‘The attack on Salman Rushdie is an attack on creative imagination’

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Last week’s attack on writer Salman Rushdie, 75, in Chautauqua, New York, while he waited to deliver a lecture, has left the literary and art world in shock. “The attack on Rushdie was an attack on the creative imagination. The barbaric and inhuman assassination attempt that played itself out in New York is also an indictment of those who continue to live by hate. Books and ideas survive — they continue to resonate and it is difficult to kill them,” says Delhi-based Namita Gokhale, writer, co-founder and co-organiser of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF).

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Sanjoy Roy, managing director of Teamwork Arts, which organises the JLF, said, “Besides being really sad, it shows that violence has been normalised, how terrorists are making their intent clear in public places.”

Rushdie was issued a fatwa in the February of 1989 by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, after India’s Rajiv Gandhi-led government banned his book, Satanic Verses (1988). India was the first country in the world to do so. Others followed suit. A month prior to that, Safdar Hashmi was killed, in the middle of a street theatre performance. In the memory of Hashmi, and to fight for the freedom of speech and expression, artistes came together to form Sahmat in 1992. Sahmat celebrates 50 years this year, “and we have stood up for his (Rushdie’s) freedom of speech,” says co-founder and photographer Ram Rahman.

After a second book of his was proscribed in India, the import of Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) was banned by the Custom’s department, Sahmat organised a public reading of it, says co-founder Sohail Hashmi. On December 15, 1995, extracts from the said book were read out in public, by art critic Geeta Kapur, lawyer and writer Rajeev Dhavan, and actor Roshan Seth (Gandhi, 1982) on a makeshift stage on Safdar Hashmi Marg in Delhi’s Mandi House. They were flanked by “a reproduction of Bhupen Khakhar’s portrait of Salman Rushdie (the original work is at the National Gallery in London).” Photocopies of the book were sold in protest.

Rushdie would attend Sahmat’s events in New York, such as at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and became for the artists’ collective “an intellectual support in the US and England,” says Rahman. Rushdie, a champion of free thought, became a friend of artists and filmmakers, Vivan Sundaram, Nalini Malani, MK Raina to name a few, and would visit Sahmat on his India visits.

Rushdie returned to India in 2000, for the first time since the fatwa, for the announcement of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book. In 2007, he came for the Jaipur Virasat Festival, which was also co-organised by Gokhale. There was no uproar then.

The year 2012, however, was different. It was the election year. The announcement that JLF would host Rushdie brought a mob to the festival’s doorstep. “There was a huge hue and cry and the government kept advising us against his physical presence. We met 19 different organisations to protest against the pressure put on us to rescind our invitation to him. But it was too much of a risk to get him here,” says Roy. Rushdie withdrew his physical presence from the festival. “Politics and the violent mob mentality of those who had perhaps not even read the book made it impossible for us to host him at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012. However, his voice was not silenced and was made available to a much larger audience through a broadcast interview with Barkha Dutt,” says Gokhale.

Roy, speaking about the Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children (1981), which was adapted into a film by Deepa Mehta in 2012 that is now showing on MUBI, said, “There is no taking away the fact that Salman continues to be the numero uno of Indian writing in English. That one seminal writing, which became a global story, was not only pioneering in the way it was written and reviewed but also in the way it opened the doors to so many other writers.”

“Rushdie has made a lasting impact on South Asian writing and we salute his literary genius,” adds Gokhale.

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