Salman Rushdie
Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie in a file photo

They finally got through to an unsuspecting Rushdie

  • Whatsapp
  • Telegram
  • Whatsapp
  • Telegram
  • Whatsapp
  • Telegram

That an armed individual could so easily access writer Salman Rushdie is unthinkable, given how a decade earlier meeting him in person was possible only after passing through several layers of security, as this writer experienced.

It was early 2013, or thereabouts. The flick Midnight’s Children, based on Rushdie’s watershed novel of the same name, was on the verge of release in India. Rushdie arrived in Bengaluru and was meeting with a select few at the Hotel Taj WestEnd.

An agency managing the event collected names of those interested.  In the normal course, the next thing would have been to arrive for the interaction on the given day and enter the venue with no questions asked. Not this time. Several calls were made in an attempt to re-verify the antecedents of those whose names were on the list (including this writer’s).

On that day, security was super-tight with names on the list and identity cards checked and re-checked at several points of the layered entry. A thorough body pat was done and no accessories were allowed before being let in. There were probably around 30 people, mainly journalists, in the gathering. A few minutes later, a hush fell as Rushdie walked in along with film director Deepa Mehta.

Also read: Salman Rushdie attack: Why his book The Satanic Verses created such a furore?

Once he started to speak and started answering questions, the atmosphere lightened and the rest of the interaction went ahead flawlessly. It was a privilege to be at the event, to be in the company of a writer who heralded the new age of Asian writing in English. A wordsmith who enthralled the world of readers, constructing complex ideas simply and simple ideas in the most complex constructions.

The life-altering fatwa

In fact, the book The Satanic Verses that got him into trouble with Islamic fundamentalists is an extremely convoluted narration, where Rushdie exceeded himself in the presentation of complex ideas. It’s a difficult book to read, and unless one is in the habit of reading dense novels, it is not quite accessible.

An element of interpretation is required to term the book blasphemous. In fact, the putative portion extends over just a few pages in the first half of the 559-page book. It may have gone unnoticed if not for India’s popular journalist Khushwant Singh who flagged it in a review he wrote in 1988. It was the review that inflamed a section of Muslims who protested calling for a ban. The then government of Rajiv Gandhi obliged and it turned out that India was the first in the world to proscribe the novel.

This, in turn, attracted the attention of the rest of the world. Street violence followed in parts of the world, including in India. A year later, in 1989, the then Iranian Supreme Leader Ayotollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared a fatwa, announcing a reward for whoever killed Salman Rushdie.  Fatwas issued by the Ayotollah, as the spiritual head of the Shia Muslim community, are taken seriously by his followers. It turned Rushdie’s happy-go-lucky, freewheeling life upside down.

Going into hiding

The writer went into hiding, protected by British security. It seemed as if Rushdie had himself turned into a character in one of his novels – playing hide and seek with potential assassins pursuing him wherever he went. Not coincidentally, his novel Joseph Anton is about this phase of his life where he went around with this assumed name, a portmanteau of the highly acclaimed novelists Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.

With security in tow 24/7, Rushdie in effect lost his freedom of movement and to express himself publicly in his inimitable style. The British government was spending considerably on his security and taunts followed that the anti-establishment writer was now, for his survival, depending on the very state he was critical of.

Unable to withstand the pressure, Rushdie twice apologised for The Satanic Verses, almost to the point where he disowned his own writing. While this dismayed a large circle of his friends and admirers around the world, there was a reluctant empathy for the reasons behind his apology.

Ironically, Ayotollah Khomeini died just a few months after issuing the fatwa. Rushdie hoped that his successor, Ayotollah Ali Khamenei, would withdraw the fatwa. But that did not happen. Reports quoted Khamenei as saying that even if he turned the most pious Muslim on Earth, the fatwa would not be withdrawn.

The constant fear and being pushed around took a toll on Rushdie’s family. His second wife, novelist Marianne Wiggins, and he divorced in 1993. The perceived threat due to the fatwa was so overpowering that Wiggins too went into hiding for a while after their divorce.

Eventually, after eight years, as a political thaw happened globally and Iran’s Islamic regime attempted to bring in political and social reform, it impinged on Rushdie’s fatwa as well. Iranian President Sayyid Mohammad Khatami, considered a reformist, in 1997 indicated that the fatwa was no longer active and that Iran would not actively seek out Rushdie’s blood. The fatwa, though, was never formally withdrawn.

Getting back to normal

But gradually Rushdie started moving around with minimal security and over time even that was all but given up. After Khatami’s de facto dilution of the fatwa, Rushdie disowned the apology he had proffered and defended his novel, The Satanic Verses. He distanced himself from the other part of the apology that had him calling himself a pious Muslim. Reports quoting him asserted that he was no longer a Muslim.

Also read: Salman Rushdie on ventilator, may lose an eye, liver damaged: Report

By 2001, he was almost back to leading a normal life except for the bare minimum security. He moved out of the UK and has lived in the United States for the last two decades considering it the best possible place to move without fear, and for free expression. Ironic, in the light of what happened on Friday.

Obviously, though the fatwa seemed to have lost its bite and the Iranian government no longer backed it, there were individuals like Hadi Matar within the Shia Muslim community who had not forgiven Rushdie for his purported blasphemy. They waited patiently for a chance to get him. That presented itself at the literary event in New York, and the rest is now there for all to see… a vengeful act that reminds votaries of free expression that there is still a long way to go for sense to prevail in this world.

Read More
Next Story