Salman Rushdie didn’t want to be the apostle of free speech. He just wanted to tell stories

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The attack on the author is a reminder that just as Midnight’s Children placed the literature of the subcontinent on the literary map of the world, The Satanic Verses placed freedom of expression on the cultural map

The attack on the author is a reminder that just like that midnight children put literature from the subcontinent on the literary map of the world, The Satanic Verses Putting freedom of expression on the cultural map

What you were is forever who you are. – Salman Rushdie, midnight children

When organizers of literary festivals in India refused to invite Salman Rushdie, I, like many free speech advocates, reacted with justified outrage. After the horrific stabbing in Chautauqua, I feel like I understand their predicament a little better. It wasn’t just a capitulation to political pressure. What festival director would want to risk a Chautauqua? Despite all the safety, there can still be enough gap for a determined 24-year-old with a knife.

This is not to say that Chautauqua’s lesson is that freedom of expression must play second fiddle. It’s just that freedom of speech and security are an unenviable balancing act, and Rushdie was growing weary himself.

In his 1991 Columbia University address, he described himself as a bubble floating above and through the world, bereft of the reality that reduced him to an abstraction. “For many people, I am no longer human. I’ve become a problem, a disruption, an ‘affair’.”

Thirty years after that speech, Rushdie, lying badly injured in a pool of blood, reminded the world that he’s both an issue and a human. Both are not mutually exclusive.

The 75th anniversary of India’s independence should have been the time to reconsider rushdies midnight children. Instead, a young man who wasn’t even born when the fatwa was issued dragged us back into it The Satanic Verses.

In the name of the books

Some have warned against stabbing Muslims in general to camouflage, reminding us that fundamentalists come in all guises. Others have stressed the need to be even more resolute in defending freedom of expression. There was hand-wringing over how to change the hearts and minds of the brainwashed, while a hard-line Iranian newspaper said Rushdie’s attacker’s hand must be kissed.

“Salman Rushdie remains a beacon of courage and determination standing up to fanatics who try to silence him. Writers, artists and filmmakers around the world should be inspired by his example, and perhaps most of all Indian writers, artists and filmmakers.”Ramachandra Guhahistorian and author

Aside from all those hackneyed debates, it’s a reminder that it is the same midnight children put literature from the subcontinent on the literary map of the world, The Satanic Verses putting freedom of speech on the cultural map for many of us. It showed us what books can do and what can be done in the name of books (and that you don’t have to read the book to do it). It triggered what writer Salil Tripathi memorably dubbed “the Offensive Olympiad,” in which aggrieved groups realize that rather than not reading the book or not watching the film, they can weaponize their grievances, be it against it The Satanic Verses or Deepa Mehtas Fire or Perumal Murugan Madhorubhagan or Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha.

The Satanic Verses is still cited as the moment (along with the Shah Bano case) when the ruling Congress party was exposed to pandering votes. It also showed how those of us who are not particularly religious underestimate the power of religious symbols in the lives of believers. One of Rushdie’s opponents said, “Freedom of speech sucks,” to which he replied, “No, sir, it’s not. Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Freedom of expression is life itself.”

Those are pugnacious words, but it’s becoming increasingly clear around the world that even if Rushdie’s books have rocketed up the Amazon charts, freedom of expression is something voters don’t care very much about. At least Rushdie got government protection. In India, the killings of Gauri Lankesh, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare have not sparked any political uproar. Rukmini S. writes in her book Whole numbers and half truthspublished last year that, according to a 2015 Pew Research global survey, Indians place less importance on freedom of expression than any other country except Indonesia.

A candlelight vigil for murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh in New Delhi, September 2017.

A candlelight vigil for murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh, in New Delhi, September 2017. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Lonely and thankless struggle

Another survey in four Indian states showed that support for restrictions on freedom of expression increased as the level of education increased. No wonder the Indian political establishment felt no need to speak out when Rushdie was stabbed. It shows that he is still “a problem, a nuisance, an ‘affair'” for the political class.

But just because it’s not a voter doesn’t mean freedom of expression isn’t important. It just means that those fighting for it on behalf of all of us are fighting a lonely and thankless battle.

But let’s never forget, Rushdie didn’t want to be the apostle for free speech. He just wanted to tell stories.

Watch | Why was Salman Rushdie attacked?

I had interviewed him years ago when he was on a promotional tour for Shalimar the clown (2005). After all the usual questions, which he answered with practiced aplomb, I asked, “Do you have any good fatwa jokes?” He stopped abruptly, grinned, and said, “These are all really bad jokes. The most well-known is: “What’s blonde, has big breasts and lives in Tasmania?” The answer is Salman Rushdie, which unfortunately isn’t the case.” And then he laughed.

It was a bad joke but I hope rushdie can make that joke again one day.

The author is the author of Don’t Let Him Know (2015).

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