Teacher: While we await news of Salman Rushdie’s recovery, can you guess what his next novel is about?
Student: No idea. I didn’t know he was working on one.
Teacher: I’ve heard from some friends that it’s about the Vijayanagara empire. And he’s completed it.
Student: You don’t say!
Teacher: It’s called “Victory Cry”, which is a half-translation of Vijayanagara. Of course, nagara means city, while nagaara is a sort of drum. Vamsee Juluri says that he even saw the cover design. It has two temples in it, one of them resembling the Virupaksha shrine in Hampi, among the ruins of that once magnificent city.
Student: This is so exciting.
Teacher: As Juluri observes, a full “ghar wapsi” is too much to expect from Rushdie since he has never really got into the spirit of Hindu culture.
But isn’t it astonishing that it is Vijayanagara that binds Rushdie not only with VS Naipaul, but also with SL Bhyrappa?
Student: How overlooked this last Hindu empire is in our north India and Moghul-centric history books.
Teacher: Yet, after the collapse of the old dynasties like Pandyas, Kakatiyas, and Hoysalas at the hands of the Muslim invaders, it was Vijayanagara that kept Hindu culture alive in south India for some three centuries. Even today, it is probably because of Vijayanagara that southern India has not been thoroughly Islamised. So, its comprehensive devastation after the Battle of Talikota in 1565 marks the end of an age.
Student: I just hope the novel will come out as scheduled, what with this attack on Rushdie. Come to think of it, we haven’t heard much about Rushdie since our last conversation, have we?
Teacher: No. Nothing much after August 14.
Teacher: I suppose they want to keep the extent of his recovery under wraps for a while. To avoid needless speculation or publicity, perhaps?
Student: But there have been many op-eds and cover stories on him.
Teacher: Don’t forget the first one was right here, penned by none else but the editor of this very journal!
Student: True, but now many others have followed suit.
Teacher: A famous literary monthly, named after the city he was attacked in, has called for a Nobel Prize to be given to Rushdie.
Student: Do you think he deserves it?
Teacher: Without question. But not because he wrote a controversial book or was almost killed for it. It’s his contribution to literature in the English language which is outstanding by any standard.
Student: But isn’t it also important to stand up for something if you want to win the prize?
Teacher: Yes, causes only help your case, provided they are politically correct.
Student: So, would you say that literary prizes are “fixed”?
Teacher: Well, there are lobbies that operate behind the scenes to push particular authors. These lobbies are, without doubt, politically, ideologically, or commercially motivated. In that sense, no prize is innocent.
Student: Is that why Bhyrappa has been ignored or passed over by the Jnanpith?
Teacher: He’s got the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Saraswati Samman, as well as the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship, which is its highest recognition. But the Kannada literary world is totally divided. Like that of many other Indian languages, too. The left-liberals seem to corner all the awards and prizes.
In authoritarian countries, extremism is stamped out ruthlessly if it goes against the ruling regime. It is only in free societies that it is protected by the laws of the land and allowed to prosper. People continue to look the other way until someone is knifed or murdered
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Student: Didn’t Girish Karnad, who attacked Bhyrappa, win a Jnanpith too?
Teacher: Yes. And so did another of Bhyrappa’s critics, UR Ananthamurthy.
Student: So, writers, as much as historians, are embroiled in our culture wars.
Teachers: Without question. Ananthamurthy, for instance, famously said: “I would not want to live in a country where Modi is the prime minister.”
Student: Really? When did he say this?
Teacher: In September 2013, eight months before Narendra Modi became prime minister.
Student: And?! Did he have to “eat his words”?
Teacher: Well, Modi started his first term as prime minister in May 2014. Ananthamurthy died on August 22, 2014.
Student: His words, in that sense, came true.
Teacher: Yes, he lived just three months after Modi’s elevation. He was on dialysis for quite some time. He did not say that he would not live in India if Modi was elected, but that he would not like to live in such a country.
Student: That is so sad.
Teacher: Anyhow, Ananthamurthy also wrote his last book Hindutva and Hind Swaraj, which was published posthumously in 2016.
Student: What did he say in it?
Teacher: Actually, it’s a much milder book than one might expect. He rereads Savarkar’s Hindutva in the light of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj.
Student: We must come back to that confrontation, the one between Savarkar and Gandhi.
Teacher: Yes, that is the key face-off to understand the transformation that we are going through.
Student: It will take us into the very heart of the debate over Hindutva.
Teacher: Indeed. In a way, this very exchange is inspired by it.
Student: To return to Rushdie, what about the so-called liberal commentariat, some of whom are bending backward, offering apologetics and context to justify intolerance, if not the attack itself?
Teacher: They fail what has come to be called the “Rushdie test.” In fact, if you scan through the scores of books and hundreds of articles on the Rushdie affair, there are so many who blame the author rather than those baying for his blood.
Student: It boils down to making excuses for Islamicist fanaticism and intolerance, isn’t it? Which of the books on the Rushdie controversy do you recommend as a teacher?
Teacher: There are many good ones, but I think Daniel Pipes’ The Rushdie Affair is one of the best. It is now available in a new edition with a Foreword by Koenraad Elst.
Student: Do you notice how there’s a blanket ban on many such books?
Teacher: That’s because perhaps worse than failing the “Rushdie test” is obeying the “Rushdie rule”.
Student: What is that—the “Rushdie rule”?
Teacher: Thou shalt not criticise the religion in question. It will prove too costly. Most mainstream media follow this implicitly, if not explicitly. So, there’s voluntary censorship, a sort of shadow ban on a lot of material connected with this controversial topic.
Student: Don’t you think this is going to change?
Teacher: Well, the blind spots in global liberalism are many and this one is certainly one of the biggest. Who wants to stick their neck out? Better to look the other way.
Student: Thereby allow medieval zealotry to have a field day?
Teacher: Make no mistake, this sort of religious extremism is a modern phenomenon.
Student: What do you mean?
Teacher: There’s a report that says that the Iranian government’s fatwa announcing the death penalty on Rushdie was instigated by two Pakistani-British Muslim imams, Kalim Siddiqui and Ghayasuddin Siddiqui. Let’s not forget that though The Satanic Verses was published in September 1988 and was already banned in India, Pakistan, and elsewhere, Iran had ignored the matter till February of the following year. Apparently, just before the fatwa was issued, both these worthies met Iranian Mohammad Khatami, then minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, later president of Iran, at the Mehrabad International Airport. Kalim, who asked to have a private word with the minister, was reported as saying, “I told him, ‘You know, something drastic has to happen.’”
Student: Extremism thrives in free societies?
Teacher: Precisely. In authoritarian countries, it is stamped out ruthlessly if it goes against the ruling regime. It is only in free societies that it is protected by the laws of the land and allowed to prosper. People continue to look the other way until someone is knifed or murdered.
Student: Like Rushdie?
Teacher: Yes. After which the wheels of justice will grind very slowly, many convicted criminals even getting off with mild sentences for having no previous record and then behaving well in prison.
Student: Literally getting away with murder?
Teacher: Under that very heading, a website tracked some 2,272 radical extremist attacks in 54 countries, with 11,208 killed and 9,591 injured in 2021. The figures for 2022 till date are 1,338 attacks in 43 countries, with 6,298 killed and 4,420 injured.
Student: These figures are staggering! But we turn a blind eye?
Teacher: Not all of us. We must speak the truth, although not in an unnecessarily harsh or unpleasant manner: satyaṃ brūyāt priyaṃ brūyānna brūyāt satyamapriyam | priyaṃ ca nānṛtaṃ brūyādeṣa dharmaḥ sanātanaḥ.
Student: But you haven’t explained the meaning of that quotation.
Teacher: Please look it up. It explains the essence of Sanatana Dharma, which might serve as the foundation for a new accord between conflicting communities.
(To be continued)
About The Author
Makarand R Paranjape is professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views are personal.
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