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To name the unnameable

Please note that there is a petition that you can sign if you wish, asking the Indian Prime Minister to revoke the ban on The Satanic Verses.


‘A poet’s work. To name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.’ So says the irreverent, satirical poet Baal in The Satanic Verses. What the storm over Salman Rushdie’s non-appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival reveals is that too few people these days think like Baal.

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Rushdie was due to have attended the festival – which is quickly becoming one of the most important global literary events – to give a talk on Midnight’s Children, the film of which is released later this year, and to take part in a discussion on the history of English in India. Rushdie has visited India many times over the past decade and has attended the Festival before. This time Muslim activists issued threats. Instead of standing up the bullies, both local and state governments caved in, both exerting pressure on the festival organizers to keep Rushdie away. ‘I am sure the organizers will respect the sentiments of the local people’, said Ashok Gehlot, the chief minister of Rajasthan, whose capital is Jaipur.

In the end Rushdie cancelled his trip having, he said, received information about a plot to assassinate him, a plot that now appears may have been invented by the Rajasthan police to ‘persuade’ Rushdie not to come. In response, the novelist Hari Kunzru and the writer and poet Amitava Kumar, both speakers at the Festival, publicly read passages from The Satanic Verses. Later, two other speakers, Jeet Thayil and Rushir Joshi, did so too. The novel is still banned in India, having been placed on a proscribed list in 1988 by the then-premier Rajiv Gandhi, who, facing a crucial election, crumbled under Islamist pressure. The Festival organizers distanced themselves from what they called Kunzru and Kumar’s ‘unnecessary provocation’, and put pressure on other speakers not to follow suit. ‘Any action by any delegate or anyone else involved with the Festival that in any manner falls foul of the law will not be tolerated and all necessary, consequential action will be taken’, threatened a subsequent press release.

While many have shown support for Rushdie, others have also sprung to the defence of the festival organizers. ‘I’m not sure this Rushdie intervention was wise or effective’, tweeted Guardian books editor Claire Armistead about Kunzru and Kumar’s decision to read from from The Satanic Verses. But if it is not the role of literary festivals to stand up for writers, and to defend their right to speak, especially in these circumstances, it is difficult to know what is. The Festival’s decision not just to distance itself from Kunzru and Kumar but to threaten others who might be thinking of following suit was nothing less than cowardly.

Contrast the pusillanimity of the Jaipur festival organizers with the response of writers, publishers, editors, translators and booksellers faced with Ayotalloh Khomeini’s fatwa in 1989. Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding for almost a decade. Translators and publishers were assaulted and even murdered. In July 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, a Japanese professor of literature and translator of The Satanic Verses, was knifed to death on the campus of Tsukuba University. That same month another translator of Rushdie’s novel, the Italian Ettore Capriolo, was beaten up and stabbed in his Milan apartment. In October 1993 William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses, was shot three times and left for dead outside his home in Oslo. Bookshops were firebombed for stocking the novel. Yet Rushdie never wavered in his refusal to withdraw the novel and Penguin never wavered in its commitment to Rushdie.

Read on (Mods' note: Please DO read on. Malik makes a powerful argument for the importance of free speech.)

TAGGED: BLASPHEMY, CAMPAIGNS, CENSORSHIP


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