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Rushdie believes Pakistan is fundamentally flawed: New book

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : Controversial author Salman Rushdie believes “Pakistan is fundamentally flawed and insufficiently imagined,” according to a new book. He also feels India was a happy contrast but its edge “slipped with the rise of Hindu nationalism”.

“Rushdie attacks fundamentalist Islam, not Islam per se,” Ashutosh Varshney, who co-edited the book “Midnight’s Diaspora: Encounters with Salman Rushdie”, told IANS.

The volume is a compilation of essays on Rushdie’s works by several eminent authors and also contains the novelist’s replies to each of these. It includes two exhaustive interviews of Rushdie by Varshney, who co-edited the book with Daniel Herwitz. Among other contributors are Akeel Bilgrami, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University.

“Indeed, Bilgrami argues that Rushdie’s work is very sympathetic to the struggles of ordinary Muslims, both in the West and in primarily Muslim lands,” says Varshney.

“For a whole variety of reasons that have mostly to do with the politics of our times, the distinction between a critique of Islam and a critic of fundamentalist Islam got lost in the debate, and the controversies acquired a political fury.”

In Rushdie’s books, there is a sense of ambivalence about Pakistan, says Varshney. India animates his work much more than Pakistan does. In “Midnight’s Children”, protagonist Saleem Sinai loses his telepathic powers when he goes to Pakistan.

“In the interview I conducted with Rushdie, published in the book, he explicitly said in front of 2,000 people that he did not like Pakistan. Instead, he always found a home in India.”

Rushdie started visiting Pakistan “because of his family’s migration to Karachi from Bombay, says Varshney. Even at that time, he says, there were restrictions on speech and everyday conduct – something that he found disagreeable. India was a happy contrast.”

According to Varshney, Rushdie argued that Pakistan was “insufficiently imagined”.

“A nation founded on religion could not have for long overcome the basic pluralism of South Asian Islam. Pakistan, Rushie argued, was fundamentally flawed,” says Varshney.

In one of the most ingenious parts of the novel, “Shame”, a political commentary on Pakistan scripted as a novel, Rushdie wrote: “Pakistan may be imagined as a failure of a dreaming mind…”

Rushdie, says Varshney, feels that India’s edge over Pakistan slipped with the rise of Hindu nationalism as restrictions on freedom of speech acquired political potency in India in the 1990s. “To the extent, Rushdie does not continue to have a rosy picture of India. For instance, Mumbai in his book ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’ is darker than in ‘The Midnight’s Children’ (written a decade earlier).”

Most of Rushdie’s books are grounded in politics and Indian history. The novelist, says Varshney, admitted that he could not write like Jane Austen, because “personal and political worlds had intertwined in our times. And his own life stood at the intersection of the personal and the political”.

Bilgrami writes in his essay, “Twenty Years of Controversy”, that he had defended Rushdie against the efforts of Muslims in many parts of the world to censor him “because I don’t believe there is any arguments for free speech that ought to be persuasive to anyone, so long as they are rational, independent of any substantive values they hold”.

The moral-psychological economy of ordinary Muslims, says Bilgrami, was far more internally contradictory.

Rushdie, explains the professor, addresses many of these doctrines that the large majority of ordinary non-fundamentalist Muslims were themselves repudiating in many of their de facto secular social formations and habits.

“Midnight’s Diaspora…” features essays on Rushdie by Gauri Vishvanathan, Akeel Bilgrami, Husain Haqqani, Thomas Hansen, Sara Suleri Goodyear and Shashi Tharoor. It was published by Penguin Books-India last month.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])