Censorship in India (in support of Hari Kunzru et al)

This last week or two have been pretty eventful in the Indian literary world. The Jaipur Literature Festival, held for five days over the last weekend, made headlines in India and around the world for the “would he, wouldn’t he?” appearance of Salman Rushdie. Rushdie is a controversial figure in India, as he arguably is everywhere, where The Satanic Verses is banned. But, as a person of Indian origin he regularly travels to India without hindrance, and attended the Jaipur festival previously, in 2007. So, why was his attendance this year mired in so much controversy? Commentary would suggest that frenzied opinion (of the negative type) was whipped up by people with political interests because it so happens that Uttar Pradesh, India’s post populous (and some might say populist) state is holding elections very soon. The Muslim vote is very valuable here, and suggesting that Rushdie might be coming to India to insult Islam was obviously considered a way of being seen to be looking out for Muslim interests by some politicians.

So, Rushdie hesitated over whether to attend the festival. After receiving “intelligence” that paid assassins had been sent from the Bombay underworld to take him out, he cancelled.  As it turns out, this intelligence seems to have been faulty, exaggerated, or actually just completely fabricated, and Rushdie has now expressed regret that he took it seriously. But, given the risk that he might be attacked, putting himself and the entire festival at risk, it’s understandable that he acted as he did.

The saga gets more complicated. After pulling out, Rushdie was meant to appear at the festival via video-link, but even this was threatened with disruption, so was cancelled. In response and protest to this silencing/censorship, Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar on one panel, and Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi on another, completely independently of each other, read passages from the banned The Satanic Verses and spoke in support of Rushdie. Though I don’t know exactly which passages were read, Hari Kunzru has written eloquently over the last few days about the event and he stresses that he did NOT read anything that could in any way have been deemed offensive by any religious community. His intention was not to offend anyone, but to make a point and stand up for Rushdie, who he feels has been unfairly demonised in India, so he deliberately chose passages that could not be misconstrued. Nevertheless, this act was deemed illegal, and upon hurried legal advice, all four men left the festival and the state of Rajasthan, and Kunzru left India for his home in the UK, out of fear of arrest. The organisers of the festival distanced themselves from the four speakers’ actions, stating that they had spoken independently and had not advised them of what they were going to do, a claim backed up by Kunzru.

OK, that’s the saga in a nutshell. What it leaves is a very timely and important debate around censorship in India. On the one hand, you could say that the festival organisers did what they had to do (regarding Rushdie and Kunzru et al) in order to keep the other speakers and the audience safe, and the festival free of unrest or violence (as could have easily happened). There had also been suggestions that if they had not distanced themselves from the Satanic Verse readings, the remaining days of the festival might have been cancelled, a situation that would not have been good for anyone. OK, fair enough. You can’t blame them, one could say.

BUT. When things like this happen in India, those who should be supporting the free-speech advocates or those that have broken some kind of taboo too often get scared off and do not give the support they should. Maybe the festival organisers were acting in the best interests of everyone, but if I were them, I would have been pretty pissed off at having my literature festival dictated to in such a manner, messed around until the last minute, receiving threats. All the more reason to do the right thing and, if the loss of Rushdie couldn’t be helped, at least backed the actions of Kunzru et al. Idealistic maybe, but I don’t see how things can change unless the literary and artistic world actually start backing each other when they should. If they don’t speak out for each other–like Kunzru admirably did–nobody else is going to. Formal, state-imposed censorship tends not to be too much of a problem in India–writers are generally pretty free to write what they want–but when these notable exceptions take place, they really are quite notable.

All this sounds like the plot of a good Rushdie novel, and I hope he uses this material somehow, so it doesn’t all seem so futile. I am ashamed to say that I have never actually read The Satanic Verses (not out of ideological objection, I just haven’t got around to it) but I am going to make a point of doing so now.

Prisoner No. 100: An Account of My Nights and Days in an Indian Prison, Anjum Zamarud Habib (2011)

(Translated from Urdu by Sahba Husain)

Now that the summer holidays are over, and I’m back at work, my reading’s getting a bit heavier.

Prisoner No. 100 is an account of the five years that the author, Anjum Zamarud Habib–a Kashmiri Muslim woman–spent in Delhi’s notorious Tihar jail in the early to mid 2000s. She was arrested under the controversial POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), an act that was actually repealed, though not retrospectively, while Habib was being kept in prison. During most of her five years she was kept there without charge, being denied bail again and again, supposedly due to the seriousness of the crime she was accused of–providing money to Kashmiri terrorist organisations. Habib’s account suggests that she was framed, and evidence against her fabricated by the police.

This is a brave book by fearless Delhi-based feminist publisher, Zubaan. Little has been written about women in Kashmir, particularly the ways in which Kashmiri women are implicated in and affected by the ongoing troubles and freedom movement in that state. Books like this are an important way for people far removed from the reality of Kashmir to understand the injustices that ordinary people face, and the heavy handedness that is meted out to Kashmiris on the slightest, faintest suspicion of an “anti-Indian” crime. In Prisoner No. 100, Habib repeatedly comments upon the hatred that the other prisoners and the prison authorities directed towards her. Nobody is treated well in Tihar, but Habib is particularly shunned because of the fact of being Kashmiri. She says of the other prisoners:

“Their hearts were full of poison for Muslims, particularly Kashmiri Muslims. They had managed to alienate all other Muslim prisoners from me and prevented them from talking to me or meeting me” (p. 20)

A section that particularly highlights the need for books such as this is when Habib recalls the visitors and organisations that came to study the women in Tihar:

“NGOs visited the jail regularly as did students who came here for research on the living and working conditions of prisoners. This was quite common. But their research did not in any manner benefit the prisoners. The research scholars looked for ‘subjects’ and there were plenty of them here along with many ‘stories’. Many women prisoners shared their stories with an open heart, perhaps with a hope that this exposure would help them out of this hell. Many believed that the NGOs would help the women in their release while others felt that their plea would reach the corridors of power. But none of this happened. Students/scholars certainly managed to publish their thesis or reports but forgot about us, their subjects.” (pp. 133-4)

Though a single book cannot necessarily change this type of behaviour or attitude, an increasing awareness of Kashmiri womens’ predicament can only be built through publishers like Zubaan making every effort to publish books such as this.

Having said this, I felt that this book was seriously lacking in social, political or historical context. Most of the two hundred plus pages consist of descriptions of Habib’s day-to-day life in Tihar: her frequent illnesses, her visits to court, the denial of her bail applications, the visits from her family, the quarrels between prisoners, and the abuse and exploitation inflicted by the guards. In the translator’s preface, Sahba Husain part apologises for, part justifies this prose style:

“The reader might find the reference to Anjum’s frequent illnesses or the account of her numerous visits to the court repetitive but it also provides a glimpse of the harsh reality of a prisoner’s life inside the jail. The book is not only her personal account but a testament of the utter debasement of humanity as well as the steely resolve of the prisoners to see the light of day outside the walls of the prison.” (p. xvi)

While a description of the dire conditions of this Indian prison is important in itself, a narrative very similar to this one could have been written by any educated ex-prisoner. I am not saying that Habib’s Kashmiri identity is not present, because it is–particularly when she notes the discrimination she faces–but I think a lot more could have been done to note exactly why she was thrown in prison, particularly the politics that led to it, and what she did once she left. The reader knows that POTA is a draconian law, but we are not told its history or its broader implications and ramifications. Perhaps this would have been too dangerous for Habib or for Zubaan. The Indian government does not consistently or strictly censor works of literature, but a more politicised Prisoner No. 100 might have encountered resistance.

Considering the dearth of material on women in the Kashmir struggle, this is a welcome book, despite its lack of much-needed, and -wanted, context.

Why Salman Rushdie Should Show Up at the Jaipur Festival

Interesting blog entry from the BBC’s Soutik Biswas:


Rushdie should make a point and show up, and defy the Muslim and Hindu hardliners who try to curtail artistic and literary freedom. Its particularly disappointing that Rajasthan’s chief minister has stated he would prefer it if Rushdie stays away. As Biswas says, “A no-show would be another damning indictment of a country which never tires of advertising itself as the world’s largest democracy. This is the time to stand up.”

Having said that, I was at the Jaipur literature festival in 2011 with a predicted sixty thousand people in a relatively small area, and I don’t think I’d want to be in such a small, crowded space if any trouble did occur. While it is commendable that it is a completely free event, it was already groaning at the seams, especially over the weekend days. If Rushdie does show up, I hope the organisers have been perfecting their crowd control.

Sorry I couldn’t be there in 2012, though.

The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie (1999)

I will start with some admissions:

1) I have a love/ hate relationship with Salman Rushdie (well, with his books, anyway). I think the man is a genius, but I get immensely irritated by some of his expressions of that genius. I find myself enjoying his books as I am reading them, but moving further and further from them as I reflect, afterwards.

2) Rushdie is extraordinarily difficult to review, and I felt quite daunted taking on this task. His reputation precedes him and threatens to make a mockery of any critiques I can make. But, as one disinclined to worship the canon, I am not put off.

3) Most of my problems with The Ground Beneath Her Feet emerged in the final one hundred pages or so (of a 575 page book), so outlining these without giving away the story to those who haven’t read this will prove difficult. So I have decided not to approach this review via plot summary. Another admission is that this was my summer-holiday reading. I read it by the pool, on the beach, at airports and on trains. And it was a great holiday read–complex, full of twitsts, colourful, clever, funny, long! But it ultimately flopped and left me feeling that it was 575 pages of not very much.

First to my irritation. Sometimes it feels as if Rushdie is simply re-hashing his old, tried and tested formula: “That was how we spoke, my mother and I: in puns and games and rhymes.” (p. 56) Do any of Rushdie’s characters not speak in puns and games and rhymes? (Yes, actually, a character in this novel loses the ability to speak, so he is just described in puns and games and rhymes.) Russell Celyn Jones from The Times describes this book as “a carnival of words.” I think these days I would actually be more impressed if Rushdie managed to write a novel that wasn’t a carnival of words, that experimented with brevity and minimalism. Rushdie is creative with language, I get it. It is one of his defining talents, and rightly so, but even geniuses could benefit from stretching, if not expanding, their repertoire occasionally.

Which brings me to one of the difficulties with reviewing this book: I feel I am reading and reviewing it at the wrong point in time to properly comment on its merits and flaws (as part of Rushdie’s larger oeuvre, that is, rather than as an individual book, which can be judged at any moment). Published in 1999, The Ground Beneath Her Feet followed The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) and preceded Fury (2001). The Ground Beneath Her Feet feels like a book by an author treading water, looking for something more significant. There’s no reason why an author such as Rushdie, who has been politically important and historically engaged, should limit himself to that type of writing, to type-cast himself, but I think he is definitely at his best when he is doing that type of work. And The Ground Beneath Her Feet is not it.

Rushdie’s extreme cleverness was on display here (and I do not mean that in a derogatory sense–I am no anti-intellectual, I admire cleverness). The Ground Beneath Her Feet sets up a world akin to our own, but not quite, the aborted twin (if you’ll excuse the crude metaphor, which anyone who has read this book will know is more than a metaphor). A world in which Jesse Parker and not Elvis Presley is the American rock megastar of the fifties, in which Indira Gandhi and her two sons are assassinated all at once in 1984, in which Nixon never becomes president, in which Piloo Doodhwala stands in for Bal Thackeray (at least, that’s how I read him), a world in which two Indian musicians become the western world’s biggest super-stars of the 1970s. I am a generation or two too young to have caught all the rock and roll allusions, but there are plenty of them. What this book does well is satirise celebrity antics of the last half century or so. Sure, Rushdie changes a few names here and there, but we are in little doubt about which handful of possibilities he is referring to when he writes:

“Here’s the earth mother who adopted nineteen babies from different international trouble spots. But when the trouble dies down she trades the babies in for needier kinds from the new hot zones.” (p. 377)


“Her diet book and her health and fitness regime will become world-wide best-sellers. Later, she will successfully pioneer the celebrity exercise video and license a range of organic vegetarian meals, which, under the name Vina’s VegeTable, will also succeed.” (p. 394)

And I won’t even detail the uncanny parallels with Michael Jackson’s sad demise, perhaps not so uncanny when one accepts that Jackson wasn’t really an individual, but a representative of the kind of world Rushdie meticulously mirrors in The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

To amend for my complicity in the fun-poking at anthropology in my previous post on The Impressionist, I offer the following passage in which my own kind are ridiculed. After Vina’s death (it’s OK, I’ve given nothing away, this fact is known from the start), which prompts tribute concerts, and a spate of catastrophic earthquakes worldwide, Rushdie writes:

“Here are literary critics and drama critics. The literary critics are divided; the lisping old warhorse Alfred Fielder Malcolm quotes Marlowe’s Faustus–Then will I headlong run into the earth: Earth, gape! O, no, it will not harbor me!— and tries to build a complex theory about great celebrity being a Promethean theft of divine fire, whose price is this posthumous hell-on-earth in which the dead woman is actually rendered incapable of dying, and is constantly renewed, like the liver of Prometheus, to be devoured by insatiable vultures calling themselves devotees. This is eternal torment masquerading as eternal love, he says. Let the lady rest in peace. He is rudely ridiculed by the two young turks on the panel, Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby, who mock his arrant elitism and offer a spirited defense of the place of rock music in society, though they are also fashionably scornful of the low quality of language used by the speakers in the stadiums, their repetitiveness, the use of doggerel rhyming and tabloid cliche, the worrying prevalence of received ideas about the afterlife (Vina living forever, in every new-born child). These ideas, Gatsby says sharply, are not very cutting-edge; not very rock ‘n’ roll.” (p. 484).

(I think we all know somebody who quotes Marlowe’s Faustus!)

On the back of my copy, Mark Sanderson from The Times called this book “ground-breaking.” A decade-plus after its release, I fail to see how this hyperbole has come anywhere near the truth. But it has made me appreciate Rushdie’s later books, such as Shalimar the Clown (2005) and The Enchantress of Florence (2008) all the more, and to renew my enthusiasm to see what he produces next.

“Indian Feminist Publishing and Political Creative Writing”

Anyone who has access to the International Feminist Journal of Politics (13.1 2011) through a university subscription can check out my review of the following four books:

Suad Amiry’s Menopausal Palestine: Women at the Edge (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2010)

Feryal Ali Gauhar’s No Space for Further Burials (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2007)

Easterine Iralu’s A Terrible Matriarchy (New Delhi: Zubaan, 2007)

Chandrakanta’s A Street in Srinagar (New Delhi: Zubaan, 2010)

The Impressionist, Hari Kunzru (2002)

(Just to get this out of the way first, this book is not about art. It’s about a different type of impressionist, something that dawned on me embarrassingly slowly as I read The Impressionist.)

This is a brilliant book. By the end I was quite literally jumping up and down with excitement, but I don’t want to give any of that away.

The Impressionist is less about a character, or characters as individual people, than a national type of character, a colonial (in this case, British) one that in many ways has not been left behind in the post-colonial era. The protagonist–for want of a better word, for he is not a sympathetic person, nor a unified individual, externally nor internally–is an Anglo-Indian boy, who is dejected from his Indian family when his true Anglo paternity is revealed. Left to his own devices, he assumes various identities throughout the novel as cunning, chance and mis/fortune present him with multiple avatars. Pran Nath becomes Rukhsana, who becomes Chandra-Robert-Pretty Bobby, who becomes Jonathan Bridgeman. These personalities take hom to various corners of the British Empire in the first half of the twentieth century, and the fact that they are places of empire, not places of their own accord, is significant: an independent northern Indian princely state, Amritsar during the 1919 Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, Bombay, Oxford, West Africa.

One of the most amusing threads of The Impressionist is Kunzru’s fun-making of anthropology (and it is the old-school, colonialism-assisting form of anthropology that is ridiculed and dissected, so my anthropologist friends need only be as offended by this as I should be if digs were made of archaic, Shakespeare and Wordsworth-spouting Eng-lit types: that is, not at all).

Behind this fun-poking is a theme far deeper and more significant, however–humans’ desire to categorise, demarcate, purify, map, hierarchise and, ultimately, dominate. The attempts to structure, which can only end in disappointment. British anthropologists counting and categorising the black man abound in The Impressionist, but the tables are also twisted. During his incarnation as Oxford prep-student Jonathan Bridgeman, he keeps a detailed notebook (an ethnographic field diary, in effect) of all the unfamiliar customs and practices he needs to remember to understand and blend in as an upper-class English white boy:

“Jonathan notes all this down: nobility of discipline, respect for religion important but belief optional, check your plate first. His notes spread out into all areas of school life, from the rules of rugby football to the construction of a jam sandwhich. Week by week his understanding of this world improves, the white spaces on his map filling up with trails and landmarks.” (page 315)

It has dawned on me recently that I am a die-hard post-structuralist, a fact that had eluded me for so long because post-structuralism just seemed like common-sense, revealing that what I thought I didn’t have a firm intellectual grasp on was, in fact, informing my fundamental approach to everything. And this book reinforces why. As an undergraduate of history at Oxford, Jonathan Bridgeman falls in love with Astarte, whose father Henry is a famous anthropologist specialising in the primitive tribes of West Africa:

“Events (chiefly a poor grasp of mathematics) conspired against the adolescent Henry’s plan to become a physicist, and he was drawn to the study of cultures and peoples, applying to societies the rigorous classifying spirit he had hoped to use on stars or elementary particles. He did not mind too much, for the pleasure of fitting the messy shapes of life into the clean outlines of a theory was the same, whatever its object.” (page 368)

Even that which had initially irritated me in this book demonstrated that Kunzru was one step ahead of me–that is, Pran Nath’s (or whoever he may be to the reader by the end) stint as a sexual servant at a royal court. The constant scatological humour, anal rape and (what I mistakenly took to be) ridiculing of sexual and gender ambuguity, actually turned out to be an early instance of the exploration of fluid identity categories that comprises the heart of this novel. Take the following passage, in which Pran has been instructed of his duties by the princely court of Fatehpur’s chief hijra (eunuch):

“The Khwaja-sara hobbles towards him, kohl-rimmed eyes drilling into him from the rouged, wizened face. Quivering with excitement, it makes an effort to calm itself, with a toss of long hair and a flutter of a hand becoming a herself, then coughing and straightening up into a himself, then relaxing into something else, something complicated and fleeting, a self with no prefix.” (page 82)

These prefixes are something that the English language may never manage to lose, but there is no harm in trying–in fact, it is essential–to broaden the identities and personalities that can be contained within them.