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How India Lost a Great Indian Writer

August 27, 1989|KHUSHWANT SINGH | Singh is a novelist as well as an editor. Among his works is "Train to Pakistan," a novel about the Hindu-Muslim war that preceded Indian independence and led to the creation of Pakistan

BOMBAY — Sometime in midsummer, 1988, I was sent the manuscript of "The Satanic Verses" to read as consultant-editor of Penguin-India, a subsidiary of Viking, which was to publish the book in the United States and Britain. I plodded through it--Salman Rushdie is not easy to read--and came to the conclusion that some passages of the novel would offend Muslim susceptibilities. I consulted my two Indian colleagues, one a Christian and the other a Muslim, and decided to turn down Viking's offer to let us co-produce the book in India. Our principals in England and the United States were understandably upset as they had paid a large sum in advance royalties and hoped to recover some of it through our sales in India. I was rung up by the chairman of our company in London and asked to read the manuscript a second time and communicate my decision a week later.

I did so. I repeated our determination not to publish the book in India. I was asked to put down my reasons in writing. I telexed back saying that some of the material in the novel was lethal, and I had not the slightest doubt that it would be banned by the Indian Government. We would lose a lot of money and perhaps be exposed to violence. I further added that if they went ahead with its publication in England and the United States, we of Penguin-India would publicly distance ourselves from the venture. I also warned them of trouble they might have from the Muslim community in England.

My decision to turn down the book was in no way meant to cast aspersions on its literary merits. Though the plot was utterly bizarre and the narrative disjointed, there were flashes of brilliance in Rushdie's portrayal of characters as well as compelling narration in episodes like that of the Bangladeshi family running Cafe Shandar, which is wrecked by white hoodlums, or that of the rich Muslim industrialist of Bombay who, when widowed, takes his servant's wife as mistress while retaining the servant's loyalty. What I knew would upset the Muslims was the portrayal of Mahound (clearly Muhammad) as a false prophet willing to fiddle with the revelations sent to him by Allah and toy with the idea of compromise with idol-worship by allowing idols already installed in the Kaaba to remain.

And then there was the matter of the use of the names of the Prophet's wives by inmates of a Meccan bordello. Muslims can tolerate unfavorable references to the Kaaba. A large part of Arabic, Persian and Urdu poetry does indeed revolve round the tavern (see adjoining poem) as a better place than the Kaaba for seekers of truth and the daughter of a grape a better companion than learned Shaikhs and Maulvis (Islamic jurists). But a very clear distinction is drawn: No aspersions can be cast on the authenticity of the Qur'an, and not a word may be said or written impugning the character of Prophet Muhammad or members of his family. This is summed up in a Persian adage:

Ba Khuda Diwana bashad.

Ba Mohammed hoshiar!

(Say anything crazy you like about God.

But of Muhammad, beware!)

Rushdie crossed this clear line many times. He should have known his countrymen and co-religionists better. Fifty years ago a Hindu, Mahashey Rajpal of Lahore, published a book entitled Rangeela Rasool , "The Colorful Prophet," portraying Muhammad as a lecher. Rajpal was murdered. His murderer, after he was hanged, was proclaimed shaheed , "martyr." When J. K. Galbraith was U.S. ambassador to India, he named his cat Ahmed, one of the names of the Prophet. There was instant uproar. Galbraith apologized and changed his cat's name. Three years ago, The Deccan Herald of Bangalore published a short story about a lowdown guttersnipe. It had merely used the name Muhammad for its chief character. A Muslim mob burnt down the office of The Deccan Herald.

It would be unfair to single out the Muslims for being intolerant about criticism of their religion. Although Hindus pride themselves for being able to tell dirty stories about their deities, they can be as intolerant as the Muslims when it comes to putting the stories in print. Among books banned in India because they hurt Hindu religious sentiment were Aubrey Menen's "Rama Retold," Arthur Koestler's "The Lotus and the Robot," Stanley Wolpert's "Nine Hours to Rama" and Agahananda Bharati's "The Ochre Robe." The Sikhs can be even more aggressive than the Muslims. Some years ago a proclamation was issued from the Golden Temple's Akal Takht ostracizing a breakaway sect called the Niramkaris and demanding a ban on their two sacred texts. The books were not banned. The Sikhs murdered the Niramkari guru as well as the proprietor/editor of the largest circulating chain of papers, the Hind Samachar, who had supported the Niramkaris. A year later they also killed the editor's son. In India, the margin of tolerance about matters concerning religion is very thin.

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