It was the 12th of March 1983, my sister came home thrilled, as she had an autographed copy of the Midnight’s Children in her hand. Salman had visited her campus in Hyderabad, India on his book tour. I was in my early teens and barely read anything other than comic books, Hardy Boys and school assignments. This was the first time his name entered my consciousness, and ever since, he is probably the author I have read the most.
I arrived in the US from India as a student in 1992. To celebrate a renewed sense of freedom I felt, I proudly purchased a copy of the The Satanic Verses and hoisted it to my shelf.
India, a democracy that honors freedom of speech by constitution, had become accustomed to banning books. An often sighted reason would be that it would hurt “the religious sentiments” of one group or another, leading to domestic disturbances. By banning Salman’s fourth book, India effectively became the first nation to put a target on his back.
Last year in July, I had dinner with Salman. A friend and fellow author was kind enough to invite my wife and I to his apartment in Manhattan, on short notice. It was meant to be a casual event with some wine, cheese and priceless conversations. It was certainly my lucky day.
I also had an ulterior motive. I wanted to pitch to Salman an idea for a documentary film, which I had been carrying with me for sometime. In a conversation with Salman, I wanted to explore the idea of what is sacred and what is not. If something is deemed sacred, is it beyond examination and criticism? Does artistic expression have limits?
A few years ago I had read his page turner memoir Joseph Anton. Reading it revealed the depths of his anguish, lasting trauma and his tenacity to persevere against all odds and keep his pen going.The ordeal Salman endured for just being a wordsmith, is laid bare in harrowing detail in his 656 page moving memoir. This sparked the idea for a film, for the times of intolerance we were living in.
Salman often shrugs off his torment by saying, he by no means is the first to be exiled, threatened and persecuted for the crime of writing words. Dostoyevsky was almost shot by a firing squad, and then spared in the nick of time only to be exiled to a labor camp in Siberia for four years.
In recent times, Communist China has routinely harassed and arrested artists and writers for speaking their mind. The Nobel Peace prize winning writer and thinker Liu Xiaobo, spent an inordinate amount of time in prison and was only released on medical parole, to die a few weeks later in 2017. Ai Weiwei was chased out of his homeland for speaking truth to power.
Gauri Lankesh and M. M. Kalburgi were assassinated in India, for wielding the power of words.
When Salman became a target, it was largely western liberalism and its belief in free speech that came to his defense. But even there, there were some writers and intellectuals who criticized him for going too far. John LeCarre infamously called him irresponsible.
There is no doubt the hounding of Salman changed the literary landscape and created a chilling effect that lasts to this day. The attack on Charlie Hebdo and the Danish cartoon controversy showed how bad things had gotten. The fear is constraining, leading to an atmosphere of censorship, devolution and regression. In response to the horrific killings at Charlie Hebdo in 2015, Salman said “religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today”.
Who decides what is blasphemous and when, is absolutely arbitrary. Anyone today with a proverbial turban can declare something or someone blasphemous. Thanks to the instantaneous and eternal internet, there are many self-proclaimed “turbanators” who can attack someone for their ideas and spawn an army of sheep to follow them gladly over the cliff.
Salman’s attacker who fulfilled the desires of cowardly deranged men, seemed like one such sheep. He reportedly read two pages of the book and probably saw enough Tik-Tok videos to stoop to such a despicable and abhorrent act.
The uproar behind The Satanic Verses saw protests and book-burnings around the world. Almost forty people lost their lives in those manic demonstrations. Book sellers were murdered under mysterious circumstances.
A few years ago I made a film about another great mind who also faced persecution, albeit for a different reason. Abdus Salam, the Nobel winning physicist from Pakistan was victimized for belonging to the Ahmadi faith. Sunni extremists had declared the Ahmadis as heretic, as they believed their founder was the last prophet. The Pakistani constitution also declared the Ahmadis heretic by decree. The injustice and pain Salam felt as a result, was explored in my film Salam-The First Muslim Nobel Laureate (Netflix).
A screening of Salam in India was canceled as a terrorist attack took place in Kashmir around that time, and it was deemed too risky to screen a film about a Pakistani in a BJP India. In Pakistan the film started receiving hate on social media and my producers feared for their safety.
When I approached Salman with the idea of a film about him, I urged him to see my work on Salam, hoping he would see parallels.
He did not seem that inclined to have a documentary made on his life as he felt all he had to say was in his memoir. A chapter in his life he rather leave behind than revisit.
Before dinner and over drinks, the conversation was lively. He told us about an invitation he received to be on a Satyajit Ray movie set at an old bungalow in interior West Bengal. He talked about the famous photograph of Ray, Kurasawa and Antonioini at the Taj Mahal, and the story of how that came to be.
And he spoke with pride of a whole slew of new generation of South Asian writers, who had become part of the English literature canon of today. Kamila Shamsie and Shyam Selvadurai were names that were mentioned as some of his current favorites.
He talked of his favorite Indian restaurants in New York and asked for more recommendations. He enjoyed the Chinese take out dinner we shared to the fullest. He gladly agreed to some selfies with the small group that had gathered.
On the way out, I offered to drop him home downtown, and he obliged.
As we pulled out of the garage, engrossed in conversation, I began to drive uptown. After a few blocks he realized we were heading in the wrong direction and seemed a bit perturbed. I quickly corrected course and we went back to conversation. He was curious about my current film and had questions which were inquisitive and precise, as you would expect.
As I opened the door to let him off at a street corner, he promised he would watch my film on Salam. As he walked up the street, disappearing into the darkness, for a moment I worried for his safety.
The entire evening was memorable, not because I was in the presence of a brilliant mind, but because it was ordinary in every way. He came across as a gentle unassuming man, going about his life in the big apple, like any other ordinary citizen.
Moments before I heard the gut wrenching news about his assault, his new book Victory City which is to be released next year, was the center of conversation with a friend. It so happens that my family’s distant association with Salman had come full circle. My niece had been commissioned to design the cover and it was a crowning moment in her career.
The tragedy that has befallen Salman Rushdie is deeply disturbing. What happens when writers and artists are stabbed, imprisoned or tortured for speaking their truths? Is it an indication that human civilization is in decline? It certainly seemed so, on that dark day.
Salman was at the event to express gratitude to his adopted home for being a sanctuary and asylum for those like him. Alas his illusion was shattered in the most brutal and senseless way.