Once upon a time in London, David Ogilvy, the father of modern advertising, used to prowl the offices of Ogilvy & Mather after hours, rummaging in the desk drawers of ambitious employees in search of novel manuscripts, poems, plays and film treatments that they illegally wrote on company time. Nothing he discovered could possibly have been as powerful as the manuscript of “Midnight’s Children” (1981), which his copywriter Salman Rushdie had begun work on.
The last sentence of the novel was eerily prophetic: “It is the privilege and the curse of midnight’s children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace.” Seven years later, Rushdie wrote “The Satanic Verses” (1988), and the curse took over his life.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him for apostasy in 1989. The open-source death sentence extended to translators, editors and publishers of the book who were aware of its contents, and some of them paid with their lives for it. Khomeini himself knew nothing of the book’s contents. His fatwa was triggered not by the book but by what was probably the very first review of “The Satanic Verses.” Madhu Jain of India Today, Asia’s top news magazine at the time, was handed a proof copy of the book by Rushdie in London. Fearing repercussions, she toned down her review via an accompanying interview in which the author explained that his opposition to fundamentalism was not Islam-specific. Rushdie’s book was focused on Islam because that was the faith he knew best.
It was a little too anodyne for the books editor of India Today at the time, who regarded being boring to be a far more heinous crime than apostasy. He handed the review to the leading stylist of the publication. It was made more exciting, partly by including the most controversial quotes from the book, taken out of context. Both men were later my colleagues. I find the story credible.
Following its publication, protests broke out in India and Pakistan. It was perhaps the only time in history when a book review has triggered civil unrest. Protesters were shot in Pakistan. Khomeini learned of the news and issued the fatwa. To reiterate, he did not read the book. People who ban books almost never take the trouble. Rushdie’s attacker in upstate New York did a little better. He admitted to having read a couple of pages.
But Iran was not the first country to ban “The Satanic Verses.” India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi beat the ayatollah to the draw. Both men acted out of political compulsions. The Iran-Iraq war had just ended and Khomeini needed an issue to distract public attention from the economic devastation and loss of lives. Gandhi needed to hold off Muslim groups led by former diplomat and politician Syed Shahabuddin, who threatened a march on Ayodhya. Trouble had been brewing there from colonial times over the Babri Masjid, built by the first Mughal emperor Babur’s commander Mir Baqi, allegedly on the spot where the Hindu epic hero Rama was born.
The ban, which amounted to buckling to Shahabuddin’s religious activism, was one of several ill-considered concessions made by the Rajiv Gandhi government to Hindus and Muslims that intensified the religious divide in India and eventually led to the destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu fundamentalists on Dec. 6, 1992, a turning point in Indian politics. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which believes in Hindutva (roughly, the essence of being Hindu), is now in power in India and committed to turning the nation, a multicultural, multi-religious democracy based on a secular constitution, into a monolithic Hindu state ― a people of the book. Somewhere up there Winston Churchill, who believed that an independent India would self-destruct, must be laughing.
The ayatollah’s fatwa remains in force because of a technicality: A fatwa can be withdrawn only by the cleric who issued it. In this case, he is dead. The ban on “The Satanic Verses” in India also remains in force, because decades of sectarian Hindu politics has turned religion into a ticking bomb. Rushdie held Madhu Jain personally responsible for his years in hiding, which he recounted in his memoir “Joseph Anton” (2012), and never spoke to her again. And he was deeply hurt by the ban in India, the country of his birth, whose place in the world he had helped to alter. If Indian writers now throng the Booker lists, it owes something to the dramatic success of “Midnight’s Children,” which won Rushdie the Booker and then the Booker of Bookers. Indians held the book in a tight embrace. To Rushdie’s baffled rage, Indian publishers who pirated the book started sending him greeting cards on Eid, as if he were family. However, their government held it at arm’s length.
In a special article for Newsweek (1990), Rushdie protested that “The Satanic Verses” is not about Islam at all, but about “hybridity, impurity, intermingling. … It is a love song to our mongrel selves.” Those are precisely the issues that Rushdie has written about all of his life, starting with “Midnight’s Children” and carrying on to later work like “East, West” (1994). They also concern the first generation of Indian writers in English, who were torn between “English as she is spoke” ― the excessively formal language which was taught in schools and thundered forth in newspaper editorials ― and the everyday speech of English-speaking Indians, whose very vocabulary is different (see Samosapedia.com for colorful examples). The “many Englishes” that British linguist and author David Crystal would celebrate later were being born, each a chutney that looked like English but was strongly flavored by the idiom of one of India’s two dozen mother tongues.
“Midnight’s Children”, which used Indian Englishes freely, marked a turning point in Indian literature. For decades earlier, writers and poets like RK Narayan, Raja Rao, Kamala Das, Nissim Ezekiel and Arun Kolatkar had been using the English language to tell South Asian stories and forged new idioms. To this highly spiced melting pot Rushdie brought an aggressive miscegenation, a “chutnification” that baffled established cultural hierarchies. From the point of view of India, it reversed the cultural power differential between England and the former colonies, established centuries ago by Lord Macaulay to create generations of plug-and-play clerks, who could be counted upon to raise a memo, whether in Burhanpur or British Guiana, but who could never write a book. “The Empire Writes Back,” said a memorable cover headline of Sunday, the number two Indian news magazine at the time, after India Today. Suddenly, it was all right to write in the bastard tongues that we use in everyday life. It was freedom of speech. It was such a relief. In world literature, we were no longer tongue-tied.
A backlash followed. All the appreciation, prizes, champagne and canapes were going to Indian writers in English, the elite language, who were celebrated as India’s cultural ambassadors to the world. Writers in India’s myriad other languages, who are often more powerful than English writers, were left munching peanuts. The world of Indian literature had a bone to pick with collections of Indian literature which reflected the new global interest in Indian literature triggered by “Midnight’s Children,” like Rushdie’s own “The Vintage Book of Indian Writing 1947-1997.” They consisted of ranks of writers who published in English, period, and were deaf to the other Indian languages. Rushdie’s collection suggested either ignorance of that gigantic body of work, or disdain for it. Either way, it was uneasy-making. At the same time, from the end of the ’80s, groups and communities that had been denied power for centuries by the forces of history and plain human cussedness asserted themselves politically and culturally ― the Dalit movement of the lowest castes being the most prominent. What they had to say was important, and it was mostly not in English.
In reaction, toward the end of the ’90s, a groundswell in translation began, led by publishers like Katha and then The Little Magazine (disclosure: I was its publisher and one of its many translators). Today, Indian literature in translation is a tsunami, driven by a wide range of houses from small publishers so minuscule that they should be called tiny publishers, to familiar international imprints that have been forced to take note of the trend. In bookshops, works in translation have moved from the back shelves to the display window. In literary festivals, authors who can barely speak English, like the radical Bengali writer Manoranjan Byapari, are the star attractions.
This year, the international Booker Prize was won by “Tomb of Sand,” Daisy Rockwell’s translation of the Hindi writer Geetanjali Shree’s novel “Ret Samadhi.” Shree said that she had never expected to win an international prize. Indeed, her generation did not expect such recognition, because they were overshadowed by Indian writers in English. Shree is a superb novelist. But in a backhanded sort of way, even this prize owes something to the attention that India received because of “Midnight’s Children” ― specifically, the explosion in retaliatory translation activity that followed.
Rushdie was hurt when his homeland was the first nation to ban “The Satanic Verses.” Later, when he was knighted in the U.K. in 2007, Muslims everywhere protested, including in Kashmir, where his family came from. That must have hurt, too. His novel “Shalimar the Clown” (2005) is a Kashmir story. And “Midnight’s Children” begins in an idyllic landscape with the lucidity of dreams in which a man kneels to pray, and the Valley of Kashmir rushes up and punches him on the nose.
Despite these slights, years after the fatwa had lost traction, Rushdie began to visit India again, about when the Jaipur Literature Festival became part of the global literary pilgrimage circuit, and similar festivals began to spring up all over India. On one trip, with fellow writer Suketu Mehta, he visited the Mughal ghost town of Fatehpur Sikri, not far from Agra and the Taj Mahal. The spooky city, which looks like a demonstration of the effects of a neutron bomb, has inspired dozens of writers from the 19th century onward. In Rushdie’s hands, it became one of the settings of “The Enchantress of Florence” (2008) ― admittedly, not his best work. But then he was rebuffed again: Muslim groups prevented him from attending the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012 ― even by a video link.
Rushdie was never very enthusiastic about Pakistan. Very early in his career, when he was looking to get into theater, he was involved in a rendering of Edward Albee’s “Zoo Story” for radio in Pakistan, which was censored, he had said in an informal discussion. It was desperately absurd to attempt absurd drama in a country that was going through an absurdly fundamentalist phase, but the censorship clearly exasperated him.
But censorship by mob rule, as it works in India, is of a different order. In Rushdie’s picaresque novel “Quichotte” (2019), there is a nameless character called the “Sad-Faced Older Painter.” It’s obviously MF Husain, whose exhibitions were vandalized in 1996 by Hindu groups for his paintings of the Hindu goddess Saraswati in the nude. Ten years later, India Today published an ad titled “Art for Mission Kashmir,” which included Husain’s image of Mother India (Bharat Mata, revered by the Hindu right) in the nude. The same year, Husain was charged with hurting the sentiments of Hindus and served with SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) suits in multiple jurisdictions. To fight them, he had to become a permanent domestic transit passenger. Ultimately, he preferred a one-way ticket to Qatar, where he spent the rest of his life. He died in exile.
Can Rushdie go home, and does such a place exist? Long ago, he said that he found Pakistan stifling, and that the open and multicultural spirit of India ― which is amply reflected in the magic realism elements of his work set there ― offered a pleasant contrast. During the fatwa years, Rushdie was also the subject of a dreadful Pakistani pot-boiler named “International Gorillay” (a mispronunciation of “guerrilla”), in which the author of “The Satanic Verses” appears in a safari suit, is guarded by the Israeli army and torments good Islamic radicals. In the end, a flying Quran fries him with a bolt of lightning. Years later, future Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan delivered another lightning bolt when he said that Rushdie “had lost it.” The door to that country is closed.
In recent years, Rushdie has spoken against the national government of Narendra Modi, which in the name of national unity is violently suppressing Muslim and Christian minorities to create a Hindu majority as uniform and boring as processed cheese. When Rushdie was knifed in upstate New York, the very thin-skinned right-wing government of India, whose people are very happy to claim him as their own, did not issue a statement of support or indignation until almost two weeks after the attack. That’s no way to treat your own people. In the subcontinent, another door has closed. To quote the title of one of Rushdie’s most insightful books about exile, for him, these countries are now “Imaginary Homelands” (1992).
Perhaps only South Asians really understand the enormous irony of the attack on Rushdie. The most celebrated child of midnight, who has come to personify the freedom of speech, was knifed at age 75, on the day that celebrations began of the 75th anniversary of India’s independence. It’s doubly ironic because freedom of speech, in the Indian media and the body politic, is now being snuffed out by the government using draconian laws and the machinery of the state. It appears that the fortunes of Rushdie and India remain forever intertwined.