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Salman Rushdie: Why the censorship?


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The Satanic Verses. Of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel, the name alone is an emblem of literary controversy - and the name of the author himself is, apparently, no less fraught. That’s certainly the way it seems, given that new film Midnight’s Children - based on his 1980 novel of the same name - will most likely not be seen in India due to the unwillingness of distributors to back it. Since Rushdie described the novel as his ‘love letter to India’, can it really be that the author’s name alone is enough to stifle such a uniquely Indian tale on its home soil?

For those who know the story of Midnight’s Children, it is a somewhat ironic turn of events. The title refers to children born at the exact time that India achieves independence from Britain - children who, in the story, develop magical powers often rooted in Hindu mythology. The novel follows the story of such a child, and also the story of the young country around him, and celebrates countless aspects of Indian culture. The film version is directed by Deepa Mehta, whose films have in the past met with censorship in India- much like The Satanic Verses. Overall, however, it would be difficult to imagine a more deeply Indian film project.

The jury is still out on why, exactly, distributors would refuse to back such a film. One reason that various sources have suggested for the lack of response is the story’s admittedly scathing portrayal of Indira Gandhi, then prime minister of India, whose daughter-in-law is in power now.

However, although Indira is in some senses the antagonist of the novel, the only resistance Midnight’s Children met with on her part was an intended legal action against Rushdie for one defamatory sentence at the end of chapter 28. This dispute was settled amicably when Rushdie agreed outside of court to remove the offending sentence.

Surely, therefore, the only real obstacle must be the author’s notorious reputation in his country of birth. The fatwa placed on Rushdie by Ruhollah Khomeini - who features personally in The Satanic Verses, albeit in thinly-veiled caricature - is still active, and although Rushdie no longer lives in hiding, he is still often the subject of threats. Khomeini’s fatwa obliges all Muslims to kill, or aid in the killing of Salman Rushdie and his publishers - an edict which has led to injury and even death for several translators of the book.

The Satanic Verses’ title refers to an episode in history when Muhammad is supposed to have dictated some verses of the Qur’ran which he later retracted, claiming that he had been manipulated by the devil. Rushdie re-tells this story in his book with what some Muslims consider to be unflattering realism - imagining that since Muhammad was trying to establish his new religion at the time, he might have attempted to gain greater success by compromising his faith. The historical concept of the satanic verses is the subject of much debate in itself, but this re-telling of the story pushed the novel, for some Muslims, beyond controversy and into provocation.

There is no denying that the furore surrounding the publication of that novel is one of the most serious examples of literary controversy in recent history. However, it has very little to do with Midnight’s Children, which mostly passes over Islam for India’s other main religion: Hinduism. Having read both books, there is no doubt in my mind that by eschewing Midnight’s Children, India is losing its right to see a film which is not only brim-full of national pride, but one that is sure - due to its magical realistic style and fantastical subject matter - to be a hit elsewhere in the world. To do so for a good reason would be a loss, but to do so with no reason at all would be tragedy.

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