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13 August 2022

The attack on Salman Rushdie is an attack on a global community of writers and readers

The freedom of expression and imagination that the novelist has bravely championed for so long is under renewed assault.

By Soumya Bhattacharya

The trouble with writing about the barbaric, numbing stabbing of Salman Rushdie is that, at this point, we know so little about this horrific incident. The whodunnit has been resolved. We have no idea of the whydidit.

What we do know so far is the following: Rushdie was stabbed on stage prior to delivering a talk at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York state. The attacker is a 24-year-old from New Jersey named Hadi Matar. He is in police custody and has been charged with attempted murder.

Rushdie was on a ventilator. He was unable to speak. The nerves of one of his arms have been severed. His kidney is damaged. He may lose one eye. The rest is in the realm of speculation.

Was Matar a lone wolf? Or was this part of a larger conspiracy? Does this have anything to do with the $3m bounty placed on Rushdie’s head in February 1989 by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the former supreme leader of Iran, following the publication of The Satanic Verses, a novel many Muslims felt mocked Islam and the Prophet? Matar was not even born when the book was published. What might that mean? Can hate be this resilient, be this self-propagating? Or is the life of a book this long?

We do know something else for certain. This attack on Rushdie is an attack on the freedom of expression and imagination that the writer has bravely, determinedly, at huge personal cost, championed for so long. It is an attack on an ethos, a belief system, a way of life. It is an attack on the global community of readers and writers. 

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In India, where I live, the country of Rushdie’s birth, and the place to which he has returned again and again, both in person, and in his fiction, the response has been of shock, love and support.

Fellow novelists, Arundhati Roy and Shashi Tharoor, have spoken out. Social media sites are full of messages of support from writers, readers (and non-readers, who simply want to jump on to this bandwagon in the way decreed by social media: post a Rushdie picture; write a message; and, yes, we have participated in this great collective conversation).

Every non-reader loves Rushdie now. And so it should be.

The publication of Midnight’s Children in 1981, and its Booker Prize win, was a watershed moment for Indian writers of the next generation. Rushdie saw – and showed us – how we had never seen India before. Magic realist, magisterial, incredibly ambitious, fantastical and phantasmagoric. Nothing would ever be the same again.

There is a different way of writing about India. It was always there. And it became pronounced as a sort of writing that was counter to what Rushdie did. The minimalist. The attention to detail. The Vermeer-like. Finding magic in the quotidian. None of that takes away from the phenomenal, historical achievement of Midnight’s Children.

[See also: Salman Rushdie shows us that free speech is life itself]

Seven years later, the publication of The Satanic Verses changed everything. Ever since, Rushdie’s relationship with India has been fraught. The country banned the book. The Congress Party’s Rajiv Gandhi, the grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru and the son of Indira Gandhi, was then the prime minister of India. You couldn’t call that government right wing.

Rushdie wrote to the prime minister, saying that his novel was about migration, identity and various other things, but not anti-Islam. Gandhi, without much formal education, was not a great reader. But he was alert to the Muslim sentiments that were vital to winning elections. (And this same party, Congress, today condemns the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party for repression.) The ban remained.

In February 1989, Rushdie was forced into hiding because of Khomeini’s edict. He lived in hiding for nine years. Safe house to safe house. Supported by the UK government. Supported vocally, and in writing, by friends such as Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan.

Rushdie’s 2012 memoir, Joseph Anton, his best book of this century, offers us a harrowing, riveting account of that period of his life. In India, in Bombay (now Mumbai), the city in which Rushdie was born, and still feels umbilically attached to, there were protest marches by Muslim organisations against the UK government’s security support and surveillance for Rushdie.

After the publication of his 1995 novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh, the Hindu nationalist party, the Shiv Sena, raged against Rushdie because they thought a character in the novel was based on the party’s founder, Bal Thackeray.

It was. This was a caricature of a caricature of a character. But party cadres in India are literalists, not readers. They do not see the scope of imagination.

Which is why it was laughable to see a Shiv Sena MP condemn the attack on Rushdie soon after it happened. Score points, yeah? Be a part of the conversation. Politicians, regardless of the party they belong to in India, have selective amnesia.

What is freedom of speech, Rushdie once asked, unless it is the freedom to offend? Whatever you might say about him, he has been an equal opportunities offender.

Rushdie made personal visits to India after he was able to come out of hiding. He wanted to show his sons where he came from, that city by the sea once known as Bombay. In 2012, he was invited to the Jaipur Literature Festival, the biggest literary festival in Asia. But he had to pull out. He released a statement explaining that he had “been informed by intelligence sources… that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to eliminate me”.

The festival directors, including William Dalrymple (who has written eloquently about this traumatising experience), tried to get Rushdie to address the festival via a video talk. But word got out. Islamist activists entered the festival venue in huge numbers. They massed together. They threatened violence. The police swarmed into action and said that the talk could go ahead, but warned of baton charges and a shoot-out if Rushdie spoke. 

Schoolchildren were present at the venue; as was an audience of 10,000 people. Rushdie’s planned video address was called off. 

And now, in upstate New York, in the country that he calls home and of which he is a citizen having lived there for decades, Rushdie finds himself, seriously injured, in a hospital.

The topic of the talk he was about to deliver before he was attacked? How America is a safe haven for writers in exile. Let us not talk about irony.

[See also: Don’t blame cancel culture for what happened to Salman Rushdie]

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