Before the release of The Satanic Verses in 1988, the great wordsmith and raconteur Salman Rushdie had the world at his feet: the bestseller Midnight’s Children and a Booker Prize had brought him supreme fame. After the book’s release, the wholesale outrage and accusations resulted in a fatwa, and relentless protests, attacks, and what we know as ‘cancel culture’ today. The first attempt on the author’s life following the fatwa led to him spending a huge part of his life in hiding. Thirty-four years since the book, Rushdie, now 75 years old, was stabbed viciously at a conference in New York. The perpetrator is someone who isn’t even as old as the ‘offensive’ text. So how are we to perceive this venomous act?
In response, Indian playwright/director and editor Ramu Ramanathan quotes Rushdie from his book Quichotte (2019), “This is the Age of Anything-Can-Happen.” Asked if the world has become less tolerant of nuance and disagreement, he laments how culture has ceased to operate as a critique in the 21st century and how traditional humanistic functions have become muted. In the 20th century, culture was a surrogate for religion and literature toppled holy books while music such as Beethoven and Bach would replace prayers. Secular manifestos ruled instead of religious doctrines and democracy was the human race’s anthem. “Now there has been a steady retreat from the humanistic position. When public intellectuals like Einstein or Rushdie speak or dare to speak truth to power, they are silenced.”
Founder of Katha Kathan and veteran advertising professional, Jameel Gulrays reasons, “People who have witnessed horrendous events like wars and partitions are the ones who never want to witness a replay of such things and don’t want to suppress freedom, because they understand the cost of it. People who have never witnessed such things are the ones to perpetuate such acts as the attack on Rushdie.”
Indian writer and theatre critic Shanta Gokhale feels, “The attack on Salman Rushdie has shocked every artist, who believes that only a world that allows them the freedom to think and express what they believe in, will enable great works of art. The first thing any nation ruled by a dogmatic establishment does is ban books, gag dissent and impose singularity of thought and action. Reason and nuance have no place in their system; artists and writers are forever repressed and threatened.”
So will a book as controversial as The Satanic Verses proved to be, find a publisher in today’s environment? Jameel believes that if fear wins, people will be scared to express themselves, otherwise they will express themselves as they will. But he doubts the book would have been published today; “Forty years ago, you could think free, today you cannot.”
Shanta believes, “If time is cyclical, we might return to less repressive times. But we are judgemental people and I doubt if censorship will disappear completely. We say that killing writers and thinkers such as Dr Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M M Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh do not kill their ideas; but we must equally admit that hanging killers like the attacker of Rushdie will not rid us of the poison of extremism that finds its expression in violence.”
On the eve of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan — the Russian president Vladmir Putin said “the liberal idea” had “outlived its purpose”; and western democracy is a spent force. According to him, the liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population. Today, that's what one of the most powerful men on the planet is telling us! But as the ballad of Beowulf cautions us, we need new weapons to vanquish Grendel, the fiend out of hell, who has begun to work his evil in the world.
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