Rushdie, the language animal
His strong words which found their mark unfailingly did not follow the diktat that Rushdie himself held up at the outset - “Be savage to ideas but polite to people.”
The controversial writer was at his sarcastic best, writes VISA RAVINDRAN.
Thursday, Mar 22 15:57:46, 2012
“All of us have the ability to speak our minds. We are essentially language animals and are nothing without it.” – Salman Rushdie.
Some blisters were caused and others aggravated when Salman Rushdie unleashed the power of his language to silence his critics, to ventilate recent frustrations and, more importantly, to clear the air by answering questions on his philosophy as a “language animal.” The biting wit and the smiles and, at times, uneasy laughter it provoked, barely hid the hurt and the disappointment of a writer let down because there was” no interest or protest” by those who should have shown interest and protested. He added that the Congress’s electoral calculations had proved pretty useless. (“Years of kneeling to clerics didn’t work.”) And that remark also contained a message to Omar Abdullah and Akilesh Yadav.
But the strong words which found their mark unfailingly did not follow the diktat that Rushdie himself held up at the outset – “Be savage to ideas but polite to people.” His remarks were telecast live from the India Today Conclave on Headlines Today. Imran Khan, who had made derogatory remarks about Rushdie and stayed away because of his presence, was at the receiving end of some massive impoliteness. He accused him of not daring to face him, “maybe his hook shot is not what it was.” He used to be called “Im the Dim” in London circles during his Oxford playboy days (when a member of the audience asked him about his own presence in bevies of women, quick came the repartee, “ I’m irresistible.”) Rushdie said, and that it was this “massive intellect” that Imran was offering to serve the state of Pakistan. To a person in the audience, who wondered if Rushdie felt threatened in some way by Imran, he answered, eyes glinting, “I feel staggeringly unthreatened by Imran.”
What Rushdie did feel threatened by are the religious fanaticism and political opportunism that are making inroads into free speech. Banning a book adds glamour and excitement of taboo but does nothing beyond that because banning cannot end unpleasantness – “Books do not easily offend us, you have to work pretty hard at it.” What Rushdie calls the debate of the free society, should avoid sweeping things under the carpet because only exposure can lead to debate and defence of ideas.
He found it annoying to hear the Satanic Verses criticised as racist or hate speech. One does not have to read what one doesn’t like, one is free to criticise it but must reciprocate by recognising the author’s right to write what he believes in or answer back. Moral ambiguity is a good subject to explore for him and drawing cleric-driven parameters to it, mangle debate and curtail progressive thinking and development of ideas. He referred to the First Amendment that allows freedom even to hate speech in the US and his own lobbying, in the company of Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean of filmland fame) in the U.K., against the Blair government’s intention to bring religion and racism within the purview of the same law.
On a scale that begins at political correctness and ends at intolerance, Rushdie discussed Western attempts to ban the burqua as a means of empowering young girls. Many Muslim girls in these countries are taking to wearing burqua or chaddar as a badge of identity, but in Islamic nations this is forced upon them, they do not have the choice that girls in Western countries do, and therefore it weakened the position of those in the cleric-dominated societies. However, Rushdie was emphatic that it was not a subject for the state to decide.
Asked what he held sacred, he had no straight answer except that religion as the source of an ethical framework did not appeal to him. Religion answers questions of origins and ethics but the urge to differentiate between good and evil existed well before the coming of organised religion. Fanatics have deformed religion, poking fun at it used to be quite normal, he felt. And now political correctness leads close to intolerance when religious lobbies object to the Harry Potter novels as encouraging witchcraft. And behind this is the threat of violence, he warned. There is beauty in religious tales that provide comfort to some, but these are not true just as the Satanic Verses is not true, he added.
To sum up, all ideas are available to be criticised. If I say it is improper to criticise some ideas, I instantly create imperialism; it is a two-way traffic, is the crux of his philosophy. Rushdie was at his sarcastic best at the conclave. He handled criticism including boycott, discussed ideas passionately, and shared perceptions. In words he said he was open to debate on any subject, but his manner of engaging in it showed what powerful weapons would be skillfully used and how effectively. And no, he did not follow his own Cambridge-taught maxim of being savage to ideas but polite with people, not where poor Imran was concerned certainly!