie’s right to offend. I just wish this self-pitying darling of the literati would show some gratitude (to Britain).”
Fighter for rights
Shami’s reaction to the award was radically different. Known for her opposition to many establishment positions, she nonetheless said, generously: “I’m not the most predictable choice. No one was more surprised than me, particularly when it must have been recommended by this government that I have fought so hard. I hope it will send a timely signal that democratic dissent is not disloyalty; it is a positive civic duty. This is an official Royal invitation to do more, and I will take that invitation on behalf of people punished without trial and barred from protest in Parliament Square.”
Married with one son, Shami was educated at the London School of Economics and called to the Bar in 1994. She worked as a lawyer for the Home Office from 1996 to 2001 before becoming Director of Liberty (The National Council for Civil Liberties), a cross-party, non-profit organisation, a post she has held since September 2003. She was heavily involved in its engagement with the ‘War on Terror’ and with the defence and promotion of human rights values in Parliament, the courts and wider society.
Both awards have given people of Indian origin in Britain a sense of satisfaction. Shami has chosen to crusade to preserve civil liberties in the country she lives in, and the public reaction to her CBE in Britain has been positive. And even though Sir Salman occasionally evokes irritation, the knighthood is, as Lord Meghnad Desai put it, “a recognition that Salman is a leading English writer of contemporary times. He, an Indian, has broken into world stature in fiction.”