Thursday, January 17, 2013

Joseph Anton - a Memoir by Salman Rushdie

In the 90s, news papers told us Salman Rushdie had some kind of death sentence on him for writing The Satanic Verses. But we never understood how serious it was, whether it represented an actual threat to Rushdie’s life, whether a book could really offend people so much, did people who were offended actually read the book. And above all, could a book ever be so world-churning? 

Joseph Anton, a memoir by Rushdie, gives you an accurate measure of the crisis’s magnitude The Satanic Verses had created, and chronicles Rushdie’s day-to-day life for 10 years under fatwa (the death sentence); how people and various governments reacted to it; and how it affected him and in many ways altered Rushdie’s life.

Following the issuance of fatwa on Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini, the theocratic head of Iran, people suddenly seemed to take note of the book and outpouring of passions against its author began. And its author had to stay amidst heavy security, moving from one hideout to another, for roughly 10 years, which changed his life in many ways.

There are varied arguments on the issue. The most common arguement given against The Satanic Verses is no one has the right to offend people’s religious sentiments. I find this self-defeating – because no book sets out to hurt your sentiments; it just makes a point and leaves it to you to decide how you want to receive it. Nor does a book create any controversy. A controversy is how the world reacts to a book and, as it happens, this reaction is often shaped by reasons that have very less to do with what is actually written in the book.

An author can write controversial material in his book but there is enough evidence to show that those who shout over books don’t read the books they oppose. And outsiders to a controversy lend their voice to the group they want to be identified with and depending on the stand of their chosen camp they either oppose or favour a book. Independent views falling outside the 'either with us or them' narrative are mostly ignored. Thus builds the protest narrative around a book.

Once the fatwa was out, this is how public narrative started building around The Satanic Verses. Some British politicians had initially supported Rushdie, but  they changed their stand later to oppose him (or aligned themselves with the 'appropriate' side of the narrative).

But does a lesser author or book deserve to be defended as such? Rushdie has empathised with Taslima Nasrin who shared with Rushdie the plight of being banned from visiting India, their homeland, which in case of Rushdie lasted for some years since the publication of The Satanic Verses. (However, Taslima is still being denied visa by the Indian government.)

The book opens with a BBC journalist informing Rushdie that he had been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini for authoring The Satanic Verses. Britain agreed to give Rushdie protection and Rushdie was asked to choose a pseudonym to hide his actual identity. He tried out various combinations clubbing different writers’ first names with other writers’ surnames and finally arrived at Joseph (from Joseph Conrad) Anton (from Anton Chekov).

After a steamy prologue written effectively by Rushdie, the book digresses into Rushdie’s childhood and early years in England. His early years in England were not happy at all bringing to him the real England of racism and dashing the imaginary image of the country the bookish young Rushdie had in mind owing to Enid Blyton and the like. The young Rushdie was a clever kid and a bright student, which together with the fact that he was a foreigner, according to Rushdie, made him an intolerable proposition for his peers at Rugby school. This, Rushdie says, led to his school peers’ racist attitude towards him.

Rushdie’s family back home in Bombay was a liberal Muslim household where people freely exchanged scholarly and dissenting views on religion. This environment shaped Rushdie’s worldview and he finally consummated his irreligious outlook in England by eating pork, which, despite the family’s liberal attitude, was strongly forbidden by his parents back home where they didn’t eat it, although alcohol wasn’t a taboo.

Although the British government gave him security protection, Britain popular mood was that the author was being spent too much money on and he, and not having done anything for Britain, didn’t deserve it. In the US, on the other hand, the author found an atmosphere of support and sympathy which was responsible for Rushdie’s eventual shift of base from the UK to the US - New York - where he currently stays.

Until many years since the issuance of fatwa, the UK had Tories in power and Rushdie insisted them to browbeat Iran to drop the fatwa, but the Tory government was reluctant to do so. Things changed for the better once the Labour party came to power in Britain coinciding with Democrats coming to power in the US. Britain had Tony Blair and America, Bill Clinton.

I felt Rushdie wrote the book under an extreme sense of victimhood – which is understandable - which informs his attitude towards contrary views which he dismisses with a self-righteous and aggressive flourish without, I sometimes felt, handling them with reflective consideration. For the most part, it's like Rushdie taking on a lynch mob baying for his blood.

However, I don't want to get too self-righteous about this - which I found many reviewers doing - because when you read what he went through, this question keeps coming back to you: "How he maintained his sanity?." Rushdie maintained his sanity aided by his friends and family and after sometime, I felt, he got innured to the daily business of receiving threats, hate letters and derogatory comments from the media.

Finally, following diplomatic pressure and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the subsequent regimes in Iran assured several times that the fatwa would not be carried out but refuted themselves later under internal pressure. But the threat perception dropped gradually to a level where the British intelligence thought it unnecessary to continue giving protection to Rushdie.

Albeit, the shadow of the fatwa still stalks him and although he travels and lives freely now, there are some countries he still can’t visit and countries that don’t have a formal ban on him but they refuse to let him in fearing backlash by Muslim orthodoxy (recently he was disallowed to visit Srilanka where Midnight's Children was being shot).

If you read Joseph Anton without being judgmental, you will enjoy it.

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