In the lionizing – or the demonizing – of a public personality, many perceive a problem as being unique. Having a bounty on his head is a Salman Rushdie problem, for example, and not an expansive threat on human rights. In a sense, this is true: a human being was nearly murdered at Chautauqua Institution a few days ago, while all the abstract concepts around this event (hate, freedom, power) remain intact in their intangible and universal way. But the problem goes beyond him – both in the conjectural sense of what we stand to lose when we are deprived of creativity or dissent, and in the lived reality of an environment in which these are excised.
Rushdie had been scheduled to speak at the Chautauqua Institution on August 12 on the United States as a haven for persecuted writers. The contents of his speech haven’t yet been released publicly. Books themselves are at risk in the USA, through internal bans by school districts (over 1500 titles were banned between July 2021 and March 2021, mostly on subjects such as race and queerness, as reported by the writers’ rights organisation PEN America; Rushdie is a former president of the same). But we can surmise that those who create them are safer there than in many places around the world.
Rushdie certainly felt that way, at least. This may be because government-led oppression of artists and intellectuals is not a major peril there at this time (it has been true at other times in American history, and can be true in future). That does not mean that an individual is safe from being harmed by another, as happened to the author last week. He was brutally, through fortunately not fatally, stabbed multiple times by an assailant identified as 24-year old Hadi Matar.
Rushdie experienced persecution from Islamic fundamentalists after the release of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. In a 2012 essay, book critic Madhu Jain wrote about how her review was misshapen by an editor’s choice of incendiary excerpts, which precipitated the book’s banning in India and Pakistan and the subsequent fatwa issued by Iran. Its Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was found dead under unresolved circumstances; its Italian translator Ettore Capriolo and Norwegian publisher William Nygaard faced attempted murders. The question of whether the offended read and ponder before reacting is always present. Here in India, the journalist Gauri Lankesh was murdered in 2017 by a hitman hired by Hindutva fundamentalists; the killer later admitted to not knowing who the assigned target was, and expressed regret upon learning of the value of her work.
Rushdie has been outspoken about the threat to fundamental freedoms in India, where he was born, both currently and in the past. Just before this attack on his life, he co-signed an open letter to President Droupadi Murmu on “the rapidly worsening situation for human rights in India, specifically freedom of speech and creative expression.” As always, we would do well to consider the larger picture, to not fixate on how an author was attacked where he felt most free, but on how unfree we all really are, and what to do about it.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in August 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.