Salman the Clown

What do you think we did after the summer was gone in Vienna?We followed the autumn fog to Heidenreichstein. This little town on the north-west tip of Austria is wrapped in mist at this time of the year and sold to tourists as the mystical quarter of the country. The romantic landscape of heath, moor, woods and gigantic hanging stones considered sacred from before Nordic times was the venue of a rare literary festival revolving around the work of Salman Rushdie. In conversation on stage with a local journalist here Salman, perhaps the most radiant of all the children born at midnight, grimaced at too much religion today.The sacred is forever personal for him. When he was growing up in Bombay religion was for idiots, he said. Religion was considered “uncool” but during the same decades when people like him were busy being cool religion revived and took over life in a big way.The answer to that is not to take religion seriously. What is required instead is a little more ridicule and many more cartoons about religion.For without the freedom to offend freedom of expression ceases to exist. A glittering galaxy of Austrian literati twinkled around the glorious son of the subcontinent as actors and actresses here celebrated the presence of the novelist in their midst with dramatic readings from his novels.During discussions he talked about love, life and the power that women in the sub continent wield within a family.As these women get older their influence increases recalls Salman who grew up in a family where women outnumbered men and in order to be heard he had to make sure that his voice was louder than those around him. He wished that love, fidelity and togetherness could be equated with happiness. But feels that is not how it works in the real world. He has found that people turn to violence for many reasons and ideology is only one of them. After having followed what critics say about Salman’s work, it was interesting to hear the author talk about the characters created by him. He does not look upon the protagonist in Shalimar the Clown, the novel based in Kashmir, as a classical model of a terrorist. Salman sees Shalimar as a murderer who becomes violent for a personal reason. By leaving him Shalimar’s wife has damaged his manhood. And the path that Shalimar chooses is his way of reconstructing himself as a man, to regain his manhood. He blushed like a bride, hiding his face behind a hand when asked to comment on his reputation of being a womaniser?His answer was a Freudian slip as the non-believer found himself thanking God that his wife was not there to hear him being called Casanova in public.The two day meet included a walk one afternoon into the Nature Park in the heart of the highlands where trees were planted, including by Salman who enjoyed the stroll in the woods without being trailed by bodyguards or bomb threats.That is a change from Salman’s previous visit to this little state that has staged rehearsals of some very big events in the past, including the last two world wars. After Iran’s sentence of death on Salman in 1989 Austrians wanted a public reading from The Satanic Verses in parliament to protest religious fanaticism. This was not allowed. A reading was finally held in a tiny room in a hidden quarter of the parliament building where only journalists came to listen to passages that did not insult god. Members of the Anticlerical Working Group wanted Austria to officially condemn Iran and to recall the country’s ambassador from Tehran. Some Austrian authors tried to organise a reading and discussion at the Vienna University but bomb threats and anti- Rushdie demonstrations intimidated the police from granting protection to the event. In the name of security the state had continued to deny the right to read Salman publicly. Kurt Waldheim, the then president of Austria denounced The Satanic Verses as blasphemy. And church officials used the occasion to tell television hosts that Christian mythology is the property of the church and warned artists not to mess with it.Muslim and Christian clergymen danced to the same tune, both demanding blood for blasphemy. Those were the days when the Pope did not think that Muhammad had brought nothing but evil into the world for the Holy Patriarch had embraced the death sentence upon a writer by the clergy in Iran with open arms.I am happy to grant Salman all the greatness in the world but also return home with foggy thoughts that both radical Islam and freedom of speech are nothing but a lot of mist without their social, political, economic and cultural context.