Clean souls and Satanic Verses

‘I remember you from last time! Last time you buy very much for your wife!’

From my seat in the rickshaw I glance up at the rearview mirror to be greeted by a wide grin. It is clear that telling the driver that I am neither married nor bought anything on my visit here (to the Jaipur Literary Festival) last year will make no difference.

‘Yes you buy very much! I remember! What you take back for her this year? Jewellery?’

‘A clean soul,’ I reply, half sarcastically, the words falling out of my mouth before I know what I am saying.

The driver looks in the mirror in surprise. There is a momentary locking of eyes as if to check the veracity of what I have just said. I get away with it.

He vigorously waggles his head.

‘Oh sir, very good. This is very good.’ The head waggle again. The smiling head continues to waggle periodically for the rest of the journey as the driver considers my impending conversion to spiritual purity. I ponder what the implications would be of a “clean soul” policy.

As we approach the entrance to the Jaipur Literature Festival, enormous numbers of bored policemen line the road. I dismount from the Rickshaw and, after a final head waggle, walk up the gates.

Given the invitation that has been extended to Salman Rushdie to attend I am fully expecting long queues and stringent security checks. I am not disappointed – on the first count at least.

On the second count it is a different matter. Given the continuing ban on Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” in India, the organisers are clearly nervous that there could be disturbances, maybe worse. It is therefore something of a surprise to find that the security checks are just as cursory as they always are here.  The interminable beeping of the standalone gates seems to have little consequence, and the cursory waves of the electronic wand and pats on the pocket are restricted to one side of the body or the other, never both. I wonder if the security guards know something we visitors don’t?

Hari Kunzru and the Satanic Verses

By lunchtime on the first day an extraordinary press conference is held to update on the Rushdie situation. A statement form the absent author himself is read out. It includes this bizarre sentence:

‘I have now been informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to “eliminate” me.’

The rest of the press statement also quickly filters out to the well-heeled audience drawn from across India and the world, causing a buzz in every tent. It is clear from his statement that Rushdie feels the Indian authorities (and the organisers) have capitulated. He has, he says, ‘some doubts about the accuracy of this intelligence’. But the fact remains that ‘it would be irresponsible of me to come to the Festival … irresponsible to my family, to the festival audience, and to my fellow writers. I will therefore not travel to Jaipur as planned.’

Since Jaipur has always focused as much if not more on the “festival” as on the “literature”, the audience takes it all in their stride.

Four hours later I am sitting in the colourful Durbar Hall (one of the venues in Jaipur) along with hundreds of other attendees. We are expecting to hear Hari Kunzru talk about his latest novel “Gods without men” with fellow author Amitava Kumar.

But Kumar opens the session by announcing that, given the events of earlier in the day, Kunzru will not be reading from his novel after all. Instead he will read out a statement of his own, after which both men will read passages from “The Satanic Verses”.

I and the rest of the assembled audience shift in our seats. With the book banned in India, this is clearly a political act. There is some uncertainty as to just how political. Are readings from the book even allowed?

‘Rushdie’s work enshrines doubt as an ethical position,’ Kunzru reads from his statement, ‘against those whose certainty leads then to believe they have the right to kill.’

‘Question: What is the opposite of faith?’ he continues, quoting Rushdie’s book. ‘Not disbelief. Too final, certain, closed.

‘Itself is a kind of belief.

‘Doubt.’

The words are perfect.

As Kunzru goes on with his reading, festival organizer Sanjoy Roy hurries bent double to the stage. He whispers urgently to Kumar, who is visibly shaken.

Kunzru finishes to great applause. Kumar takes the mike. He announces that he may be “about to be arrested”, looking nervously to the door as if expecting police to enter at any time. With the audience now in a state of confusion, there is some uncertainty about what will happen next.

Suddenly Kunzru brandishes his Blackberry.

‘Hey I just got an email from Salman…’ We all switch our attention as one towards Kunzru. ‘It says “Thanks for doing what you just did. Say hi to the audience from me…”’

There is a collective sigh of relief in the Hall. The point has been made, the act committed. With no police in evidence, both authors return to the original subject of the session, Kunzru’s fourth novel.

But it is clear that Kumar feels uneasy. Ten minutes later he explains why.

‘I feel a bit left out. So I’ve been thinking, about that passage in the book where he talks about a “tropicalized London”… now let me see if I can remember the details…’ he said, extravagantly producing a folded piece of paper from his pocket. ‘Increased moral definition… institution of a national siesta… religious fervour, political ferment… better cricketers, higher emphasis on ball control among professional footballers…’

This time we titter like the conspirators we have become. It is clear that these were also direct quotes from the book. Given his earlier comment that he feels he was under threat of arrest it seems a bold act.

As Kumar reads on, I notice the sign language translators at the front of the stage, patiently transmitting Kunzru and Kumar’s words to a group of deaf attendees. If reading publicly is against the law, are they too guilty in some way? And what about us, on the receiving end of the words themselves?

If Rushdie’s press statement was carefully aimed at the Indian authorities, Kunzru and Kumar’s haphazard session has gone further. It has exposed the craziness of the very idea of banning words.

As the session draws to a close, Kunzru makes one final observation that ‘doubt and certainty have existed in a sort of clinch since the dawn of human thought.’ He is, he adds, sure of one thing – ‘people who doubt their own position are not the ones in the habit of putting people up against a wall and shooting them.’

As I leave the hall I think about my earlier jibe to my driver about taking home a “clean soul”.

I decide that, on balance, it’s probably best to stick to doubting my own position.

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