“You, Sir, are fanatics on the behalf of God” (sic.)
I first came across Salman Rushdie in the huge, dust-ridden library at Yashada (interestingly, that library is heaven for the olfactory senses amongst other things – the aroma of old, yellowing hardbacks is to die for). A curious 15-year old, I picked up “The Moors Last Sigh”. A series of books later, Rushdie is one of my favorite authors.
What I particularly enjoy about Rushdie’s books is his flair for writing. The presence (or absence) of a plot notwithstanding, his style is incredibly stimulating – surreal, seeped in symbolism, magical, and with a healthy disregard for linearity. At places he engages a theme, discussing its various sub-plots, meditating on it to fruition; at times he brushes past to leave the mind engrossed. A narrative that is so hell-bent on being playful is – simply put – delicious. Mind, Joseph Anton lacks a real plot – at least in the way Shalimar had one, or The Moor had one. It is more of a collection of anecdotes, memories, meetings, thoughts and recollections. Despite that (perhaps, because of that) the book is a work of beauty, done masterfully.
If a summary of this book is to be offered, it is the memoirs of Rushdie living incognito after the Satanic Verses controversy. To protect his identity, Rushdie had to take on an alias – and he did so by combining the names of two literary giants – Joseph Conard and Anton Chekov. I am both honor-bound and proud to say that Joseph Anton has made me rethink my own ideas of liberty, justice and freedom – particularly the freedom of expression. It has also helped me re-enforce one of my chief complaints against our world – that we force the superior of the species to kow-tow to the inferior. From ‘The Dictatorship of the Proliterate’, the ‘Tyranny of the Intolerant’ is (suddenly?) in fashion.
The Satanic Verses brewed a series of reactions – from India being the FIRST nation to ban import of the novel (one could still read it, mind; only importing it was illeagl); to the views of (the largely hillarious) Dr. Zakir Naik (link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBbXKVGA7qQ); to the “critically acclaimed” Pakisatni movie ‘International Gorrila’ (link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eoNLlHzPhI – this one can give Ra One/Tashaan a run for their money).
An interesting anecdote: the Grand Maulana of the Delhi Jama Masjid wanted to proclaim a fatwa against Salman RUSHDIE. Mistakenly (or perhaps the Maulana was simply far-sighted), this fine gentleman proclaimed one against Salman KHURSHIDE.
A confession: I largely was in agreement of this censorship – not in any small amounts because I subconsciously wanted to appease the sensitivities of our Muslim bretheren; in greater proportion because I was ill-studied on this issue. But – as mentioned above – reading Joseph Anton forced a rethink. The travesties that the ‘Satanic Verses’ resulted in makes me empathize deeply with Salman Rushdie.
Reading Joseph Anton also compels me to forgive M. F. Hussain (not that my forgiveness ever matters). I still disagree with his paintings and find them to be offensive; but I am honor-bound to accept his right of expression. An artist – in his role as a Creator – is performing an almost-divine exercise. The protestor, the mob, the sheep-el is completely incapable of performing a deed of such magnanimity. It troubles me to think that an old gentleman was forced out of the country of his birth, out of a nation he brought enormous recognition to simply because his painting offended few. “The tyranny of the Obtuse”.
What makes me tremble indignation is the fact that it is always – always – the “better” man who has to be “punished for his transgressions”. It is always the man of learning, of art, of the pursuit of excellence who has to pay the price for violating society’s self-imposed limitations on the right to speech/thought. Never mind what the militant, crass, uncouth, bullying mob does or says. As long as one can get a hoard chest-thumping people to hero-worship oneself, and one has no moral qualms in taking recourse to intolerance and violence – society’s “limitations”? They disappear – no questions asked. The rules of rationality, of hurting sensitivities do not apply to the hoards.
Interestingly, the presence of such individuals and groups transcends all boundaries of religion-caste-culture-nationality-regionalism-ideology. Idiocracy, then, is a global commonality. And significantly, this lack of sensitivity and fairness is shown not just by religious despots – those belonging to the “secular” or “atheist” brigades show equal alacrity in decrying those they disagree with (or, to be more precise, those that disagree with them). This is a farcical and fake recourse to pseudo-rationality.
My chief arguments for Rushdie/against the Fatwa are – that most of the critics (including the Ayatollah Khameini of Iran) declared fatwas and bounties against Rushdie without reading the Satanic Verses. This follows arguments similar to those presented by Bhaktiyar Khalji while burning down Nalanda university in 1197-1203 (“if a book does not agree with the Quran-e-Sharif, it is blasphemous and must be burnt. If it endorses the Quran-e-Sharif, it is redundant and uneccessary and thus should be burnt”); that the right of freedom of expression is sacrosanct. From Copernicus, Galileo, Martin Luther to Lokmanya Tilak, Dadabhai Noweresjee, Ranade, Agarkar, Swatrantyaveer Savarkar this freedom has been one of the dominant forces in shaping the modern world. Rushdie is to be granted immunity under this freedom; that the insulted party can simply choose to walk away; that asking for the death of man because he wrote something is an almost laughable over-reaction; and that above all else, (with due respect to all religions and faiths) a book which fundamentally seeks to be free of all doubt and therefore free of the spirit of inquiry is inherently stagnant and anti-freedom.
This book has raised a seemingly unsolvable question in my mind. It is amply clear to me that the reaction The Satanic Verses has been wrong; and that Rushdie is the victim of the campaign against free men that has been waged since time immemorial. The question appears is this – what about other violations of the right to free speech or thought? The Orwellian “thought-crime”?
But then what about pornography – fake one, at that? What about personal slanders and offensive remarks? What about treasonable and secessionist speech? Surely, the larger good of society should amount to reasonable restrictions on freedom? But aren’t restrictions on freedom – reasonable or otherwise – an oxymoron? The line has to be drawn somewhere. But who gets to draw it? And who gets to decide if the line drawn is reasonable or rational? Definitely not the mobs! Art – by its own self-definition – cannot be appreciated and hence (should not be) commented upon by the mobs. Then do different standards apply for art and for public life? That the limitations on a book should be decided by the literary world, and the limitations on an address to a rally by the mob/state? Is that even possible, given the dense inter-linkage between society and art?
The question, summarized, is this – what the hell is “liberty” all about?
Joseph Anton ends masterfully. The final act is the tragedy of 9/11. A macroscopic moment of blind, irrational, hatred-fueled extremism ending the story of a microscopic one which began 13 years before. And yet both incidents are simply moments in the same, great story. A telling lesson here is this – Salman had the freedom and the power to write. But what about the voiceless millions who have been slaughtered since time immemorial on the altar of the mob (or on the altar of the totalitarian despot), and the that of the millions more yet to come?
Rushdie’s writing is an appeal – a desperate cry (“writing is a struggle against silence”). Read Joseph Anton. Savor its fine, delicate narration. Understand the journey of the intricacies of the author’s mind. And above all else, read it as the Manifesto of Individual Liberty, and that of the maverick whose engines make the wheels of time turn. “Nobody these days holds the written word in such high esteem as police states do”. No one cares about Liberty as much as the tyrants do.