February 14, 2012

'Satanic Verses needed editing'

By Anil Dharker

The limitation of freedom of speech is defined by this well-known example: You can say ‘Fire’ in a conversation, but you can’t shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded auditorium. The reason is obvious: people will panic, a stampede for exit doors will ensue and that might result in injuries or even deaths.

In short, freedom of speech can never be absolute. The exercise of your freedom to say what you want may result in unintended consequences, and those consequences can be dangerous.

The same general rule should apply to writers too, or shouldn’t it? The Salman Rushdie episode unfortunately swamped all other news from the Jaipur Literature Festival, which was a shame in one way, though in another way it did bring the freedom of speech issue again to the forefront.

Let me say here that I am an admirer of Rushdie, the writer. If he has won Bookers and the Booker of Bookers, the honours have been well deserved. From the time he burst on the international scene with Midnight’s Children, I have waited – like many others, I am sure – for his next book. I thought The Satanic Verses too was a marvelous book. But…

Years ago, he had come home for dinner. He was brimming with excitement: he had just delivered his latest novel to his publisher; he was pleased with it, which is a wonderful feeling for a writer. He then went on to talk about a particular chapter in the book. As he spoke, I froze in my seat; I could, even then, sense trouble.

I don’t claim to be especially prescient, but most people in India would have known that that one chapter in The Satanic Verses would be incendiary, a dream sequence in a brothel whose inmates bore names of Prophet Mohammed’s wives.

In an interview post-Jaipur, Rushdie made many dramatic statements, the most dramatic being ‘Self-censorship is the death of Art’. But is it really? That particular troublesome chapter in The Satanic Verses can be taken out bodily without in any way affecting the narrative. It’s a mere writer’s fancy, and a writer, or painter, or any other artist, in the course of his/her work practices editing, which is distinct from self-censorship. Editing, either by the writer himself or his publisher’s editor, tightens and generally improves the quality of a book, so what’s wrong with that?

This is not to say self-censorship doesn’t come into play. It does often in auto-biographies and memoirs, where the writer may leave out hurtful or disparaging details about people he knows. Does that make the work dishonest? Or is that a reflection of the author’s sensibilities which made him practice a form of self-censorship?

There’s also the possibility that a sensational passage may attract a lot of attention, but the resultant publicity emphasising just one aspect of the book may be to the detriment of the work as a whole. Isn’t that the case with Satanic Verses?

Look at it another way. Suppose a book’s offending chapter was making a really important point; or one particular passage carried the crux of the argument or examples which might be sensational but which underline the point, then it becomes imperative to keep those lines even if they offend a whole lot of people. In short, you use your judgment as a writer to use something or to drop something else. Call it editorial judgment; only the pamphleteer will call it self-censorship.

There is also the question of cause and effect. When I was Editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, we carried an article on how myth-making actually diminishes the achievements of historical figures: by making them super-heroes, their feats become ordinary, whereas, if you see them as human, their achievements seem remarkable.

In the course of the article, the author – a scholar on the subject – stated a historical fact about Chattrapati Shivaji which became such a political hot potato that the Maharashtra state assembly proceedings resulted in pandemonium. Riots – fanned by politicians of course – were foreseen, all police leave was cancelled, etc.

Sharad Pawar, who was then the CM, rang to request an apology that would defuse the tension. The situation was, on the face of it, absurd because none of us saw a problem in the offending passage, but did I want blood on the streets to uphold the principle of freedom of speech? Especially when the ‘offending’ passage was in no way central to the argument?

A carefully worded apology – absolutely truthful, but not retracting the article – was issued. (‘The writer holds Shivaji in great esteem…Did not mean to hurt people’s feelings etc.’) Things calmed down quickly.

You could, of course, argue that the forces of intolerance had won again, and you would be right. Surprisingly, the clamour for the writer’s and editor’s arrest under the then existing Tada(!) had come from the ruling Congress, not the Shiv Sena. The Sena had to play catch up, which it did with gusto.

Ours is a society in flux. Religion is still the opium of the masses, and it will continue to be so till we reach a certain point in universal education and economic development. That point looks very distant at present; it is made even more distant because governments, both central and state, and irrespective of political affiliations, do not view freedom of speech as a concept worth defending. This is especially so when it is pitted against religious or other special–interest groups.

Obviously politicians see greater numbers – and therefore votes – amongst the protesting groups than the freedom of speech adherents. The politicians are probably right: who in civil society really, truly cares about freedom of speech unless they are writers and artists, the people directly affected? That’s a very small number of people and thus easy to ignore for the politician always looking for bankable votes.

That doesn’t mean that the fight for freedom of speech should be given up: it will continue to be an unequal battle, but there’s virtue in chipping away. To change metaphors, even drips of water make dents in the hardest stone.