So Salman Rushdie has decided against appearing via video link at the Jaipur Literary Festival as thousands of rabid religious zealots mass ready to march on the gathered literati and, presumably, tear them limb from limb. Unemployed young men with no girlfriends, no discos and TV shows which typically feature a picture of a rock in the desert with a chanting iman voiceover, tend to find that a bit of effigy-burning, rioting and death-threatening lightens the tedium and, unlike protesting against their corrupt government, is tacitly encouraged. Other participating writers also decided, circumspectly, not to read extracts from The Satanic Verses in case of fundo reprisals. I have to ask the question – has this only just occurred to them? Didn’t it cross the mind of organiser, William Dalrymple, learned writer on India and the Islamic diaspora, that artistic freedom is all very nice but is likely to incite gratuitous violence on the part of the tolerance-challenged? Didn’t Sir Salman, who has been living under a fatwa since he published the book almost twenty-five years ago, mutter, ‘I say chaps, maybe it’s not such a good idea to upset the mullahs. I haven’t been able to pop out for a pint of milk since 1988…’
I am all for free speech and all against fanatics censoring it but the cynic in me notes what good publicity this has been for the Jaipur Literary Festival and I can’t help wondering if this was why everyone was so slow on the uptake. Similarly, back in ’88, it occurred to me that, in addition to nobler aesthetic motives, Sir Salman might have gambled on a bit of Quranic controversy upping his profile and endearing him to the secular West, only to discover that he’d over-played his hand and had to live under police protection for the rest of his life. Perhaps he’d spent so much time in agnostic Notting Hill that he’d forgotten what raving religious nutters inhabit the sub-continent.
Still, the fatwa brought Sir Salman international mega-fame (which arguably his books would not have), considerable wealth, another three wives, including, despite his gnomic looks, a very tall, very beautiful model, and a series of hot dates with Bollywood babes. He’s also garnered a string of literary honours plus the knighthood which must be some compensation for not being able to go down Budgens without an armed guard. Perhaps publishing and being damned is a good career move. Mmn…I wonder if we should do a little reading of The SV at our next Chalk the Sun event but maybe we are too near Tooting?