Recently I was reading a blog entry from @vaseemk2 on Midnight’s Children and it was like opening a door to a past that I temporarily forgot. It was 1989 and the work of Salman Rushdie received a lot of international attention. His book, The Satanic Verses was becoming a book that was banned across the world with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (the supreme religious leader of Iran), issuing a Fatwa requesting the author’s death for blasphemy.
The controversy alone was enough to entice me to my local bookshop to get the book. The title, the Fatwa on the author and the protests around the world intrigued me and spiked my curiosity of what could be so offensive in that book. I began to read it and chapter after chapter I was trying to find the offensive text with great anticipation. The more I read, the more confused I became. The story was disjointed between some references to England and some dream sequences I did not understand or relate. To be really honest, I did not like the book at all. It was disappointing to find that the book that caused some much upheaval in my eyes was not the literary contribution that I expected.
I returned to the book shop, I used to go there a lot and talk to the people. Told them of my disappointment of reading something that I did not really like. It was then that I was recommended a different book from the Rushdie. It was Midnight’s Children. The book is talking in metaphor about the birth of a new nation of one of the world’s oldest civilisations. At that point, in my life I knew of Gandhi and the peaceful resistance movement. The idea of coming against a superpower with no guns, no armies but solely on conviction and principles excited me but that is all I knew. Very little for such a rich culture.
The book was a revelation. Apart from the writing the characters brought to life an unknown conflict to me in such a way I could relate to the suffering and the loss. Despite the superhuman abilities of the children the narrative had an incredibly sensitivity and humanity about the everyday people. Contrary to that those in power appear less favourably. This took away the usual history is written by the victors. There are no victors in a civil conflict. All of the protagonists are underdogs who are trying to make sense of the madness of conflict. The challenge is to continue to aim for something higher even when war brings primordial hate on to the surface.
I felt pain and sorrow not just for Saleem but for all of the children born into a world that gears up for conflict. The superpower of bringing people together is fantastic but it is not his telepathy that is endearing but his empathy. The humanity in situations of incredible cruelty is palpable and follows those Gandhi ideas of peaceful resistance. Out of a rather disappointing experience I got to know a writer that I respect and a book and that I regard as a classic. So, the lesson for me was not to judge a writer on one of his works without seeing what else they have done. Also, not all pieces of work will relate to me in that same way and to accept that not everything is a masterpiece. In life like in fiction we can only manage to succeed if you are prepare to tolerate and accept even those things that may not be tolerable. It is difficult, but Gandhi, among so many others has pointed the way.
To be reminded of that time that blasphemy carried so much offence around the world, arousing tensions and dividing communities. In the UK the law regarding blasphemy changed in 2008 but still around the world this is regarded as a very serious crime, one that to this day carries the death penalty, in several countries. In addition, the control of a writer’s freedom of expression was always the counterweight of these laws. These tension results in laws about censorship which, in some cases, can restrict the way writers and artists can express themselves. It is interesting to observe this tension vis a vis of something like the work of Rushdie now. I wonder if the changes to the law post terrorism law in the UK would have allowed its publication or not. This is a definitely an issue for another blog….