(Published in the Business Standard, January 17, 2012)
In all the claims made for Chetan Bhagat, tireless father of the Indian bestseller, this is one you will never hear: he disturbs the peace. In all the arguments made against Salman Rushdie’s attendance at the Jaipur Literature Festival this week, the gist of them is just this: he disturbs the peace.
Bhagat’s Revolution 2020 (‘Love. Corruption. Ambition.’) is, like his four previous novels, reassuringly familiar and comfortably accurate in its reflection of contemporary Indian concerns. The obsession with success, the difficulties of modern relationships, small town heroes battling a corrupt system—every one of his blockbuster novels articulates the concerns of the civic-minded Indian with absolute fidelity, and not one offers anything in the nature of a revolutionary or subversive idea.
Chetan Bhagat is the most visible face of the unchallenging new Indian bestseller, comfortable in its certainties, mildly anti-intellectual. Most of the criticism of this school of writing has focused on its lack of grammar and style. This is less obvious in Bhagat’s own writing—pedestrian to a fault, but positively literate when compared to the bestsellers from Shrishti Books.
Srishti’s line of books might be summarized as the revenge of the inarticulate on the literate, and have eloquent titles: ‘Sum Thing of a Mocktale: At JNU Where Kurta Fell In Love With Jeans’, ‘Ouch! That Hearts!’ These books conceal a secret contempt for the reader, assuming that s/he is no longer deserving of even the basic courtesies of grammar and fluency.
From Bhagat to fantasy writer Amish Tripathi to the Srishti authors, none of these writers have built their careers by challenging the accepted wisdom of their times. The argument for welcoming Rushdie to Jaipur is a simple one. His early works, which include Midnight’s Children, Shame and The Satanic Verses, are unsettling and uncomfortable, and we need that discomfort much more in 2012 than we need the safe formulas of the new bestsellers.
The opposition to Rushdie’s attendance at the Jaipur Festival comes from theologians at the Darul Uloom Deoband who have in all probability not read his books, and who would probably be made very uncomfortable if they did. Midnight’s Children tears up the textbook version of Indian Independence; one of the ways to counter, for instance, the hagiography of the Gandhi family, those full-page ads featuring Indira and her progeny is to read Rushdie’s portrait of the Widow and what she did during the Emergency.
But in these times, there are other writers who continue to write against the grain of the official histories—the more official, the less likely to be true. Amitav Ghosh’s Opium War series swings the perspective around to the Indian view, Tahmima Anam’s The Good Muslim stands (as Rushdie’s Shame did some two decades ago) as a reproach to those who would deny the bloody history of Bangladesh.
There are fewer writers who write against the grain of religion. Tahmima Anam is one of them, and The Good Muslim is a mercilessly accurate exploration of two kinds of tyranny—the tyranny of the righteously faithful, and the twinned tyranny of the righteous liberal who stands against the excesses of faith. In many ways, Anam writes against the backdrop of the question Rushdie asked many years ago, when he wrote Satanic Verses.
Question: What is the opposite of faith?
Not disbelief. Too final, certain, closed. Itself a kind of belief.
This brief meditation lies at the heart of the controversy over the Satanic Verses, which has extended into the present and ridiculous debate over whether Rushdie should be “allowed” to attend Jaipur. The real question is why the Deobandis, who rarely come to literary festivals, should want to stop others from listening to Rushdie’s views.
When the Satanic Verses comes up in debate, it is rarely the book that is discussed. As with many other kinds of forgotten history, the version of the Verses we talk about is moth-eaten, fragmentary, the complexity of a novel about migration, magic, angels and devils, the certainties of religion and madness reduced to the simplistic idea that this is a blasphemous book.
In the two decades since the Satanic Verses were banned, it has become increasingly hard to discuss the idea Rushdie puts forward in his work, which is the idea that doubt is necessary and valuable. But in that time, India has also moved closer to accepting, blindly and without much fuss, a worryingly widespread belief. This is the belief that at worst, questioning any faith or religion is in itself a kind of blasphemy—and at best, it’s an esoteric activity that the majority can safely ignore.
In 2007, Rushdie spoke at Jaipur, to a packed audience. He touched upon the silences in the official histories of Kashmir, on meeting some of the men responsible for the Gujarat riots, on growing up among “extremely practicing but incredibly open-minded Muslims” in his family. He spoke about authors and books, writing and reading, and all the other things you hope to hear from writers.
In 2012, I don’t know what he would want to speak about: literature, free speech, fables, memoir writing, perhaps. But I do know that, like so many other readers, I want to hear what he has to say, and it would be a great loss if the manufactured controversy around his visit silenced his voice, yet again.