‘Salman Rushdie is not coming, sir. Don’t worry, there is no problems!” He was only half-right, the young rickshaw driver guiding me through the crowded streets of the north Indian city of Jaipur. I was there in late January for the Jaipur Literary Festival, a rollicking five-day event that has been billed “the greatest literary show on Earth,” and with reason: it annually attracts tens of thousands to hear from some 200 writers gathered from around the world. Salman Rushdie was one of this year’s headliners, until festival organizers received word from Indian authorities of an assassination plot against him. Rushdie pulled out, which instigated a series of events — bizarre, depressing, disturbing, and finally, sobering — that dominated both the festival and the Indian media for days.
As it played out, this controversy exposed a welter of concerns and frustrations over the political and cultural influence that religious sectarianism, wedded to extremist populism, wields today, not just across the emerging democracies of the new Middle East, but also within India, already the world’s largest democracy. And while these concerns and frustrations inspired heated and sharp debate in Indian newspapers and news programs, attesting to the intact vibrancy of the nation’s public life, they never fully abated for many, myself included. Instead, they were reframed and tempered by a firsthand experience of the dramatic climax to this latest Rushdie affair.
Rushdie’s fraught position in his native India owes, of course, to the satirical plays on Islam that figure in his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, which remains banned from importation. Nevertheless, out of solidarity with Rushdie, four other writers attending the festival read from downloaded passages of Verses during their sessions. Complaints were filed with the local police; there was talk of legal proceedings against these writers and even imprisonment for their literary acts of protest. In haste, they left. Meanwhile, the credibility of the assassination storyline was questioned by Rushdie and others, amid speculation that his all-but-forced absence — especially in light of his attending the festival in 2007 without incident — was a politically motivated strategy to curry favour with Muslim voters during India’s ongoing state elections.
Indeed, the leaders of some sectarian Muslim organizations fomented anti-Rushdie sentiment even in the author’s absence. When word spread that Rushdie was to be interviewed via video-link as the festival’s closing event, a spokesman for one Muslim organization told The Times of India “We will not allow Rushdie in any form. There will be violent protests if he speaks.” Hours before the event, protesters entered the festival grounds; one promised the same newspaper “Rivers of blood will flow here if they show Rushdie.” It was unclear, until the last minute, if the interview would happen, or who would stop it and for what reasons. The atmosphere in the packed, open-air venue was tense and electric. I was seated about 10 feet from the video screen. As a member of PEN, the writers’ organization dedicated to defending the freedom of artistic expression, I considered this an obligatory act of witness. I admit it was also personally exciting; in a profession that demands sedentary, isolated efforts that often produce only limited, isolated responses, the opportunity to be part of a consequential public event was in and of itself compelling.
My excitement abated, however, when Ram Pratap Singh, the owner of the festival venue, informed the crowd of his decision to prevent Rushdie’s interview out of safety concerns. There was some applause, presumably from would-be protesters, but also boos and calls of shame, which I could understand, but didn’t join. I was too chastened by something Singh mentioned in justifying his decision. “Cancelling (Rushdie’s interview) is unfortunate but necessary,” he said, “to avoid harm to this property, all of you, my children, and youngsters here.” Suddenly, this man was not only a decisive player at the climax of a literary and political drama: he was also a father concerned for the safety of his children. Suddenly, unhappily, I was no longer able to conceive of these events exclusively from a writer’s vantage, and I privately accepted a decision that I politically rejected.
And isn’t this why we read literature and attend literary festivals? At our best, we don’t seek to flatter ourselves for laudatory taste and impressive allegiances, but instead to be challenged to see the world and its endless knots of problems from vantages that seem starkly different from our own, vantages that, in their complicated humanity, resist reduction to the singularities of politics or religion. In a heady week full of lively conversations and impressive readings, I not only discovered that a democracy can withstand puritanical and muscular challenges made possible by the system’s very nature. I also found myself sympathizing with a banal, even cowardly decision to prevent a fellow writer from speaking, because I couldn’t deny the plainly human frame of this explosive political event, or the irreducibly human limits of my otherwise lofty commitments to free speech and artistic expression. Before coming home to my own children, this, unexpectedly, was the most meaningful literary experience I had at the greatest literary show on Earth.
Novelist Randy Boyagoda is vice-president of PEN Canada, the author of Beggars Feast (published by Perera Hussein in Sri Lanka) and the father of three.
This article first appeared in Ottawa Citizen.