‘Salman Rushdie’s non Hindu attitudes : The two Indian interviews ‘

published on September 19, 2012

Salman Rushdie gave two interviews on Sept. 17, 2012 one each to NDTV and CNNIBN. The anchors were Barkha Dutt and Sagarika Ghosh respectively, and the topic of conversation was his recently released autobiography called Joseph Anton ( a pseudonym he adopted earlier on). The interviews were vintage Rushdie, fine turns of phrases , an alert intelligence and the gift of the gab, essential ofcourse in a writer. The topics were wide ranging and he showed himself to be a mellowed, wiser but more tough individual who engaged in a self portrait that was understandably self adulatory, but was also fair to his antagonists. Where he was adamant was in his belief that an artist’s freedom of expression is sacrosanct. He is to be commended for this.

However, the present writer wishes to interrogate him about his non Hindu attitudes.

After going over a wide range of topics he comes finally to Hindutva, a topic that clearly the two anchors were eager to engage him in. Both did not consciously engage in what is called leading the witness, though both tried to get him to commit himself to a stated position. The NDTV interview was simply billed as ‘The Fatwah Years’, while the CNNIBN was a bit more partisan and billed it as ‘ Hindu Intolerance as bad as Muslims’
This bland attempt to brand both communities as identical in their political alignments is quite naive if not openly partisan.

Rushdie himself in the NDTV interview merely skimmed quickly over the recent intolerance in India vis a vis free expression, the most recent one being the questioning of the political cartoonist (a serious mistake on the part of the GOI) and other less clear incidents such as the accusation that there was a campaign to supress the painter MF Hussein. In the CNNIBN case he was much more open while the bemused Sagarika Ghosh listened with no interruptions at all of his comments.

He commented on two themes which indicated his non Hindu attitudes: Babri Masjid and MF Hussein. Both are typical of the rarefied atmosphere in which educated, prosperous Muslims of his generation grew up in India. While socially interacting with a rarefied group of secular, even deracinated Hindus, they lived in a hot house world where their memories of the Islamic presence in India was limited a to a cultural and benign interaction with the Hindu intelligentsia, who themselves had forgotten their history. The Islamic presence of 500 years got identified as INDIAN HISTORY, all memories of these barbarbarian invasions forgotten, the plunder and destruction of Hindu temples and Hindu sacred art etc, set aside. The brutal and continued presence of Islamic rule was glossed over (the phrase ‘whitewashed’ is more appropriate). Much revisionist history of the period was written by Leftist historians. A generation of Indians grew up on this.

What we have is a sanitised memory only. Hence, Rushdie blandly talks about the demolition of the Babri by spreading the usual canard that there is always something beneath a contemporary monument. For example, a Hindu temple may have been built over a Buddhist monument. He cites no example, simply mentions it as a counter to the Hindu argument that Babur had destroyed the Hindu temple to build a mosque. This controversy, ofcourse, still rages ( and is still with the courts) and we have the ever eager Left historians espousing the cause of the Babrists, despite clear evidence from the surveys done by the Archeological Survey of India, that remnants of a Hindu structure existed under the Babri.

The MF Hussein example. This man was clearly guilty of offending Hindu sentiment by portraying naked goddesses in questionable poses, and his weak defences of his paintings is well known. Many individuals have written about this (including the present writer). The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has given by far the best counter arguments against Hussein’s malice aforethought. No need to rehash the arguments. However, Salman Rusdhi once again made a silly and inaccurate comment : where have you seen a Sarasvati clothed ? Indian sculpture does show the goddesses with adornments and jewellery but not in a dress, says Rushdie ,referring to ancient temple art. He is out of sync with the times. Hindu goddesses since the 19th century have always been shown in paintings and art as fully clothed. The famed Raja Ravi Varma paintings have made these famous and every Hindu home has calendars showing various goddesses fully clothed and ofcourse, bejewelled also. They are also accompanied by their vahanas.This statement alone of Rushdie’s reveals his alienation from the Hindu reality in the country where he was born and raised. He should have known better.

In so defending MF Hussein’s perversity Salman Rushdie clearly showed his partisanship, not his avowed defence of artistic freedoms. He also remarked : this criticism of Hussein was because he was a Muslim doing the offensive paintings. Not at all, Mr. Rushdie. It is because contemporary Hindus are not interested in anyone painting their sacred religious figures in such a tawdry fashion, in order to gain cheap publicity. It is said that some anonymous art collector had offered a large sum of money ! Both greed and the desire to hit out at Hindus was what motivated Hussein, not artistic freedom of expression.

Rushdie’s defence of him shows him as being ignorant of Hindu sentiment at the very least and lofty disdain at worst. Let us hope that there is nothing more to it than that !

(The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university).

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