The BS Column: Will you take offence? One cup or two?



(Published in the Business Standard, June 22nd, 2009; this is the longer, uncut version of the piece that appeared in print)

A few years after the ban on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in India, I happened to be browsing in a London bookshop.

(*Corrected thanks to Rahul Siddharthan–the original line mentioned incorrectly that Khomeini’s fatwa was followed by the Indian government ban. This happened the other way around–the Indian government, sadly, was one of the first to ban Satanic Verses.)

Rushdie’s works were laid out prominently and chronologically. Satanic Verses had its place between The Moor’s Last Sigh and The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Seeing it there, on open display, not attracting hordes of enraged rioters, was an uncomfortable reminder of its absence from our lives in India.

For years afterwards, when I looked at my collection of Rushdie’s works, it was the gap in the shelves that glared back at me. A missing piece of Rushdie’s writing history, airbrushed out of existence in India. Twenty years have passed since the fatwa. The ban is still in force, and the original impetus of indignation that led to the underground spread of pirated, badly photostatted copies of the book has died down. At least one generation of Indian readers has grown up knowing all about the Satanic Verses controversy without ever reading a single page of the book.

Perhaps the reason why the Satanic Verses controversy stays alive today is because it tapped into issues that were much larger than a single ban, however unjust, on a single book, however controversial or worthwhile. The big fight over the last twenty years in countries across the world goes beyond censorship, and can be summed up in a simple question: does anyone have the right to offend, or to be offended? And if we do, can we live with the gaps that this might create in our lives—not just the missing books, paintings or films, but the missing ideas?

A collaboration between the Index on Censorship and Seagull Books takes up offence and censorship in two recent series. These are collections of essays, about 10,000-15,000 words in length, that take up “questions of rights, liberties, tolerance, silence, censorship and dissent”.

From the Offence series, the two books that will be of most immediate interest to Indian readers are Kamila Shamsie’s Offence: The Muslim Case and Salil Tripathi’s Offence: The Hindu Case. Shamsie examines the figure of the Offended Muslim and offers a measure of clarity. There is the strongly entrenched perception that “Offence is what happens when Muslims encounter the West”—but she points out that there’s a deeper issue here, that “the name of Islam is invoked over a range of perceived offences, most of them entirely without reference to the non-Muslim world”. She suggests that we recast the matter as religious hardliners versus anti-hardliners, by separating those who advocate violence in the name of religion from those who find violence offensive.

It’s useful to read Shamsie alongside Caspar Melville, who writes in Taking Offence: “We have been encouraged….to believe that we have the right to complain whenever we encounter something we don’t like so long as we can couch it in terms of offence.” So it’s not enough to dislike or disagree with the Satanic Verses; you gain legitimacy and power only by being offended. This is a seductive path—for those of any religion, and any set of beliefs. Melville also notes that the stereotypes of the “free” West versus the more hostile and violent Islamic believers allows the West to conceal its own attacks on free speech.

(Before discussing Salil Tripathi’s book, I should disclose that he has signed a travel book with Tranquebar, where I was formerly employed. However, we have not discussed the Offence series.) Salil Tripathi discusses the Indian state’s dismal record of protecting works of literature, art, cinema and scholarship: “The state takes the easier option of banning (any) work rather than promoting a liberal environment in which a more enlightened discussion is possible.” He continues, “Now Hindus want equal opportunity to be offended.” And why shouldn’t any religion, any special-interest group, want the right to be offended, when the rewards are so great? To be offended is to be rescued from invisibility, to be given a voice, however mean-spirited or illogical that voice might be.

What if the ban on Satanic Verses were to be overturned tomorrow? If you go by the way the Indian state has responded in the past, a large majority of readers would once again be held to ransom by a small, but vocal and possibly violent, minority. This is a source of deep frustration to readers like me. We’re trapped: the right of (in most cases) a non-reader to be offended effectively trumps my right, as a reader, to fill that gap in my shelves.

There is also the larger issue of whether the state should be effectively supporting the suppression of a book that, however controversial, chooses to examine religion and belief as just another aspect of the human condition, as open to novelistic exploration as wars, or marriage, or the economy. And what, in the end, is truly more offensive? One author’s thoughts and views, expressed in the form of a book that you may or may not choose to read? Or the threats of a mob that has no interest in reading the book or debating the ideas it contains, offering no arguments, only book bonfires, riots and violence to those who might want to read it for themselves?

But the Satanic Verses doesn’t exist in India as a novel, a work of the imagination, any more—it’s become a symbol. If you printed copies of the Satanic Verses with only the title and the author’s name, and blank pages inside, they would still be burned.

Cartoonist Martin Rowson sums it up in Giving Offence: “In the Babel of conflicting human opinions, the right to be offended works out, in practice, as just another tactic to win an argument by compelling your opponent to shut up because what they say is offensive.”

5 comments

  1. “If you go by the way the Indian state has responded in the past, a large majority of readers would once again be held to ransom by a small, but vocal and possibly violent, minority. This is a source of deep frustration to readers like me.”Tell me, why isn’t this large majority of readers reacting very, very angrily to this vocal and possibly violent, minority? Why can’t people like us make like very difficult for this irritating minority and the leaders who pander to them?

  2. Reposted because of a typo in my previous comment: “If you go by the way the Indian state has responded in the past, a large majority of readers would once again be held to ransom by a small, but vocal and possibly violent, minority. This is a source of deep frustration to readers like me.”Tell me, why isn’t this 'large majority of readers' reacting very, very angrily to this 'vocal and possibly violent, minority'? Why can’t people like us make life very difficult for this irritating minority and the leaders who pander to them?

  3. @Rahul–my apologies, I'd missed this set of comments–and yes, this was a big error to make. Brief phase when I was using a borrowed computer and had terrible Net access, so couldn't check my notes or check online. I'll correct this now–many thanks.Winnowed, I think one of the problems with being a peaceful reader, or a gentle intellectual, as so many of my friends are, is that you are not disposed to action–especially violent action. Readers very seldom oppose violence with violence, or anger with anger; instead, they write polite letters to the editor or hold peaceful candlelit rallies, or quietly continue to petition the Home Ministry for an end to the Verses ban. None of these tactics, while respectful, are as attention-getting as a mob threatening to set books/ bookstores/ authors ablaze, unfortunately.

  4. Nabokov had his Lolita, Joyce had his Ulysses, Whitman had his Leaves of Grass… the passivist would say. And he would add Rushdie and his Satanic Verses to the list and say that if it is meant to be, it shall surely find its place in literary history. And if it isn't, maybe it won't. But is that it? Is that the value of art? Its 'quality'? (Even though Rushdie is one of my favourite authors, and I am fairly confident of him bringing a certain level of artistic greatness to every single work of his, I don't think its quality matters anymore in these debates. Satanic Verses has gone past the stage of being just a book or a work of art.) Everytime I feel that book's conspicuous absence in my book shelf, it reminds me how unfair it sometimes is to be an artist. Isn't it a travesty that an 'advanced' age like ours still finds it so inexplicably hard to discern art from its content, and the artist from the piece of art? Are we really so narrow in our minds that we cannot even bring ourselves to accept the existence of an opinion that doesn't converge with ours? I am one of those ‘peaceful readers’ you mentioned, and do not have a hope of the ban ever being overturned in this country, and have come to terms with that. But every time I come across the name 'Salman Rushdie' in a bookstore, I find it hard to not feel an open wound in that bookshelf, hidden between those missing words, bleeding artistic freedom.

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