Monday, February 8, 2010

The Satanic Verses: A Book Review

Author: Salman Rushdie
Year of Publication: 1988
Awards: Booker Prize finalist, winner of the Whitbread Award for novel of the year

Of The Controvorsy and The Banning

I am starting with The Satanic Verses because it's the grand-daddy of all banned books in recent history and it because it was the first book that helped create my own consciousness of the consequence of words, the power of writing, and the storms they can create. Most of us know the controvorsy but I'll do a quick recap.

After its publication in 1988, The Satanic Verses, had mixed reviews but, in the Muslim world was almost universally hated. It was considered blasphemy, the stricted Islamic interpretation of which is death. Not only was it blasphemous to the Prophet of Islamic it also had a caricature pious religious leader who lived in the West while alerting his eyes from its fleshpots. Sounds familiar? Obviously it hit close to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, because he issued a fatwa demanding the death of the infidel author, and anyone who had anything to do with the book. The fatwa challenged all true Muslims to take on the onus of responsibility.

The storm broke and Rushdie went underground.

Copies of the book were burned world-wide, and India was one of the first countries to ban the book. I remember outraged scholars--including prominent Muslim ones like Irfan Habib--protesting the ban. Obviously India was not the only one to ban The Satanic Verses. Many countries did.

Rushdie remained in hiding and was protected by constantly moving and being granted police protection by the British government. Others involved with the book were not so lucky. The Japanese translator was kiled in 1991, the Italian translator was stabbed to death, both in 1991. The Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard barely survived an assassination attempt in 1993. The Turkish language translator was the intended target for the Sivas massacre in July 1993 that claimed the lives of 37 people.

While Rushdie has gradually emerged from hiding, becoming more visible in the intervening years, especially after Khomeini's death, the fatwa remains active because it could only have been rescinded by the original issuer of it. Technically Rushdie still is fair game for anyone who wants to take him out.

The Review
It is for these reasons and many more that I chose The Satanic Verses to be the first book to be reviewed on this blog. My passion for free speech and my love of reading and writing coalesced during those late years of the 1980's. I had first read the book during that time but understood not much at all. So I re-read it recently, and so here we are.

The Satanic Verses is a book that challanges the reader. From its frame narrative approach and its magical realism to the heavy doses of Hindi and Urdu words to the shifting plot that takes us through time, place, and varying levels of consciousness some might find it a hard book to read.

I was enchanted. The language is Rushdie at his best. It is at once exuberant, lively, and mischievous while bringing emotional core truths to the surface.
We start with Gibreel Farishta (part Amitabh Bacchan, part NTR all Bollywood movie star) and Saladin Chamcha (the man of a thousand voices) hurtling through the sky after the airplane Bostan on which they were traveling was hijacked and blown up. They are the only two survivors and wash up on a snowy English beach.

What struck me was how timely this book is because it examines universal themes. Substitute the Khalistani separatist terrorist hijackers with the terrorists of today and the rest of the story remains relatable. Yes, relatable, despite its fantastical, magical-realism. Because Rushdie, above all, looks at the human condition.

Whether it is the relationship between father and son, failed love affairs or dislocation and the life of the other in Western societies, The Satanic Verses is as relevant today as it ever was.

The cast of characters is immense, moving through time and space effortlessly. The boundaries between dreams, visions, revelations, madness, reality, time and space are fluid and unpredictable, and managing these shifting lines requires a masterful hand. Rushdie handles these alternate realities with almost magical ease, while never letting us forget the real life, real people and real situations that ground the book. It is ultimately a book about life, death, love, dislocation, colonialism, post-colonialism, immigration, self-hatred, acceptance, fear...all the shades of life and living even as we go from seventh century Jahilia to 20th century London and places in between. That is what separates Rushdie from run of the mill writer.

It is one of these time-shifts that landed Rushdie in trouble. We are transported to Jahilia, a city made out of sand, on which a drop of water would wreak devastating havoc. The age of jahalat, of course (literally illiterate and ignorant) was the name given to the phase of time before Islam arrived in Arabia. The time before Allah when one of the most powerful deities was the female god Al-lat.

And, living the life of an outcast is the prophet...not Mohammad, but Mahound, the derogatory name given to the prophet of Islam by the British. "Here he is neither Mahomet nor MoeHammered; has adopted, instead, the demon-tag the firangis hung around his neck. To turn insults into strengths, whigs, tories, Blacks all chose to wear with pride the names they were given in scorn..."

Just as in The Last Temptation of Christ imagined Christ betrayed himself, by choosing to believe the temptations of Satan, so does Mahound betray his own principles by listening to the satan verses he says were given to him by Gibreel. These are in fact the disputed verses from the Quran that some critics say were self-serving and expedient rather than divine. This section, as well as the scenes in the brothel where the prostitutes take on the names of the prophet's wives to service the sexual fantasies of the newly converted Meccans were the most incendiary to Muslims. And, in a curious foreshadowing of the controvorsy to come, note this exchange when Mahound sentences to death the poet Baal:

"So he was sentenced to be beheaded, within the hour, and as soldiers manhandled him out of the tent towards the killing ground, he shouted over his shoulder: "Whores and writers, Mahound. We are the people you can't forgive."

Mahound replied, "Writers and whores. I see no difference here."

But there are other satanic verses too, not just semi-divine ones. As Gibreel Farishta teeters on the edge of insanity, fueled by his jealous love for Alleluia Cone the flat-footed mountain climber, he receives sinister phone calls. The caller recites sometimes filthy, sometimes nonsensical verses about having sex with Cone. This plunges Gibreel over the cliff, leading to the final showdown.

The language is sublime but for those who don't know hindi, Indian cinema, Islam and Islamic history, and a smattering of Arabic it can be rather bewildering. Rushdie does not translate...there are no footnotes, no elaborate explanations. Rushdie is primarily a proud post-colonial writer. This helps maintains the flow of the story, allowing readers to revel in his inventive and clever and totally masterful use of the English language. For the more curious literate reader it affords opportunity for research. I can, however, see that at times Rushdie can come across as self-consciously clever and even smug. If you can overcome that read this book if you haven't or re-read it if it has been a while.

The Satanic Verses is a tour de force, a book by Rushdie at his peak, sadly overshadowed by the controvorsy and violence surrounding it.

Keep a few days aside to read it. It is not an easy read, but a rewarding one. It is multi-layered, multi-textured, complex and surprising. The plot, the structure, the characters are all secondary to the story-telling. The author's hand is invisible, but intriguingly his personality comes through. The book is indelibly Rushdian and one that should be read.

Read, not only as a protest against censorship and violence but also because The Satanic Verses is a wonderfully written book by one of the greatest living writers. Yes, I sound a bit of a fan-girl here, but I'd rather be a Rushdie fan-girl than a groupie for any other contemporary author.

And this is another reason I chose Rushdie and The Satanic Verses as the kick-off review for this blog.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Announcement for 2010

A new year, a new decade...and hopefully new things happening in this space. I plan to blog here more for one thing.

Also, I was thinking since the actual, planned banned books group didn't pan out, this is what I want to do with my banned books blog: Reviews.

That's right, we will review banned books. Who's we you ask? Well, anyone really. Even you. Do you want to review a banned book? Send it to me.

I will review some myself and I am inviting guest reviewers to submit their reviews.

Please include the complete and correct title of the book, author, publisher, ISBN, price, let us know whether it's in print or not...and also a few lines on where the book is (or was) banned and why.

I am pleased to announce that my friend Judy Bussey who blogs at Appalachian Roots has said she'd do the first guest review.

So...Judy, we're waiting.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What did you read during banned books week?

I had planned to read a banned book especially during banned book week but could not, for various reasons. So I decided to make a list of some banned books I've recently (or not so recently) read. These could have been banned in any country/organization. Here goes:

1. Satanic Verses: re-reading

2. The Jewel of Medina

3. The God of Small Things

4. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

5. Animal Farm

6. Ismat Chughtai's 'Lihaf' (technically a short story but one of my faves)

7. The Diary of Anne Frank

8. The Da Vinci Code (technically not literature or even really a book, but heck it was banned in Lebanon)

9. Doctor Zhivago

10. The Grapes of Wrath

11. The Gulap Archipelego (started reading it, but now it sits staring balefully at my from my bedside table)

12. Lady Chatterly's Lover

13. Lajja

14. Lolita

15. 1984

16. The Kite Runner

These are the ones I remember. I know there are many more.

But perhaps more important than a mere listing of books is the question: Why should we read banned books?

This is what I think.

The freedom to think, to read and to write whatever we want is to me a fundamental right. For, if there can be limits to what we can read, what else is left? Policing what we can and cannot read is like posting a cop in our brains. No matter how heinous, gruesome, or disturbing, the freedom of expression relies on the premise that we all need to defend each other's rights to expression despite our own discomforts with these expressions.

Unorthodox viewpoints, unpopular ways of looking at the world and its people creates a tension. A tension that makes us grow and explore and develop in new and unexepected ways. It is important to challenge the status quo, for it is in doing so that humanity develops.

This does not mean that we all have to agree. On the contrary. Instead it creates a free, equal, and open forum for discussion in which those for and against an idea can debate it in the marketplace of ideas.

Constraining thought in a free society points the way towards totalitarianism sometime down the road.

I have the right to read what I want to. You have the right not to. I cannot mandate that you must read what I decide. And you cannot tell me that I cannot read what I want to.

So, during this state of economic instability and the general malaise in the world, let us all put away our lists. Try to read at least one banned book a year. Make yourself heard by picking up a banned book and quietly proclaiming that you believe, truly believe in the freedom of thought and expression. And that, ultimately, you are fully prepared to debate this and all other thoughts you hold dear.

For nothing is sacrosanct. And ultimately, that makes every thought valuable enough to be debated openly, to be discussed honestly. And what better freedom of expression can there be.

Don't wait for the next banned books week. Read a banned book.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Showing a Pink Sari to a Holy Cow!

I've lived a little less than half my life in India, a little more than half in the U.S., and now the last 3 in Switzerland. I've lived all my life as a minority, or really as I like to think of it as an "other." A Muslim in India, an Indian in the west, brown in now my mostly white world. And for 99.9% of the time I don't even think about being the other, about being Indian or brown or whatever hyphenated qualifier comes to mind. I just was. I just am. I live my life. I have friends I cherish. Writers around me who I respect. People of all colors, ethnicities, and assorted backgrounds who form my own personal rainbow. And I write. And even though I sometimes write about my "other" experience, in my normal daily life I rarely dwell on it.

Writing, and everything related to it is sacred to me. As a non-believer in anything divine, writing is the closest to the divine I have. To me, whatever is related to writing is serious. Writers are witnesses: to history, to world events, to culture, to society. We show a mirror to the world and are reflected in it, in return. And the accoutrements of writing that most impassions me (after writing itself) are critique and discussion.

But perhaps I've been spoilt. I spent my years, especially in the U.S., around people---whether in graduate school, in writers' groups, or just with friends and colleagues---who discussed race and gender and other issues in a severely honest manner. Honest but not alienating. Phrases like racial identities and post-colonialism were used from a place of shared understanding. And mutual respect was the foundation. Life has been good. Life is good, still.

A few days ago I heard about Shashi Tharoor's tweeting controvorsy. In a nutshell: someone on Twitter asked Tharoor (now a minister in the Indian government, but once the Under-Secretary General of the UN, also a writer and novelist), "Tell us minister, next time you travel to Kerala, will it be cattle class?" He responded: "Absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows."

All hell broke loose. A holy cow? How dare he? The cow is our mother, damnit! She is sacred to us, our mother, they said, unaware of the delicious irony of their responses. The Congress (his own party) declared his statement unacceptable. No matter that he explained that this holy cow had nothing to do with our bountiful and loving "gau mata," that holy cow was an expression of surprise and also a commentary on all those untouchable topics India revels in. You know the uncomfortable ones. The ones that become the white elephant, much larger than any holy cow can dare be. That it was merely a clever play on words. No matter. Indians were outraged and outraged they remain.

When I read this news story last Saturday I chuckled and shook my head in disbelief. And then I set off--unbeknownst to myself then---to tackle my own holy cow. Yes, these divine bovine creatures do not just exist in exotic third world countries. They chew the cud in the comfortable confines of the middle-class West within which I live and write.

I hate confrontation! There...I said it. I love discussions but hate confrontation so most of the time I try to phrase my thoughts in ways that avoid confrontation. Not only because of my inherent discomfort but also because I naively but honestly believe that discussions are conduits that can take us all to higher levels of shared meanings, while confrontations merely set up an 'us and them' dynamic that can alienate and cease discussion.

I also believe in a cliche. You know, "Well-behaved women rarely make history." A wee bit contradictory but that's me, that's most of us. Not that I want to make history. I merely want to know that I fulfill my duties as a small-time writer and a critic. So there I sat in my large writers group listening to a finely told travelogue, affectionate and funny in its tone, about someone's travel to India.

Well-written, except for 4-5 rather obvious stereotypes. Yes, it's true, many Indians wobble their heads, and some of them wear pink saris. But if all the Indians who appear in a three-page story are one stereotype after the other, the writing appears reductionist, not to mention lazy. Yes, stereotypes have a kernel of truth, but as a writer I believe, our job is to push beyond the obvious, to bring forward hidden truths that stereotypes can obscure. And bringing a piece of writing to a critique group means that you want to know how others perceive your work, which the writer in question did. But the discussion had gotten away from her writing--even away from her really--and started lurching towards something else. The holy cow had torn through the pink sari and was now mincing around a mine-field.

I was enjoying this flexing of mental muscle. This was real. Real writers discussing real issues. There was another vocal person on my side of the discussion. I wasn't alone. There was an opportunity for examining stereotyping and for post-colonial critique. Oh joy! Alas, what was a discussion for me, was instead a first push against the flanks of the holy cow. How had I forgotten? You know the research that says that for the majority (note: not all) middle-class white women, racism is not an issue. Only sexism is. And for women of color (see how quickly I classify myself) racism trumps sexism. Forget racism, we were just talking stereotypes---racial stereotypes, but not racism itself.

A fine difference but a difference nonetheless.

For me the discussion turned when it was bemoaned how in the quest to become politically correct, the freedom of speech had been abrogated, especially in France. Say what? Before I could say that the speaker was talking about religious fundamentalism and censorship and other even knottier issues, someone else picked up that thread and continued to wish for the time when she could have said whatever she wanted without a fear of offending anyone? Huh?

I felt like I was in a time-warp of 1950's America. The only reason that 20,30,40 years ago someone could say something, anything, was because the "other" was not empowered enough to respond whether they merely had a point of discussion to contribute not even if they were truly offended or even gutted. It's easy to say whatever you like when the "other" is not allowed to be a party to the debate. For god's sake, Jim Crow only ended forty-odd years ago. almost in my lifetime, certainly in theirs.

Like a blind bull in a china shop I continued and, without using the actual phrase I did a quick recap of post-colonialism to explain why someone from a former colony might think reducing Indians to only being head-wobbling pink sari wearers was stereoypying them. This does not mean that the writer should not feel free to write stereotypes but that s/he should be aware of their perception. It was not a case for censorship but for free discussion....which means that the "other" has a right to be part of the debate.

For anyone who wants to know and doesn't: Post colonialism is when a colonized group that was earlier only defined to the outside world by its colonizer, attempts to take back that power. India's post-colonial literature, in particular is rich, studded with Rushdie's and Chandra's and Roy's works. Post-colonialism Indian literature stands constrasted against the colonial literature, that even when sympathetic to India and Indians, still dealt with them in stereotypical terms. Even some British literature that appeared post-1947 (hello! Raj nostalgia books anyone?). Post-colonial theory was also applied to reviewing and critiquing already existing and emerging literature from a different perspective. Literary criticism from a post-colonial perspective examines works from this same standpoint, of sloughing off the remnants of colonial perceptions and thoughts, and seeing things from an awakened consciousness rooted in our own identities and realities. Until now I had never fully seen what a revolutionary concept this was, how upsetting to certain groups.

Freedom of expression is one of the unshakeable foundations of my own writing. In my own recently completed novel I not only examine prejudice and hatred from the other side but also those of my own.

I believe...truly the rights of writers and artists to be able to express themselves fully without censorshop or reprisals, no matter how heinous their characterizations. But you know what makes the freedom of expression work? That everyone...yes...even the person being written about (or stereotyped) can participate in the discussion without being shouted down. To bemoan the lack of freedom of expression myself I cannot shut others up. And the discussion needs to exist in a place of mutual respect even if there is severe dissent. There needs to be a willingness to see the other's viewpoint even if there is disagreement. It doesn't exist in a place where traditional power-holders can shame/shut up/disregard/alienate the members of the group being talked about.

Sound familiar, this taking of power from traditional power-holders? Some of those so clearly upset (even though their upset was displayed through disapproving silence) were women who had probably come of age during the sexual revolution. You know....when *men* were finally told that they could not dictate to women about their own bodies. I've been in solidarity with my fellow-Western women when they proclaimed "get your hands off my body," and when they protested the unfairness of old, white men telling them about what they could or could not do with their own bodies.

But what of the rest of me? The non-body part of me? Is it less valuable? I have an identity beyond my gender...we all do. And that part too has the right to say, "take your stereotypes, your constructs off my identity...or at least understand that when you write what you do and say what you that this is the meaning I take from it." And for the first time I also wondered about their solidarity with me, with others like me?

A writer has the right to continue to write in stereotypes. I would fight for her right to do so. But conversely another writer or reader also has the right to draw attention to this, to respond, to proclaim an identity beyond reductionisms.

You know how you know something only as a theory but have not experienced it as a reality. This encounter was an eye-opener for me, a moment in time when a theory collided with reality and left me to examine and re-examine my place in my environment. Alone and alienated, with people refusing to meet my eyes, and others who clapped in solidarity against the two of us, the two women of color who had the temerity to draw attention to a stereotype. To me stereotypes are not always necessarily racist (which in this case they were really not) but are merely lazy codes.

I am still making sense of this episode. From wishing I had kept my mouth shut to wishing I had made my points in a more articulate manner. But above it all, remains my discomfiture, a certain fluttering in my stomach that reminds me why I hate confrontation. It reminds me that no matter how sophististicated and literate a group, holy cows are to be worshipped and woe betide anyone who dares straddle one.

But above all it underscores a loneliness I have not felt in recent years and an alienation I had not remembered until now.

Perhaps in retrospect I will make more sense of it, maybe I'll even find some humor in it, or some lasting lesson. That is my hope. What more can we ask for in life, after all except hope?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Nicaraguan writer being censored by government

Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramirez says that his government is censoring him, by blocking publication of his prologue to the work and earlier poet.

Read the whole story here at

Friday, November 21, 2008

Agenda for First Meeting: The Jewel of Medina

Phew! Finally, after many intimations of interest and then rapid disappearances, we finally have a core group. I think there will be four of us. Please let me know when you guys would like to meet.

I would like to start off our meetings by reading and discussing The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones. Here's a picture of me with the book. Yay!

Generally, this is a rough guide as to the information we should provide each time any of us nominates a book. It's not a template, however, so each of us can change or tweak the format and the information we provide in any way we want.

Synopsis of Book: A fictionalized account of the life of Aisha, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad who was married to him when she was nine. This book traces her development from a child to one of the most important women in Islam, and a "fierce protector of her husband's words and his legacy", as the book jacket informs us.

Banned and/or Controvorsial Information: The Jewel of Medina created controvorsy even before it was published. It is currently banned in Serbia, (of course) Saudi Arabia, and Morocco, among others. It created controvorsy even before it was published.

It was originally picked up by Random House who sent a galley to a professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies, Denise Spellberg. Spellberg read the book and instead of giving the publisher a blurb, decided to 'warn Muslims' of a novel that she considered made fun of Islam and its history. Random House promptly dropped the book.

In September 2008, a small British publisher, Gibson Square decided to publish the book. Shortly after, on the 27th of September, Gibson Square publisher, Martin Rynja's house (out of which he operated his company) was firebombed.

Publication proceeded, however. In the U.S. Beaufort Books has published the book. It has also been published in Serbia. Interestingly, the Serbian publisher had withdrawn all copies from stores but re-distributed them because of the large number of pirated copies being sold. Nothing speaks as loud as money I guess.

Reason for nomination: I'd like us to read this book for several reasons. One, because it is a recent book and we can track its current trajectory and observe first-hand how it fares. Two, I believe it's important to read contemporary banned books to support freedom of expression issues. Three, there is not much written about Aisha in the English-language press and she was an important historical figure.

I do have to say that looking through the book briefly has already shown me its many shortcomings and some inaccuracies, but still I believe this is an important book to read.

Where do I buy the book?: It is being sold on Amazon. However, I would encourage you to order this and other books through Wellread as much as possible. They have promised to work with our group, will offer competitive rates for us, and will feature us in their newsletter.

You can also order through Payot or Off the Shelf, of course.

Meeting date, time and location: Ok, group, please email me or use the comments section to let me know if we should meet in December or in the beginning of January 2009 because of the holiday season. I am a pretty fast reader but some of you might actually have lives and would not be able to read it so quickly :-). So please, please let me know. I vote for December 15, 2008 at my house. The reason for having it at home is that the author is interested in calling in. For other meetings we can meet at restaurants I guess.

If coming to Puplinge is too much of a problem, we can just put together questions for the author beforehand and email them to her, get her responses and incorporate them into the discussion.

See...I'm flexible like that ;-) And yes, I tend to overexplain things too. So there!

If you want a quick meet n' greet before the first meeting let me know. I am sure we can spare an hour or so at a Starbucks somewhere. Sometime during the first week of December works for me.

If want to skip the meet n' greet (considering it is the holiday season) and just want to shoot for the actual discussion then please let me know. Either way is fine with me.

So, onward! I am so excited. I hope you are as well.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


First of all, will everyone interested in this group please let me know if they are free to meet sometime during the next couple of weeks. I'd like to have a face-to-face meeting (perhaps fueled by some coffee somewhere in town) during which we can decide on things like frequency of meetings, where to meet, etc. etc. I also want to know how many people we have for sure. 2-3 people have disappeared off the edge of the earth after sound very, very interested, so I want to make sure that the rest are committed enough to make it to the meeting. So drop me a line, or just in the comments section here to let me know.