Friday, January 20, 2012

Salman Rushdie and the Jaipur Literary Festival

Salman Rushdie’s no-show at the opening of the annual Jaipur Literary Festival has received much media attention, almost all of it focused on objections to his presence raised by a number of Muslim groups. There has been almost nothing about the value and significance of his work, which should surely be the focus in a literary context. To remedy that insufficiency, I give below a short rundown on Rushdie and the works that have made him notorious.

He was born in Mumbai and sent off at an early age to be educated in one of Britain’s famously oppressive Public Schools (they are actually Private and very elitist). He emerged as a pucca Brown Sahib,  contemptuous of his own country and traditions, a type the colonial British created to help keep India enslaved.

His first novel was the weak little-noticed 1975 novel Grimus, described by one British critic as “a ramshackle surreal saga based on a 12th-century Sufi poem and copiously encrusted with mythic and literary allusion,” which “nosedived into oblivion amid almost universal critical derision."

That was followed in 1981 by Midnight’s Children, so brilliantly different from his first effort as to suggest that it was by a different author. It presented the British view of India as a gigantic freak-show of dissipation, hysteria and comic mangling of English.

The novel’s central conceit is that all babies born at the moment when India became independent were magically gifted in some way. Its main character has two such gifts, a powerful sense of smell and the capacity to serve as the telepathic medium for all the other 1001 magical children who are, says the hero, either “the last throw of everything antiquated and retrogressive in our myth ridden nation” or “the true hope of freedom.”

By the sour end of the story that freedom is seen to be “forever extinguished.” All communication among the children has ended, and the hero is using his nose to track and kill intellectuals in East Pakistan during its struggle to become Bangladesh.

The shelf-life of Rushdie’s 1981 work has been extended by being judged “Best of the Bookers” at the 25th and 40th anniversaries of the award; it is now being made into a Hollywood movie.

In two subsequent novels, Shame! and The Satanic Verses, Rushdie lavished his raw contempt on Pakistan and Islam.

These grim tragicomic pictures of his putative homelands and ancestral faith have in common one pronounced characteristic: they ignore the long British role as the puppet-master of South Asian and Islamic politics. In ridiculing Pakistan Rushdie avoided mentioning that Britain created the country to be its violent proxy in South Asia – at the cost of over a million lives in undivided India.

In casting scorn on Islam Rushdie took no note of the prolonged British effort that manipulated key segments of the Ummah from peaceful quiescence into suicidal extremism. That manipulation involved four main elements: supporting Ibn Saud to become the ruler of Arabia, fomenting the Arab-Israeli conflict in Palestine, sponsoring the Muslim Brotherhood, and creating Pakistan.

Each of those factors had a potent effect. Saudi control of Islam’s holy places gave global influence to the family’s extremist Wahhabi creed. The dispossession of Palestinian Arabs outraged and radicalized Muslims all over the world. The Muslim Brotherhood, a violent secret society that German Nazis had used in anti-Jewish campaigns during World War II, became the fountainhead of “Islamic terrorism” under British and then American tutelage during the Cold War. Pakistan served not only as a proxy against India but as a pliable tool to manipulate the rest of the Islamic world.

By ignoring this explosive background Rushdie invites the charge of being a British propagandist, continuing in the Brown Sahib tradition of helping to manipulate the "lesser breed."

The rest of Rushdie’s literary oeuvre consists of fey stories reminiscent of Grimus and is not worth serious comment.

These are the facts that any discussion of Rushdie's contribution to an Indian literary festival must take into account. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen at glitzy celebrity meets such as the one in Jaipur.

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