Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton and the Question of Intolerance

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Suvankar Ghosh Roy Chowdhury

Salman Rushdie, the British-Indian novelist, gained prominence with his second novel Midnight’s Children way back in 1981. An exponent of history and merging it with fantastic elements, Rushdie emerged as an author who spoke on socio-political disparities of modern times, particularly in India, with utmost clarity and almost, a kind of annoying honesty. His ‘infamous’ fourth novel The Satanic Verses (1988) was subjected to several controversies, specifically with the spokesmen of the Islamic communities around the world. Living in exile for a long time now, Rushdie, in 2012, wrote Joseph Anton: A Memoir, which takes into account the backlash and intolerance the author had to face, and the life he had to fit into, following the publication of The Satanic Verses.

The time and the words of Rushdie are primarily postcolonial. Rather than referring to the theories, I use here the term ‘postcolonial’ as a kind of position, or more, a condition, a state which contextualizes the personal angst of Rushdie in the larger context of the society we are living in. Hyphenated or not, ‘postcolonial’ engages its readers with something that has happened after or in opposition of the colonial times and ideas – the birth of plurality and disparity against the colonial singularity. On the one hand, as one celebrates the emergence of new nations and apparatuses in the postcolonial times, on the other, it becomes absolutely necessary to acknowledge that with such emergence, rises the possibility of disagreement, gaps and conflicts. Seeing from a time when we have in fact moved out of the crux of postcolinality that had announced birth of new nationhood, to a time that is now by and large ‘postnational’, one might assume that the postcolonial, with all its voices, has often been the cause of disintegration and violence. Moving into a time that appeared wiser yet less innocent, postcolonial literature, in the 1980s, started to investigate realms that were scarcely explored hitherto. One such field was religious extremism that found its place in Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. The immediate impact was that of intolerance on part of certain Islamic groups, and subsequently, these groups issued ‘fatwa’ against Rushdie that demanded his life for the sacrilegious act of criticizing religion. Having been threatened time and again, Rushdie decided not to visit India, for that would put his life at risk. This exile, much later, brought out from the author his recollection of the dreadful time, titled Joseph Anton: A Memoir. The apparently straight-forward name had within it the history of a time, in the words of the author, that not only tested him as a writer, but also as an individual who was bent upon saying what needed to be said, as a voice that dared to take up this reckless vocation of questioning religion, and that too, in a tone of attack, and not of analysis.

The event that provoked so much rage and a livid outcome could as well have happened in the eighteenth or in the nineteenth century, and in any country; for the question of religious intolerance surrounding literary/artistic expression has not been a recent development across cultures. Whenever there has been turmoil in the society that enraged a mass, more often than not, religion (or, the idea of religion) found itself associated with it. Yet, there has been a specific reason for which I have used the word ‘postcolonial’ in the very first sentence of this essay. Let us consider the time when India saw herself emerging as an independent nation. There were inevitable colonial watermarks that could have never been done away with, but there were attempts made to negotiate with them. In certain fields, it succeeded. In others, it was not the case. However, pinning down even more, we encounter the field of aesthetics, where an artist’s (here, an author’s) freedom of expression is closely linked with the identity that s/he is going to form in the days to come. Especially, the authors who were writing in English – the master’s language, faced this crisis intensely, because even after writing pages on their own introspection about the history of the country or of the society, there existed a fair chance for them to be called non-Indian, for there was the evident linguistic barrier. Therefore, the religious question taken up in a time when Rushdie was writing Satanic Verses, directly linked the author’s identity to that of an individual of an independent and potentially ‘rational’ nation, tolerant and secular, and therefore, endorsing the freedom of expression.

The essay deals with the first chapter of the novel, titled ‘The First Blackbird’. The novel begins:
AFTERWARDS, WHEN THE WORLD WAS EXPLODING AROUND HIM AND THE lethal blackbirds were massing on the climbing frame in the school playground, he felt annoyed with himself for forgetting the name of the BBC reporter, a woman, who had told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She had called him at home on his private line without explaining how she got the number. “How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was a sunny Tuesday in London but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: “It doesn’t feel good.”  (Rushdie 11)

The dark, almost sardonic, humour of the passage matches the image of the blackbirds which again, as obvious symbols of the evil, are placed quite contradictorily against the “school playground”. Apart from this, the narrative begins in a tone that foresees the past that is going to come in the pages to follow. Soon, the images associated with innocence, children and school turn darker and ominous, for one gets to know that the blackbird alludes distantly to a plague in Egypt – suggesting death may be, one, and then another, an then, another, and thus, following:“When the first blackbird comes down to roost on the climbing frame it seems individual, particular, specific. It is not necessary to deduce a general theory, a wider scheme of things, from its presence. Later, after the plague begins, it’s easy for people to see the first blackbird as a harbinger. But when it lands on the climbing frame it’s just one bird” (Rushdie 12). The narrative, from this point, steadily takes its course by means of symbols, suggesting the presence of these blackbirds as stray and sporadic protests against Rushdie’s literary ‘crime’ that eventually gathered a shape and momentum to impose upon him an exile. But it can simply be the perspective of the reader. Rushdie immediately explains that the first blackbird which may later be pointed as a “harbinger” (Rushdie 12) of the plague is basically his work, Satanic Verses: “When it begins it’s just about him; it’s individual, particular, specific. Nobody feels inclined to draw any conclusions from it. It will be a dozen years and more before the story grows until it fills the sky, like the Archangel Gabriel standing upon the horizon, like a pair of planes flying into tall buildings, like the plague of murderous birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s great film” (Rushdie 12).

From this point on, the major motif of the chapter becomes an invisible conflict between an individual’s right to express his voice, and the institutional interference in it. The absent, yet crucial figure of Ayatollah Khomeini serves a great purpose in making the author the individual that he would become. It has been the nature of the art of fiction that through encounters and conflicts, a character grows to its maturity. This has been the rule since the time of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The means remain the same, only the nature of the conflict changes. In the times when the national boundaries are gradually dissolving into a post-national, globalised sphere, a character has to come to terms with the unrest that generates at the loss of a space that was hitherto signified as someone’s home. Rushdie, writing from outside of India, affected the religious sentiments of the subcontinent. But the reaction could get communicated to him, sitting in the West, only through the developed communication that, in turn, was slowly erasing the boundaries that used to define nations previously.

With every passing day, the issue of intolerance is gaining a ground of supreme importance in the present Indian condition. Standing at this juncture, when one looks back at history, examples are not meagre. One finds not only Rushdie, but also intellectuals like M. F. Hussain and Taslima Nasrin becoming victims of similar intolerant waves that wash, or at least, attempt to wash them away from this nation. The question lies here: To what extent is the myth of ‘blackbird’ functional here? Or for that matter, who decides what a ‘blackbird’ is? Perhaps, and why not, it is the society that decides for it who is going to be what. Thus, Rushdie’s acknowledgement that in the modern Indian literary scenario, he comes as a ‘blackbird’ of ‘sacrilegious literature’ is an opinion which owes its origin, more than to the author’s conscience, to the social reception of the satire on Islam. A subsequent question that Rushdie implies in his Joseph Anton is whether or not calling of an attitude as ‘intolerant’ has a particular reference point. We may mark, the intolerance is seen from both sides. To Ayatollah Khomeini, ‘Satan’ Rushdie’s verses are intolerant towards his religion; whereas to Rushdie, it is an intolerance born entirely on part of the reader. Thus, when we tag an event such as this as intolerant, what do we tag it in reference to? History has it that the political intolerance during the 1974 Emergency, or the communal intolerance following the assassination of Indira Gandhi were far more intense, lasting and deep-rooted. The satire (intolerance to some) on religion by an author in his book does not harm anyone physically. It may, and why should it not, come in direct touch with conflicting opinions. But the question that was raised after the publication of Satanic Verses still remains: Is the idea of intolerance an easy device or not, to tag and curb the freedom of opinion? For the word ‘intolerance’ has an essence within it that almost erases the possibility of a reassessment.

Then, where exactly do we place a novel like Joseph Anton? Certainly, as an instance of confessional literature, the novel attains a valuable ground. The novel may well be considered as a statement on part of an author whose statement, some twenty-five years back, had been seen as immoral and unethical. But what of it now? Coming out of the exclusivity of the religious or communal grounds only, the present time holds the threads of intolerance in many facades. Just as we had once revolted against the oppressive binary and gained a state for free opinion and expression, now it often seems that things are in jeopardy. Every now and then, the slogans for freedom of speech and expression deafen us in their plea for tolerance. In every discourse, there is an essential need for hearing and understanding. Even when schools are opponent, thoughts are diverse and intentions different, the mutual respect for people’s individual spaces and opinions marks the well-being of a democracy. Have things been like that, recently? Should we, presumably grown tolerant enough over the years, now reassess Rushdie’s defense as true and open? The question is, true to whom? Open to what? Are we ready to accept the answers? Or, have we at all ‘grown’ tolerant? The function of the novel Joseph Anton has been exactly this: to put the question forward. The answer still awaits its hour.

Works Cited

Rushdie, Salman. Joseph Anton: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.
Rushdie, Salman. Satanic Verses. New York: Random House, 1988. Rpt. 2008. Print.
Gandhi, Leela. Postcolonial Theory. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

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