Shahabuddin verses
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Shahabuddin verses

Syed Shahabuddin is one of history’s most underrated literary critics. Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: Jan 22, 2012 00:56 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times

Syed Shahabuddin is one of history’s most underrated literary critics. It was this Janata Party MP who had first sent across a letter to the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1988 tipping off the latter about what he felt was a very rotten book. It was a startlingly impressive act on Shahabuddin’s part and would have made him not only a great critic but also a fabulous books page editor for any newspaper that seeks literary news. It was impressive because the concerned book had barely been published in Britain — and remember, this was pre-internet or e-book days — and Shahabuddin had known about its contents.

Perhaps he was tipped off by an interview of the author that appeared just before the book’s publication in the now defunct news magazine Sunday. Perhaps he knew about it even earlier when Khushwant Singh, as editorial adviser for the then one-year-old Penguin Books India (owned by the same organisation that owned Sunday), had read the novel’s uncorrected proof copy and told Sunday in an interview that “there are several derogatory references to the Prophet and the Qur’an. Muhammad is made out to be a small-time imposter”. Despite the notes made by Singh, Penguin India published the novel in India.

Whatever be the trajectory of Shahabuddin knowing about the book so quickly, Rajiv Gandhi told the ministry of finance to put The Satanic Verses on the list of banned books. And on October 5, a full four months before Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran issued a fatwa against the author of the book, the Indian ministry of finance prohibited the book on Indian soil. The ministry, manned by men who didn’t want to come across as philistines, added that the ban “did not detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie’s work”. Rushdie wryly noted in an ‘Open letter to the PM’, “Thanks for the good review.”

The latest inanities over Rushdie’s visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival hilariously mirror the then Congress government’s desire to pander to nincompoops while trying its level best to come across as a bunch of cultured, liberal baba-logs. This time round, the government stated that it would not stop Rushdie from coming to India or Jaipur even as the Congress chief minister of Rajasthan told journalists that the writer’s visit could lead to “law and order problems”.

Taking this deliciously theological position that would make the Pope’s stand on non-reproductive sex seem straightforward, the government did nothing to dispel Rushdie’s understandable worries about being an impolite, difficult guest who was risking the future of India’s communal harmony. And just to drive home the point that Congressmen aren’t dehatis who can’t make any head or tail of magic realism or foam-in-the-mouth Bajrang Dal-types, the government even had a participant among the literati in Jaipur in the form of Kapil Sibal and his fatwa-inviting mobile phone poetry.

So things haven’t changed one jot since the great Shahabuddin, echoing Oscar Wilde’s line, “I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so”, wrote way back in 1988 in an ‘Open letter to Salman Rushdie’, “I do not have to wade through a filthy drain to know what filth is.”

Thankfully for me, there’s the Kindle on which I have been able to ‘re-enter the drain’ after years. (I remember there being a copy of the dark blue hardcover edition of The Satanic Verses in a library in Calcutta, where, frankly, Rushdie could drop by with much worries and join forces with Vikram Seth who will also be there at the five-day Kolkata Literary Meet which starts on Republic Day.) And the novel is a delightful cross-cultural, inter-textual tumble, with the reader liable to step on a minefield of wordplay and associative playfulness in every paragraph.

The whole story of Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha — from the explosive start where they are falling from a blown-up airplane (flight number 420) to the end where Gibreel blows his brains out with a gun while Saladin, now Salahuddin (no relation to Shahabuddin) gets “the hell out of here” with the woman he loves — is a frenetic staple-gunfire of words, sentences and passages. It is one of the most playful — with languages, with words, with images — stitchworks in contemporary literature. This novel holding inside it novellas is, above all, riproaringly funny. And it’s perhaps the sheer comic force of The Satanic Verses that sounds like one fearful ‘Boo!’ to the ears of idiots — whose communal ‘Boo!’ in turn make idiots in that serious world of politics get all tetchy under their coats.

And I would prefer you read the book on Kindle (R527.54) rather than what’s on

First Published: Jan 22, 2012 00:44 IST