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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Rushdie - I'm not a fan, but

Yesterday I was at the Emory University for a speech (interview style) with Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens and Deepa Mehta. As I entered the campus my days as a student at ASU flashed back. There's an indescribable energy in the air that I was able to reconnect. Students were walking fast, talking on their cell, browsing.. even the one's sitting idle somehow gave the impression that they're enjoyably wasting their time. Interestingly I was never part of that energy when I was a student - my days were quite uneventful. Of course, like everyone I scrambled before the deadlines and stayed late before the finals, but the zest that's usually associated with an American student (or an Indian student in America) was colossally missing. Well, I developed a healthy taste for movies, but that's that[1]. To be back in such an environment tingled a bit of nostalgia.

In the last few years I've been able to strip myself of being a fan[2]. I used to be a 'fan' of Rushdie, Tendulkar, Spielberg... I still admire their works but not with a filter where I'd defend them even if they delivered a shoddy product. A few years back I would have been greatly excited to be seeing and hearing Rushdie, but not yesterday. He's a literary genius, but that compliment should come from someone who's far better in dissecting his literature. My appreciation skills are rudimentary. But so far Rushdie is one the best fiction writers I've read and I didn't want to miss an opportunity to see him in spite of the speech scheduled in a work day.

Rushdie didn't deliver a great speech (or great answers to the questions) but he made the session absolutely interesting by plugging in wonderful anecdotes. Sample these (a) Muslims in East London were offended by his 'Satanic Verses' and took to the streets in an organized march. A policeman notices a book shop on the protest march's path that displayed the book prominently and he gives a friendly warning to the shop owner to take the book down and save his glass windows. A journalist browsing books inside the shop hears this. This journalist comes back later in the day to the shop and finds that the book is not back on display and annoyed he asks the owner about it. The shop owner responds that all the copies of the 'Satanic Verses' are sold. (b) When his 'Shame' was published Pakistan banned it for obvious reasons. But all the foreign embassies thought it was required reading on Pakistani political climate and sent copies to their diplomats stationed in Islamabad. Once they read it they passed it on to embassy staff who later pushed it into the general public and thus almost all who ever in Pakistan wanted to read 'Shame' was ultimately able to read it.

These two anecdotes came up when he was talking about the effects of banning a book. Whenever there's attempted censorship, it certainly piques the interest of the public making it hard to actually ban the work. Nothing insightful, but the way Rushdie narrated these events (also explaining how those who protest/attack actually haven't read the work) was engaging and funny. At the end of the session he recited at a good speed a charmingly silly poem that ran for a full 5 minutes. Somewhere in the middle he forgot a couple of lines and without hesitation he simply explained what actually happens during those missing lines and continues from where he can remember. This is also the kind of quirkiness I enjoy in his writings.

[1] My movie discerning skills started when I first came to the US. That's a natural progression of the way things work - the more exposure, the less conditioning. As I saw more foreign movies my impressions of Indian stalwarts started breaking down. But it has taken a while for me - I gave a positive review to 'Sivaji' excusing myself as a true fan of Rajini. When I'm in front of a mirror a strange sense of shame engulfs me for not growing up even so late.

[2] Although I don't call myself a 'fan' of anyone, Charlie Kauffman is dangerously close to pulling me into his fan base.

Update: This is the 2nd half of the symposium, Rushdie is the primary speaker.

3 comments:

Srikanth Dakshinamoorthy said...

Rhyming Life & Death by Oz, Amos

Vidya said...

I'm not a very regular reader and I haven't read much. But the limited exposure to 2.5 books of Rushdie is something. 'Brilliantest' of satire and have not seen a parallel! Nice to know that you shared a roof with the man, albeit for a little while:-)

Prasad Venkataramana said...

I've been to lectures by other eminent figures like Umberto Eco & E.O.Wilson before, but this one's special to me. It was 'something'.