Writer Rushdie recalls Indira, emergency

None | ByIndo-Asian News Service, New Delhi
Apr 07, 2006 10:39 AM IST

With Midnight's children completing 25 years, the writer recalls how the late Indian PM had threatened a legal action against his book.

Writing a new introduction for the 25th anniversary edition of "Midnight's Children", Salman Rushdie singles out the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for threatening legal action against his magnum opus, even as it made an "amazing admission" of excesses of her emergency rule.

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In the introduction, titled "The birth pangs of Midnight's Children", the Mumbai-born author reminisces about making a journey from Britain to India in 1975 on a shoestring budget, financed out of the royalty of his first novel, "Grimus".

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It was the time when "Indira Gandhi was convicted of election fraud, and one week after my 28th birthday she declared a state of emergency and assumed tyrannical powers... I understood almost at once that Mrs G had somehow become central to my still-tentative literary plans," Rushdie writes in the new introduction to the 25th anniversary Vintage Classics edition coming out this month.

Talking about the reception the path-breaking novel had, he notes: "In the West, people tended to read 'Midnight's Children' as a fantasy while in India people thought of it as pretty realistic, almost a history book... But it was wonderfully well liked almost everywhere, and changed its author's life.

"One reader who didn't care for it, however, was Indira Gandhi, and in 1984, three years after its publication - she was prime minister again by this time - she brought an action against it, claiming to have been defamed by one single sentence."

The controversial sentence was: "It has often been said that Mrs. Gandhi's younger son Sanjay accused his mother of being responsible, through her neglect, for his father's death; and that this gave him an unbreakable hold over her, so that she became incapable of denying him anything."

Rushdie writes: "Tame stuff, you might think, not really the kind of thing a thick-skinned politician would usually sue a novelist for mentioning, and an odd choice of casus belli in a book that excoriated Indira for the many crimes of the Emergency.

"After all, it was a thing much said in India in those days, had often been in print, and was indeed reprinted prominently in the Indian press ('The sentence Mrs. Gandhi is afraid of' read one front-page headline) after she brought her action for defamation.

"Before the book's publication, (publishing house Jonathan) Cape's lawyers had been worried about my criticisms of Mrs Gandhi and had asked me to write them a letter in support of the claims I was making.

In this letter I justified the text to their satisfaction, except with regard to one sentence, which, as I said, was hard to substantiate, as it was about three people, two of whom were dead, while the third would be the one suing us.

"However, I argued, as I was clearly characterising the information as gossip, and as it had been printed before, we should be all right. The lawyers agreed," the author recalls.

Given the complexity of the law regarding defamation, "to repeat a defamatory rumour is to commit the defamation oneself, so technically we were in the wrong.

Gandhi was not asking for damages, only for the sentence to be removed from future editions of the book.

"The only defence we had was a high-risk route: we would have had to argue that her actions during the Emergency were so heinous that she could no longer be considered a person of good character, and could therefore not be defamed. In other words, we would have had, in effect, to put her on trial for her misdeeds.

"But if, in the end, a British court refused to accept that the Prime Minister of India was not a woman of good character, then we would be, not to put too fine a point upon it, royally screwed," writes Rushdie.

"When it became clear that she was also willing to accept that this was her sole complaint against the book, I agreed to settle the matter.

"It was after all an amazing admission she was making, considering what the Emergency chapters of Midnight's Children were about. Her willingness to make such an admission felt to me like an extraordinary validation of the novel's portrait of those Emergency years."

The settlement came only weeks ahead of Gandhi's assassination Oct 31, 1984. Writing in a newspaper, Rushdie then said: "All of us who love India are in mourning today."

In the introduction, he adds: "Despite our disagreements, I meant every word."

Of the book that changed the global literary landscape and introduced Indian idioms to international audiences, the author says modestly: "I am very glad it still seems like a book worth reading in this very different time. If it can pass the test of another generation or two, it may endure. I will not be around to see that. But I am happy that I saw it leap the first hurdle."

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