The written word is a sentence. You could hang the writer with it. On Friday, of a Muharram week, at a function -- on the subject, naturally, of free speech -- Chautauqua near New York, Salman Rushdie was stabbed, reportedly 10 to 15 times in the neck.
He is in hospital. The attacker has been arrested, free speech lovers and liberal sophisticates have condemned the attack.
And we have already gone back to our cell phones searching for the next man or woman to be cancelled.
We see no contradiction in this. We have no idea that we are part of the ecosystem that helped a victim attempt a public execution of one of the great writers of our times.
We do not because we have already distanced ourselves from the failed human sacrifice though we have contributed mightily to the virus of victimhood that raised the knife that sought to sever Rushdie’s head from the written word.
The attack on Rushdie is rich in symbolism. Consider the Friday incident.
Since the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, much of Rushdie’s life has been lived on the public stage.
Ayatollah Khomeini’s (Iran) fatwa on Rushdie, issued in the context of the novel as blasphemous -- from just the look and rumour of it as neither Khomeini nor his team of pious assassins can have read the book in the original or even in translation.
Milan Kundera in Testaments Betrayed: ‘…everywhere, except in the English language, the scandal arrived before book’; except perhaps the passages which raise the central questions, whether the holy verses were from the mouth of God or Devil. Once these passages are read, removed from their legitimate contexts in the novel — the journeys of Saladin Chamcha, Gibreel Farishta, and that of Ayesha, the extremist girl accompanied by a cloud of butterflies, who will lead her credulous followers to death—, once removed from the exhilarating presence of these characters the offending passages can only be punished.
At the time, in India too, there were riots, and the book was banned. So was the author. If Rushdie had written the novel based out of India, he would be in prison if not in heaven. Hell, more likely.
As it happened, on Friday morning, a few hours before the incident, I had failed to find the book in my collection, and so went around looking for it in the town library (a little town with a separate shelf for Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi, and Arundhati Roy); it was not there. Nor was it available in the tarp-covered second-hand bookstores; or even in the primary ones. The book remains contraband like gold or drugs or weapons—after all these years, since 1988. A cancelled work. And one that stayed cancelled without upsetting a single breakfast, liberal or conservative.
From the ’80’s to the 2020s, the principles of cancellation and punishment of the offending person have become only more codified and concerted.
In a BBC interview, in 2012, prior to releasing his memoir, Joseph Anton, Rushdie said: ‘A book which was critical of Islam now would be difficult to be published.” He is not entirely right: not a book just critical of Islam. A critical book on Hinduism. A critical book on anything. The empowering tide of victim-entitlement - that one has the right to take offense irrespective of the gravity of it, at anything really or at anybody - has swept away a cornerstone of justice from facts to feelings.
The enabling attitude of the liberals and other Members of the Good Society are guilty of equating free speech as a right to be wrested from the preserve of the State alone, when left wings establishments and spineless but righteous social media mobs have created an ecosystem by their all too forthcoming solidarity. A solidarity not very different in its working from the way lynch mobs operate.
Rushdie being stabbed in New York could not have taken place if the appeasement of victims were not an article of faith with the self-styled angels of society. The fatal limitation of their imagination is that they think they understand victims. They are incapable of grasping the next level of the situation: the victims of the victims.
Indeed, it is not just a failure of the imagination; it is more pathetic, it is the failure of a certain ethic without which art, the novel, painting, cinema, cannot, in the long run, exist. The ability to see victims and the blindness to their victims ties into a philosophy of censorship where the Left meets the Right. So a Laal Singh Chaddha is sought to be boycotted (on the ground of anti-patriotism, and shaming of institutions like the army) with the tacit support of the Establishment while a liberal Rajiv Gandhi government bans The Satanic Verses.
The Rushdie affair, with free speech and the shadow of death that stalks it, is capable of interpretation at many levels. Consider the New York incident again. It had to be on a stage. A spectacle, then. In New York: a place where speech is relatively free, and, therefore, a suitable public space for a cautionary execution.
The 34th anniversary of The Verses is approaching in September, so the timing is propitiatory for the sacrifice. As is in keeping with certain heads, the bounty that the Khomeini regime had fixed ($2.8 million) was recently upgraded to $3.3 million, in an effort perhaps to adjust against inflation. This is over and above the direct access guaranteed to the marauding victim to jennat with its permanent quota of allurements.
That Rushdie was stabbed in the neck is very ISIS, and done so the cameras catch it for the world to see. It’s a warning given to history; the history of those who do not discriminate between victims and their victims; for all those who created in their work a beauty beyond moral judgments.
Yet, it is precisely in these shades of grey, not in black and white, that both the Left and the Right exercise the assertions of their identity, and become one. Art is relevant only when its attempt is to understand, not judge. No art is of use if its priority is to condemn. But judgement is the addiction of our times. It is in this sense we are a power-drunk society. We can sentence anyone to virtual death, sitting in our toilet.
In his essay, In the Shadow of Great Principles, Kundera says: ‘That’s why in this whole sad story, the saddest thing is not Khomeini’s verdict…, rather, it is Europe’s incapacity to defend and explain…the most European of the arts, the art of the novel; in other words, to explain and defend its own culture…The ‘children of the novel’ have abandoned the art that shaped them.’
Rushdie is a midnight child of sorts; he was born in India in 1947. As India celebrates its 75th anniversary of Independence, Left or Right, it might be a good idea to examine if the victim in New York taking a knife to an India-born novelist's head is actually just?
After all, a man who considers himself a victim is wielding it. No? In that case, we must admit that a million Indian hands too are bloody with Rushdie’s blood.
(C P Surendran is an author and senior journalist. Views are personal)