The attack on Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie on stage at the Chautauqua Institution in New York on August 12 has sent shockwaves across the literary fraternity. “The attack will probably be remembered as the 9/11 moment in literature,” opines Prof T Vijay Kumar, visiting professor at BITS Pilani and Director of the Hyderabad Literary Festival.
Pointing out that Rushdie had always written about being “handcuffed to history”, and identified himself with the modern, secular, pluralistic idea of India, he believes the assault has symbolic significance for India as it celebrates 75 years of independence. “Let us not forget our own Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh. That they were killed in India and Rushdie was attacked in the West, shows the threat to free speech is everywhere.”
Prof Vijay Kumar, who has translated Telugu literary works into English and whose research interests include post-colonial literature and Indian writing in English, has had the occasion to interact with Salman Rushdie in 1983. “I was just a research scholar and he was already a celebrity author. The interview was taken in the lobby of what was known as the Ritz Hotel (Hill Fort Palace). What was intended to be a 15-20-minute conversation went on for over an hour,” he recalls.
Rushdie, the author, was much like his book—witty, anecdotal, insightful, full of digressions and clever one-liners. “The first thing that struck me was his highly arched eyebrows, which made him look permanently amused! The other thing I remember of that episode was the visit of plainclothesmen to my department to check on my antecedents!” one of the founding editors of literary e-journal Muse India remembers in an interview with TNIE.
As a critic and literary figure himself, what does he think of the impact the attack on Rushdie will have on writers’ freedom of expression? “Freedom is all in the mind. Remember Tagore’s ‘Where the mind is without fear’. True art can only be created by a free mind. Whether that creation is allowed into the public domain or not is a different question.
Real art doesn’t appease you. It shakes you out of your smugness. It unmasks the tyrants and shows that the Emperor has no clothes,” he replies, adding he doesn’t think the attack will stop writers from writing, but that “they’ll just find devious ways to express themselves.
From his acquaintance with Rushdie, the professor is convinced the defiant author will bounce back. “After all, all his life he wrote the only way he can, with passion and honesty. Riling the powerful and calling their bluff.”
When Rushdie was forced into hiding by the fatwa in 1989, he responded with the brilliant allegory Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The TEDx Speaker says, “Although this might sound perverse, if he comes through the present crisis, and Inshallah he will, I wonder what the one-eyed Salman with a punctured liver would come up with!”
Much to the relief of his admirers, Rushdie is on the road to recovery. His son Zafar Rushdie has said, “Though his life-changing injuries are severe, his usual feisty and defiant sense of humor remains intact.”
The 75-year-old novelist’s next work is Victory City, scheduled for release early next year. And, it is said to be based on a South Indian epic.
Look at the cruel irony – when the attack took place, the Indian-born British-American novelist was about to give a talk about artistic freedom in the United States!