The freedom to read….

India was the first country in the world to officially ban Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses” – a fact that I vaguely remembered from when it happened, but brought home to me with sorrow and regret by the author himself in his latest book – Joseph  Anton.  And things have not changed much  since then (that was in 1988). In fact,  recent episodes involving the teenage girl pop group in Srinagar, Kamal Haasan’s film “Vishwaroopam”,  the exhibition of nudes in a Delhi gallery and the inability to facilitate the travel of Salman himself to Kolkota for the promotion of the film “The Midnight’s Children” seem to suggest things are only getting worse – a sentiment also expressed by the eminent jurist Soli Sorabjee in a recent centre page article in the Hindu of Feb 14.

Joseph Anton, is the personal account of Rushdie’s life during the period of the Khomeini fatwa! It seems logical that when he was pushed by his Police Protection team to choose a cover name, he would wade through the names of famous writers to seek one – and that is the name he chose, from Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov. He writes about the decade that he had to live as ‘another’ – about his wives and the divorces, relationship with his son who grew  from childhood to adulthood during this time, the birth of his second son, of  the many friends who stood by him,  of his difficult relationship with his father and the close ties with his mother and sister and much more.

The book is long (630 pages in the original Jonathan Cape hard back edition) and through out the book, two themes run in parallel – Salman’s personal struggle to deal with the aftermath of the fatwa and the story of the global responses to the fatwa.  And through it all Salman’s unwavering conviction on the right to free thoughts and speech, is so well etched.And also of his continuous sense of fear and then deciding to face that fear ..

“It’s an absolutist. With fear, it’s all or nothing. Either, like any bullying tyrant, it rules your life with a stupid blinding omnipotence, or else you overthrow it, and its power vanishes is a puff of smoke. And another secret: the revolution against fear, the engendering of that tawdry despot’s fal, has more or less nothing to do with ‘courage’. It is driven by something much more straightforward: the simple need to get on with your life. I stopped being afraid, because, if my time on earth was limited, I didn’t have seconds to spare for funk.”

Reading it at this particular time in our country’s not so laudable responses to the fringe elements and their sense of “offence”, made it that much more interesting. Needless to say, the prose is marvelous, which even non-admirers of his style, will admit. My interest was also sustained by the anecdotes around the many famous writers whom he met and who were his close friends – Paul Auster, Kurt Vonnegaut,Bruce  Chatwin (author of Song Lines), Sontag, Greene, Bharati Mukherji, Geeta Mehta (whose husband Sonny was also his American publisher), Michael Ondaatje, Nadine Godimer, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan etc…- writes who I have read and enjoyed immensely.

I am a Rushdie fan and although I have not read all his books and have not even liked all parts of the books I have read, ‘Midnight’s Children” would certainly feature among my list of all time favorites. But fan or not, the book will certainly make the reader think. And maybe someof us will be shaken out of our comfortable corners and speak up for our rights to read the book or see the movie or hear the song of our choice.  In fact, this is his letter to his readers …

“Dear Reader,

Thank you for your kind words about my work. May I make the elementary point that the freedom to  write is closely related to the freedom to read, and not have your reading selected, vetted and censored for you by any priesthood or ‘Outraged Community’? Since when was a work of art defined by the people who didn’t like it? The value of art lie in the love it engenders, not the hatred. It’s love that makes books last. Please keep reading.”

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