Rushdie show: Chronicle of a gag foretold

January 25th, 2012 - 7:49 pm ICT by IANS  

Jaipur, Jan 25 (IANS) It was Tuesday, another sunny winter morning in Jaipur. Sanjoy Roy, an organiser of the Jaipur Literature Festival, came to a terrace of the sprawling Diggi Palace and told the assembled journalists that the video-address by Salman Rushdie would go on as scheduled at 3.45 p.m.

Roy downplayed speculation of protests by some Muslim groups, saying everyone had the right to protest peacefully as long as it was within the law.

A couple of hours later, some disgruntled Muslims started streaming in small groups onto the front lawns of Diggi Palace where only a few minutes ago Richard Dawkins, the celebrated evolutionary biologist and diehard atheist, was excoriating religion as “a computer virus” and “a corrupter of children’s mind”.

Unobtrusively, the faithful went inside a courtyard facing the front lawns and started offering namaaz. They came in twos and threes, making some journalists suspicious. There was something amiss in this kingdom of letters.

When asked, Hussain (he refused to give his full name) said tartly they were just praying and that there was nothing unusual about it. “Namaaz ka wakt hai (It’s time for prayers),” he said.

But his face told a different story. There was anger simmering behind his placid exterior. On prodding, he started spitting venom against Rushdie, whose novel “The Satanic Verses” takes a critical look at Islam.

“Rushdie is a criminal. Aap is criminal ke kyon diwane hain (why are you a fan of this criminal). He has insulted Islam,” said the 40-something. “You know how many Muslims are in the world, 2 billion,” he said.

“Yeh, itna ghatia insaan hai, Salman Rushdie (He is such a lowly person, Salman Rushdie). He is having affairs with young girls,” he said while referring to romantic link-ups of the 64-year-old Rushdie with young women that often get splashed in tabloids.

Asked what if the video address goes as planned, he warned: “Kar ke dikhaiye, kuch-bhi ho sakta hai (Ok, go ahead, anything can happen). Muslims are not afraid of dying.”

After talking to them, one was not sure whether they were just posturing or meant business, but it looked almost certain that the virtual encounter with Rushdie was doomed. A few minutes later, at 3.45 p.m., Ram Pratap Singh, the owner of Diggi Palace, and Roy came onto the stage and declared the video link cancelled, citing security reasons.

What exactly happened? There are many conspiracy theories, but there is something in the prevailing impression that with the elections in Uttar Pradesh barely weeks away, the government simply did not want to take a chance in a state where Muslims comprise 18 per cent of the population. After all, Rushdie came to Jaipur for a literary festival in 2007 and interacted with the media, but there was no big fuss then.

The organisers of the show could also be defiant up to a point. Lamenting the muzzling of creative expression, they didn’t want to take chances with security of hundreds of people, including invited authors and literary giants, gathered at Diggi Palace, a heritage hotel.

Said an insider: “Once you start giving in to fundamentalists, there is no stopping them. If you create a security scare and force him not to come, then how do you expect that bigots will allow him to speak via video-link.”

The visit by Rushdie and his much-hyped video-address looked foredoomed, a wag said.

Rushdie, for one, was convinced that as the festival got closer, the ruling establishment simply did not want him around and his absence appeared foretold. He told a news channel later: “I thought the whole thing was fantastically fishy. I felt quite clear that some way would be found to prevent me from coming. And in the end, sadly it was.”

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