Salman’s Never-ending Sighs: Rushdie in Laden Land

Meet hyperbole. Wrapped in the cloak of literary armour. He is daggers drawn ready to declare what has already been declared. Call Pakistan a terrorist state. His “exile” has apparently closeted him away from the daily news; he curls up over his manuscripts and these days might not even be watching cookery programmes on television. What he never forgets is to bring in the old “My name is Rushdie and I got a fatwa on my head” thing.

Funny that he has never asked for Iran to be declared a terrorist state. His piece in The Daily Beast is the sort of joyous trampoline jumping one sees at parties. It is not much different from the Indian electronic media debates. Last night while surfing channels, there was more about how the Osama death would affect us and at one point that revealed utter obsequiousness, the anchor asked our home minister P. Chidambaram regarding his concern about the Pakistan factor, “Have you conveyed this to Obama?” Excuse me? India has suffered all kinds of terrorism, including state terror. No one has ever come to help us and we do not want outside interference. So, why should we convey anything to a man who heads a government that pumps in money to Pakistan when it wants to?

Rushdie’s exaggerations are in the realm of metaphor, which would have qualified as poetic licence except that he seeks to make a political statement:

“Osama bin Laden died on Walpurgisnacht, the night of black sabbaths and bonfires. Not an inappropriate night for the Chief Witch to fall off his broomstick and perish in a fierce firefight.” 

For a literary figure, appropriateness of occasion and veracity ought not to be of much concern. Does he recall ‘Satanic Verses’? I don't know the names of the Prophet's wives, but I'm quite sure a lot of unsavoury characters possess similar names because their parents did not know what they would later turn into. Just as a novelist, a fabricator, a virtuoso magician would probably not realise that his imagination has given his characters lives quite separate from his.

There will be versions of Osama the man, but facts need to be redeemed from sea beds. Some witches take a magic carpet and roam continents even as they are stalked and have a price over their head. Does the irony hit Rushdie at all? Unlikely. For he is celebrating selective amnesia, the pit stop of the opportunist who needs to seek another sort of refuge – the social network:

“One of the most common status updates on Facebook after the news broke was ‘Ding, Dong, the witch is dead,’ and that spirit of Munchkin celebration was apparent in the faces of the crowds chanting ‘U-S-A!’ last night outside the White House and at ground zero and elsewhere. Almost a decade after the horror of 9/11, the long manhunt had found its quarry, and Americans will be feeling less helpless this morning, and pleased at the message that his death sends: ‘Attack us and we will hunt you down, and you will not escape’.”
The writer is in his safe house and needs to nod appreciatively at his keepers. There is no moral issue here. It is not even about people celebrating; it is about why they are celebrating. It is blind belief in the establishment. And Rushdie has never been anything else.

He has been knighted by the British, his head bowed down as a sword was placed over his head – the white man’s burden now allowed to play the big saab. Britain that spent a good amount to keep him hidden was rubbished as a “bitchy” society as he took off for America. Osama’s move from London was more spectacular and less needy. Think of these two men toasting each other in the London clubs. Rushdie fell for the ‘Hello’ and ‘OK’ lure of gloss; Osama chose another route that had its own sheen and doom.

They are similar tragic-comic figures and both have their choruses and court jesters. They played to the gallery. Rushdie is doing worse than the armed troops because he is messing with the sovereignty of two nations, and he belongs to neither. His titular origins had made him even sing along with the rightwing forces in India when he sought a visa in 1999.

Rushdie showed no self-respect about visiting under the patronage of a government that was using him. He was debunking extremist forces of which he had been the victim and was tacitly accepting the atrocities of others. Khomeini's fatwa against him was most uncivilised, but surely he knew that those welcoming him in India issued almost daily fatwas to certain sections of the population at regular intervals to suit their creative interpretations of theology. Did he not pause to question why while his 'interpretation' made him a victim those of the fundamentalists in his 'motherland' make them victimisers?

The Teheran Times had written at the time, “...providence may have destined this shameless character to meet his nemesis where he was born.” I do not agree with such a dire note, but nobody would ever kill Rushdie in India.

The nemesis factor is really the stuff of myth. Osama was not a corporate entity, unlike Rushdie. His is a ‘stand at the coffee-maker’ analysis:

“The old flim-flam (“Who, us? We knew nothing!”) just isn’t going to wash, must not be allowed to wash by countries such as the United States that have persisted in treating Pakistan as an ally even though they have long known about the Pakistani double game—its support, for example, for the Haqqani network that has killed hundreds of Americans in Afghanistan.”

The selective amnesia is at work. Like a trained race horse, his blinkers are on. There are only hundreds of Americans in Afghanistan. America allied with Pakistan knowing that it was playing a double game. Is the coffee too hot? Can you hold the Styrofoam cup? Want to add a dash of vanilla to it?

Rushdie clearly has little idea about Pakistan’s social life and even less about the machinations or even about the possibility of such machinations. 

“Many of us didn’t believe in the image of bin Laden as a wandering Old Man of the Mountains, living on plants and insects in an inhospitable cave somewhere on the porous Pakistan-Afghan border…Bin Laden was born filthy rich and died in a rich man’s house, which he had painstakingly built to the highest specifications.”

I am surprised that he did not believe in what he assumes could have been the belief of some. Rushdie too was on the run so he should know a bit about at least Old Monk, that great leveller of the spirits, the Marxian Utopia of the Left as opposed to the Leninist opiate grown in more practical terms in those very mountains and sold in the cities and urban parties that Sir Salman often graces with his charm and beatific smile.

Where is the rich man whose house it is? The liberal Pakistani television channels love to be saved from purgatory, so they send their cameras and shaky hands capture high walls and tall trees. This is not a designed by Architect Osama mansion; this is how many houses are in Pakistan, including the Pakhtun areas, where Afghans spent money as opposed to the locals. In Islamabad, before 9/11, there was at least one house bang in a residential area that was known to be occupied by Lashkar-e-Taiba members. I was locked up across that house to protect me by a friend who I was visiting and who had to leave for some urgent work. There is nothing unusual about such homes. Many havelis have high walls and shrubbery; it is the feudal class where these are considered symbols of status.

It is important to note that Hamid Karzai has been careful in his statements about the Osama killing even though it was in the sea in his country that he was buried.

It is unfortunate that Rushdie has not provided any insight or even opinion, except to subtly use his India connection to make Pakistan into an ogre. The Mumbai Police Commissioner now wants to seek Obama’s help to get Dawood Ibrahim. Dawood is protected by interests in India; he runs his operations in the Defence area of Karachi but gets his narcotics from Afghanistan, which is then sourced out to the rest of the world, including the West. Here’s the circle of deceit that Bombay boy Salman should know, as he so brilliantly captured in his early books.

The magic carpet is caught up in clouds. He, therefore, does not realise that when a witch falls off the broomstick it does not qualify as a “fierce fight”.

(c) Farzana Versey


  1. He has been knighted by the British, his head bowed down as a sword was placed over his head – the white man’s burden now allowed to play the big saab.

    Why do you have our "Little Brown Brothers" so much??


  2. After the great take on Obama it is even better to take on this shallow intellectual elite. Keep tapping on that key board.

    Best wishes,

  3. As a Bombay boy I don't know about these gangsters. Rushdie's literary works are not the same anymore, don't know about his politics. On a side note I thought you two would be kindred spirits!!

  4. "They are similar tragic-comic figures and both have their choruses and court jesters. They played to the gallery. "

    If there are any parallels - they ought to be between Sir Salam and Sir Vidia. And the above quote, would sound apropos. Thanks for the insight.

  5. Hitesh:

    Because brown is the conduit between white and black?


    Thanks. Shallow or just playing along to save one's skin?


    Kindred spirits? Have no idea what his poison is or how he flies. But NO.


    Thanks. Have used the Salman-Vidia analogy earlier. All analogies are not static and does not negate others.


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