This February marked the eighth anniversary of the fatwa imposed upon Salman Rushdie by the Iranian regime for the publication of Satanic Verses. In that time Rushdie's life has been spent relying upon the British state to protect him. It is remarkable that despite this he has been able to continue writing. Last year's publication of The Moor's Last Sigh saw one of the best novels of 1996. In this he depicts the story of Moraes, the son of a Christian mother and a Jewish father. They are a well established trading family based in Cochin, south India. Their power, wealth and very survival are threatened as India is engulfed in communal violence in the early 1990s.
It is not difficult to see that Rushdie, whilst telling a straightforward story, is also relating to actual events the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodyha; violence on the streets of Bombay that left 2,000 dead and this teeming city empty for days following communal riots. Also acknowledged is the rise of the far right BJP and Shiv Sena, whose insidious leader Bel Thackeray is chillingly portrayed by the character of Raman Fielding a man who wants India for 'good Hindu men and Hindu women to roam free in'. Despite this terror, Rushdie is making an important point: India is a country made up of diverse cultures, religions and traditions that have coexisted peacefully in the past.
Many of Rushdie's works are dominated by this cross-cultural theme. Satanic Verses raised uproar over blasphemy and accusations that Rushdie was hurling insults at Islam. It is true that Rushdie does question official Islam. He is contemptuous of the clergy and their version of the 'holy' book. He wants to offer an alternative interpretation of the Prophet and the development of Islam as a religious ideology, one that is free from the shackles of the Imams' hierarchy. Through characters such as Gibreel and Saladin, who fall to earth after an Air India jumbo jet explodes over England, he manipulates the reader's sense of religious icons and images to sow doubts about 'good' and 'evil'. The Prophet Mahound receives satanic verses alongside righteous ones. This causes a deliberate confusion for the reader as to who are the angels and who the devils.
Although Rushdie ridicules religious extremists, the central purpose of the book is to give voice to the experiences of second and third generation Asians growing up in Britain. His severest criticism is directed at the racism within British society. It was no accident that Kenneth Baker complained that 'the book is very rude about us too'. The 'us' being the British state and the xenophobic comments of politicians such as Mrs Torture (Thatcher) with her talk of an 'alien' culture. British Asians are questioning the beliefs and values of their parents and feel cut off from a land many have never seen. Yet the country of their birth that demands their parents labour and work hard slaps them down for the colour of their skin. This makes it all the more tragic that Satanic Verses has not been read by the audience it was meant for young working class Asians.
Rushdie came to international prominence in the early 1980s with Midnight's Children and Shame. Both are excellent books in that they clearly capture post independence life in India and Pakistan. Again he uses fiction as an allegory to describe key historical events about the sub-continent. In Midnight's Children he depicts the birth of modern India dominated by the Nehru dynasty and the Congress Party. He carefully takes us through the wars over Kashmir, the state of emergency and the rise and eventual assassination of Indira Gandhi, whose Congress Party espoused secularism only to play off religious groupings against each other for electoral gain. He also exposes in India before independence the Muslim League commanded very little support amongst Muslims until communal massacres became a regular occurence.
In Shame he portrays the painful tragedy of military governments dominating Pakistani life, which is interspersed with brief years of civilian rule. But this too is corrupt and shameful. Rushdie pillories the Bhutto dynasty with the same venom he has for Nehru and Gandhi. He describes the character of 'Virgin Ironpants' (Benazir) who cannot believe her father can do any wrong. He shows his contempt for the division of India and the creation of Islamic Pakistan which he describes as 'the famous moth-eaten partition that chopped up the old country and handed Al-Lah a few insect-nibbled slices of it, some dusty western acres and jungle eastern swamps that the ungodly were happy to do without'. What is clear in both books is that for Rushdie as well as millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, partition was the greatest tragedy to hit India at the end of British rule.
Rushdie himself was born in Bombay in 1947 to Muslim parents. His family moved to Karachi in Pakistan after partition, but he came to Britain. The experience of migration and all that it entails of being an 'outsider', belonging to a minority and facing hostility form an integral part of his works. In Imaginary Homelands a collection of essays he says that today's Bengali community in the East End of London are the descendants of the French Huguenots and all other immigrants and refugees.
This autobiographical theme of an author being silenced is portrayed in his novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Here we have Rashid, a magnificent story teller who one day loses his gift which is only returned when evil forces have been destroyed.
For Rushdie no subject is off limits be it prophets, gods, politicians who claim godliness or Hollywood actors. This is partly what makes his works so exciting. Some people have tried reading Rushdie's works and given up claiming he is too difficult to follow. As a modernist writer he writes in a complex style, intertwining various contradictory ideas into one plot. At times his themes appear to be obscure. He jumps from the past to the present and back again; he makes full use of religious mythology and imagery to convey his ideas and relate diverse storylines. An unintentional assumption is made that the reader will automatically have knowledge of certain historical events, places and names. All this does not necessarily make for an easy read. However, people should persevere. Salman Rushdie, whatever his drawbacks as a modernist author, remains one of the best and most political writers of his generation.