In a recent article in the New Yorker, columnist David Remnick pitches for Salman Rushdie to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. The pitch comes in the wake of the murderous attack on Rushdie at the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York in August.
Remnick regrets that it took the Swedish Academy that awards the Nobel Prize twenty-seven long years to condemn Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie as “a serious violation of free speech.” He suggests that it is now time for the Academy to make amends for its lapses by giving Rushdie the Nobel.
He hopes that Rushdie’s name will not be added to the list of illustrious authors whom the Nobel eluded, which includes James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Anton Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, Bertolt Brecht, George Orwell, James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe. In Remnick’s words, the Swedish Academy now has the opportunity to atone for its sins of omission “by answering the ugliness of a state-issued death sentence with the dignity of its highest award, to rebuke all the clerics, autocrats and demagogues – including our own – who would galvanise their followers at the expense of human liberty.”
In an interview to NDTV a few days ago, New York-based author Suketu Mehta (who, like Rushdie, calls himself a “Bombay Boy”) endorsed Remnick’s view. He agreed that it was about time Salman Rushdie got the Nobel Prize.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that not all writers spoke up for Rushdie after the publication of his controversial novel The Satanic Verses that earned him the fatwa. As Remnick points out, some of them, like Roald Dahl and John Berger, felt that in writing the novel, Rushdie showed that he was indifferent to “clerical sensitivities” in Tehran.
As I say in my book Nissim Ezekiel: The Authorized Biography, poets like Nissim Ezekiel and a handful of others signed petitions and wrote letters to the editors of newspapers explaining that Rushdie’s novel deserved to be banned as, artistic freedom notwithstanding, no one had the right to hurt the feelings of others.
My own view is that although Rushdie certainly deserves to win the Nobel Prize for his revolutionary contribution to literature, giving, among other things, a whole new meaning to the much-abused term ‘postcolonial’ awarding it to him at the present time will be a slap in the face of the Islamic world. This, undoubtedly, is because the New York attack has served as a catalyst that has opened up old wounds.
People of the generation of 24-year-old Hadi Matar, Rushdie’s attacker, who have not so far read any of his books, and haven’t until now heard of him, have suddenly become aware of the controversy surrounding him. Already, books by Salman Rushdie have disappeared from the bookstores, whereas only a few months ago I found a copy of his 2017 novel The Golden House in the half-price section of Crossword, Pune.
That said, over the years, there has been a mixed reaction to Rushdie’s books. Christoph-Reinfandt, literature professor at Germany’s Tubingen University, who offers a seminar to his students on (Re) Reading The Satanic Verses, said, “Rushdie’s best work is the trilogy from Midnight’s Children to The Satanic Verses, possibly with The Moor’s Last Sigh as an elegiac epilogue.” He describes The Satanic Verses as a text that “testifies to the qualities a text has for cueing discussions on all pressing issues of the day”.
Poet Adil Jussawalla wonders if we will go back to Rushdie’s books and to his extraordinary writing to revel in its wonders. “Will we pay attention to Victory City, the new book?” he asked. “Or will we take the easier option of neglecting them, preferring to continue to debate terror, and the ways in which it silences writers today?”
Novelist Kavery Nambisan spoke of being “bowled over by Midnight’s Children, and motivated by it to begin my own writing career.”
Likewise, Huzaifa Pundit, who teaches in a government college in Srinagar and writes poetry, said, “Rushdie has a pioneering influence on South Asian literary production.”
Invariably, Rushdie’s fiction is compared to his nonfiction, written in straightforward prose, and therefore more accessible. Christoph-Reinfandt says the author’s 2012 memoir, Joseph Anton, which is an account of his years in hiding in the aftermath of the fatwa, went down quite well with his students. “It has genuinely moving passages, and testifies to Rushdie’s ongoing commitment to freedom of speech as a foundational right for everyone,” he said.
Nambisan frankly admits that “Rushdie’s subsequent novels did not appeal to me very much.” But she calls Imaginary Homelands, his 1991 collection of essays, “remarkable.”
This sentiment is echoed by Kathryn Hummel, an Australian poet and professor currently living in India. She said, “When I recall Rushdie’s resonant Imaginary Homelands, my favourite of his works, and notably not fiction, I can only restate the significance of the writer behind the controversial public persona; a writer trying to navigate, with his own sincere voice, the world in which he still lives.”
Incidentally, the title essay in Imaginary Homelands, where Rushdie makes a distinction between looking into a plain mirror and a broken mirror, provides readers with one of the most thought-provoking essays on diaspora studies that today exists.
But there are writers who dislike Rushdie’s work outright. When Midnight’s Children was published, some writers in England got together to form a Page Fifteen Club. The name of their group indicated that none of them could get beyond page 15 of what they thought of as a highly unreadable hold-all of a novel, which seemed to be all over the place.
In my biography of Nissim Ezekiel, I quote Adil Jussawalla as saying, “I never could agree with his [Ezekiel’s] opinion of Midnight’s Children. One will have to threaten him with bowel washes and enemas to make him read Midnight’s Children.”
As to whether Rushdie should be awarded the Nobel Prize, opinions again differ. To Christoph-Reinfandt, giving Rushdie the Nobel Prize “would be a powerful sign today, even if it cannot undo the harm that has been done, and will not resolve anything for the future”.
Adil Jussawalla says he has “long felt Rushdie to be in line for the Nobel [and] felt that sooner or later he would get it”. Yet he believes that “the dreadful violence that he recently endured may dominate whatever is said after the award, overshadowing the reason he won it – for his books”.
Kavery Nambisan said: “I would not be disappointed if Salman Rushdie won the Nobel Prize. He has paid a heavy price for expressing his uncensored vision. At a time when literature and art are greatly imperilled by narrow prejudice, Rushdie will be a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize.”
In spite of his reservations, Huzaifa Pundit feels that “On the basis of Rushdie’s productive work and intervention, he should surely be awarded the Nobel Prize.” However, he hastens to add that “if the award is meant as an allegory [sic] then no! It would mean that he has been reduced to a stereotype, a caricature for the idea of free speech, however contested it is.”
Kathryn Hummel reminds us that in the past “Nobel Literature Prize recipients have been political, contentious or curious choices – but not unworthy of the honour when their ‘contribution’ is assessed.” Yet, in Rushdie’s case, she “cannot determine if Rushdie would be recommended for this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature if the shocking attack on his life on 12th August hadn’t happened”.
Hummel believes that the attack “is now part of the socio-political context that has influenced the trajectory of and reaction to Rushdie’s works since the publication of The Satanic Verses”. She worries that when all is said and done, “Rushdie’s iconicity as a not unblemished champion of free speech, and certainly a sufferer of the consequences of exercising it, may overshadow his contribution to literature.”
An Iranian musician who lives in Tehran and is a close friend of mine agreed to share his opinion with me only if I did not reveal his identity – “for in Iran, people dare not mention Salman Rushdie’s name.”
He deflected the question about Rushdie being awarded the Nobel Prize by pointing out that he has not read all of Rushdie’s books, possibly because obtaining them in Iran is fraught with difficulty. Although he is aware that Rushdie’s literary achievement is “remarkable,” his view is that “since Rushdie has consciously ignored the beliefs of millions of Muslims all over the world, and has humiliated them by insulting their holy prophet, he should not be given the Nobel Prize.” According to the musician, “the Nobel Prize should only be given to writers who bring peace to the world”.
Perhaps the most vehement resistance to giving Rushdie the Nobel Prize for Literature comes from Muzaffar Shaikh, an English teacher who lived and taught in Saudi Arabia. According to Shaikh, “Rushdie knew full well that in writing The Satanic Verses he was going to be made a ‘god’ by Islamophobes, and would reap a huge harvest in terms of popularity and wealth. Though he knew his book would raise a storm, he hid behind the veil of freedom of expression. In the bargain, he has hurt the feelings of believers. No one has the right to lampoon the Prophet and his wives, as Rushdie does in his novel.”
Shaikh believes that since the Nobel Prize is awarded “not just for a work’s literary values, but also for the good that literature does for humanity, Salman Rushdie does not deserve the Nobel Prize”.
In his New Yorker article, David Remnick provides the names of many obscure writers who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature over the years. Whether the Swedish Academy that selects the Nobel Prize winner for literature will pick Rushdie, whom Suketu Mehta calls “the most famous living writer in the world,” is something that will be revealed soon.
R Raj Rao is a writer and professor who has closely followed the life and work of Salman Rushdie.