Joseph Anton: Rushdie on Rushdie

I remember watching on CNN the World Trade Center collapse on September 11, 2001.

I could not believe my eyes as the two planes commandeered by al-Qaeda terrorists hit the twin towers, bringing them down in tongues of fire, clouds of smoke.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed and retribution followed with the Americans going after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the war on terror, security stepped up everywhere. Commentators began to talk of a post-9/11 world.

But actually the change began more than a decade ago when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in February 1989, calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for blaspheming the Prophet in The Satanic Verses.

Rushdie was protected by the Special Branch, but others involved in printing or selling the book were attacked and killed.

Khomeini was a Shia leader, and sectarian divisions between the Shias and Sunnis sometimes spill into bloodshed in countries like Pakistan, but religious differences were forgotten in the anger against Rushdie. He remembers protest rallies in Bradford, England, where immigrants burnt his books and carried posters calling for his head. Some said on television they wanted him dead.

Imagine that. People parading on streets, calling for blood, expressing their murderous intent on television. And it was condoned. Rushdie recalls some British politicians sided with the protesters – not calling for his head, but acknowledging he had hurt their feelings. Since when does hurt or anger justify the intent to kill?

Publishers have walked on eggshells ever since. There have been anti-Prophet cartoons in newspapers in Denmark and France, but I cannot recall any English-language publisher mad or bad enough to belittle the founder of one of the world’s greatest religions.

The English-language media publishes stories about corruption in the Vatican, excoriates Narendra Modi, the Hindu chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, for his inaction or complicity in anti-Muslim riots, but the persecution of Christians in Pakistan is reported dispassionately. Journalists and publishers have learnt what they can condemn with impunity and when to hold their tongue.

I have prayed at the shrines of Sufi saints just as I adore Mother Mary. Perhaps the expansive faith of my religion with its numerous divinities confirms my belief in the sanctity of others as well.

I cannot fathom the depth of feeling roused by The Satanic Verses. But, let us face it, most of those who condemned the book have, like me, not even read the novel. It is anger fomented largely by hearsay. The book is banned in several countries.

You may ask do you have to see pornography to condemn it?

Good question. I am not saying The Satanic Verses is pornographic for I haven’t read the book, but there is no denying the consequences have been terrible, inflaming religious feelings, increasing self-censorship.

Rushdie in his memoirs, Joseph Anton, writes how Sonny Mehta at Random House did not publish Haroun and the Sea of Stories – a gem of a book he wrote for his son, Zafar – after the backlash against The Satanic Verses.

Penguin, which had published the original hardcover edition of The Satanic Verses, balked at publishing a paperback version following the outcry. So Rushdie was left with no one to publish Haroun until his good friend, Bill Buford at Granta, did so.

Meanwhile, he was hiding from the public, being protected by the Special Branch as a British citizen. They advised him to assume a false identity and he chose the name, Joseph Anton, borrowing from two writers he admired: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.

He spent nine difficult years under cover. While the Special Branch protected him round the clock, he had to find his own accommodation – no safe houses were offered – and, when he wanted to travel, some airlines refused to fly him for their own safety. He broke up with his second wife, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins.

He never imagined he would have to go into hiding when The Satanic Verses was published in 1988. His two earlier novels, Midnight’s Children, about India, and Shame, about Pakistan, had been published to literary acclaim. Midnight’s Children won the Booker prize in 1981 and Shame made the shortlist but did not win in 1983.

The Satanic Verses was also shortlisted for the Booker, but the award went to the Australian writer Peter Carey for his epic, Oscar and Lucinda. The Labour Party leader, Michael Foot, who was on the judges’ panel, voted for Rushdie, but the four others on the jury voted for Carey.

Rushdie did win the Whitbread prize, however, for The Satanic Verses.

The book ran into trouble even before it was officially released. Rushdie’s friend, Madhu Jain, from India Today magazine, while visiting London, begged an advance copy from him. The magazine then published an article about the novel a few days ahead of its release, breaking the embargo, warning it could upset Muslims. Syed Shahabuddin, an Indian Muslim politician, spoke up next, demanding a ban on the book even before it reached India.

India, Rushdie’s childhood home, was the first country to ban the book.

There was trouble in Pakistan, too, with protesters storming the U.S. embassy, defying police bullets which claimed several lives.

Then came the Ayatollah’s deadly fatwa.

Looking back, Rushdie has no regrets for what he wrote.

In his memoirs, he describes the genesis of his novel. The Satanic Verses begins with an air crash. He got the idea from the crash of the Kanishka, an Air India jumbo jet blown up by a bomb planted by Sikh terrorists, while flying over the Atlantic on its way from Montreal to Delhi in 1985.

He writes about the life of the Prophet and the satanic verses from which his novel got its name. His father, a Cambridge-educated lawyer who inherited and squandered a fortune but sent him to Rugby, was a scholar of Islam but not a pious believer, he writes. He inherited his father’s interest in Islamic history and took a special paper on it when he won a scholarship to Cambridge.

He writes about his childhood in Bombay (now Mumbai), his education in Rugby and Cambridge and his experience as an advertising copywriter in England when he published his first novel, Grimus, in 1975 before he found fame and fortune with his second novel, Midnight’s Children, in 1981.

After writing about India and Pakistan, in Midnight’s Children and Shame (published in 1983), he wanted to write about immigrants in Britain.

That is how The Satanic Verses came about. He came up with the name while flying over India on his way back to London from Australia, where he attended a literary event and explored the Outback with his friend, the writer Bruce Chatwin.

But the novel did not develop in linear fashion. Rushdie writes, “He didn’t know the beginning of the novel until a year later” when the Air India jumbo jet Kanishka crashed into the Atlantic off Ireland in 1985. That inspired the first chapter of his novel.

Yes, Rushdie has to be different. You expect an autobiography to be written in the first person. But Rushdie writes about himself in the third person. Instead of referring to himself as “I”, he uses “he”.

Maybe he wants to put some distance between himself and his past and describe it as a dispassionate observer.

I won’t pretend I liked it.

I love Rushdie, the author of The Enchantress of Florence, the fabulist, the teller of tall tales who embroiders history with legend.

In Joseph Anton, he is like a journalist reporting on a celebrity facing a death threat. He describes the bodyguards, the elaborate security arrangements, the upheaval in personal life, the resulting strains on relationships, but you don’t get the feeling of a man living on a razor’s edge, never knowing when an assassin might strike.

Maybe that’s how it was. The Special Branch did a good job of protecting him. He describes the officers and thanks them with genuine regard. He also expresses his gratitude to friends who stood by him.

The problem is, parts of the book read like the life of a celebrity recalling the people he met and the things he did on a particular day. You expect more from a writer – especially a writer as good as Rushdie.

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