Even as India crosses another midnight to complete 75 years of its independence, one must necessarily hark back to that famous tryst with destiny at midnight and reflect on the extent to which the dreams and aspirations of that midnight have been fulfilled or violated. For students of literature, particularly Indian English literature, it is almost inevitable that such an act of remembrance will lead them directly to the famous creator of Midnight’s Children, that iconic literary masterpiece which celebrated, with kaleidoscopic verbal exuberance, both the magical potentialities of that moment and the self-inflicted destructive assaults against those potentialities. In a strange way, much like Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Midnight’s Children, handcuffed to history from his very birth, Rushdie too has remained unfortunately chained to his past ever since the publication of Satanic Verses, the howls of bigoted rage that it generated and the fatwa which was issued against him by the Iranian Ayatollah. Even though he himself has always wanted to lead a relatively normal life, last week’s gruesome attack on him, once again brought him and us face to face with a past laced by religious toxicity from which there is apparently no escape. In the process, much like Saleem, his creator Salman has become a metaphor for India as well – a source of inexhaustible magic, humour and creativity that is now laid low by the ensanguined wounds inflicted by janissaries of divisive hatred, fuelled by self-deluding notions of persecution and vengeance which snake back to imagined and actual pasts. Therefore we staggered into midnight of 15th August by reading reports of how a 9 year old Dalit child was beaten to death by his ‘upper-caste’ teacher because the boy touched his pitcher of water, how a fundamentalist organization based in Benaras has already made plans of unveiling a new Indian constitution which will officially make India a Hindurashtra, by restoring caste-based hierarchies and granting voting rights to only Hindus or how the attempted boycotting of the film ‘Laal Singh Chadda’ was continuing to trend on social media.
Perhaps no other author has dealt with these issues of bigotry, violence and suppression of freedom of expression more consistently in his fiction than Rushdie himself. His immediate response to the fatwa was to write that wonderful fantasy Haroun and the Sea of Stories – a title that merged the legend of Haroun al Rashid, the Khalifa of Bagdad with the Sanskrit anthology Kathasaritsagar, a veritable sea of stories. The novel itself revolves around a fantastic struggle in the moon named Kahani between the Land of Gup and the Land of Chup where Haroun and his father Rashid Khalifa, along with General Kitaab, Prince Bolo, Iff the water-genie, Butt the Mechanical Hoopoe, the page Blabbermouth and many others join a battle against Cultmaster Khattam-shud, the tyrannical sorcerer who worships the dumb god Bezabaan and is bent on silencing others. As anyone familiar with the narrative knows, the novel is an allegorical celebration of the power of literature and freedom of expression against censorship and denial of free speech. Perhaps the most splendid and multidimensional representation of this freedom comes in the form of Haroun’s description of the Ocean of Stories:
“He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here…. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories…” (Haroun and the Sea of Stories)
In fact, it is not just stories or narratives or texts, but identities are also indefatigably plural. Fundamentalisms of all kind tend to ignore such pluralities in favour of singular affiliations which then become the bedrock of unconscionable violence. Rushdie, however, consistently celebrates plurality through his variegated characters such as Mogor dell’Amor in The Enchantress of Florence, Geronimo Manezes in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights or even the figure of Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children, who, though brought up by the Sinai family was actually the illegitimate child of William Methwold the Englishman and Vanita, a poor street performer’s wife. But Rushdie has never bothered about the supposed purity of origins and instead has always revelled in the play of inexhaustible pluralities which shapes both his language and characters. This is also perhaps why when he chose to write a quasi-historical novel like The Enchantress of Florence he chose the realm of Akbar the Great, peopled with such diverse characters as Birbal, Abul Fazl, the artists Dashwanth and Mir Sayyid Ali and of course Akbar himself, the vegetarian Muslim monarch who created a religion for all his subjects that synthesized aspects of Hinduism, Islam and much else. Such synthesis was obviously directly antithetical to the kind of monochromatic, unidimensional discourse which fundamentalist doctrines of religion have always espoused. Rushdie has repeatedly showcased the collision of such opposing views in his novels and this has also been true for his latest novel Quichotte where we see Quichotte and Sancho both being subjected to racist abuse and violence enacted by white supremacists with animalistic rage. While Quichotte represents such an equation between man and animal in surreal terms, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Days represents the crisis of a world dominated by bigoted discourses in terms of a fantastic battle between demonic djinns inspired by the dogmas of medieval Persian thinker Al-Ghazali and a host of benevolent djinns inspired by the ideals of Ibn Rashd or Averroes, the Aristotelian philosopher who preferred reason and free will as opposed to blind belief. This is why, in a dialogue with the spirit of Ghazali, centuries after their death, the spirit of Ibn Rushd remarks,
“You will see, as time goes by, that in the end it will be religion that will make men turn away from God. The godly are God’s worst advocates. It may take a thousand and one years but in the end religion will shrivel away and only then will we begin to live in God’s truth.” (Two Years…)
The godly, who attack Rushdie, kill Gauri Lankesh, Narendra Dabholkar or Govind Pansare, the religions which teach men to murder in the name of cows or ram planes into towers in search of virgin houris in heaven, the gods who preach violence and unreason – are indeed the greatest enemies of not just God but humanity. In many ways, like the humans of Rushdie’s novel we too are victims of monstrous ‘strangenesses’ that are turning our world, our country, and our communities upside down. But Rushdie, through Ibn Rushd’s voice also gives us hope: “There is no originality in tyrants, and they learn nothing from the demise of their precursors. They will be brutal and stifling and engender hatred and destroy what men love and that will defeat them. All important battles are, in the end, conflicts between hatred and love, and we must hold to the idea that love is stronger than hate.”
Rushdie, through his own life and art has not only proven himself to be a master storyteller but also a prophetic descendant of Ibn Rushd whose stories have constantly championed love, plurality and that wedding of reason and imagination which illuminates great art. His corpus as well as his fearless life is that book of coherence which offers us “a plea for a world ruled by reason, tolerance, magnanimity, knowledge, and restraint” (Two Years…) – something that we in India must imbibe urgently. It is only through our commitment to such a utopian vision that we can come to a future where, like Rushdie’s narrator, we too would be able to claim:
“We take pride in saying that we have become reasonable people. We are aware that conflict was for a long time the defining narrative of our species, but we have shown that the narrative can be changed. The differences between us, of race, place, tongue, and custom, these differences no longer divide us. They interest and engage us. We are one…Flow on, rivers, as we flow on between you, mingle, currents of water, as we mingle with human currents from elsewhere and from near at hand! We stand by your waters amid the sea gulls and the crowds, and are glad.” (Two Years…)
It is this distillation of hope through a dazzling canvas of countless multiplicities that makes Rushdie a hero for our times. His struggle is therefore ours and his recovery can become a metaphor for ours, even if it takes several years. Therefore, reworking his own words in the prologue to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, we can chant together the following prayer for his recovery so that his art can continue to enrich and enlighten us as effervescently as ever:
Zembla, Zenda, Zanadu
May all our hearty prayers come true.
Even as Rushdie fights for life
His words outwit the hater’s knife
And Iff and Butt and Duniya will
Make beloved Salman heal.
This, the prayer we readers chant
In honour of his fearless art.