Mani-Talk: Wendy Doniger and Salman Rushdie, separate and not equal

Published: February 24, 2014 14:07 IST
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(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha)

After reading the massive, 779-page tome with fascinated interest, my daughter presented me with a copy of Prof. Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History. It is hardly likely that a daughter would present her father with a work of pornography. Moreover, unlike her father, she is spiritually inclined. She felt she had learned a great deal that her father needed to learn. She is also a highly trained lawyer, with a BA Honours in Jurisprudence from Oxford (where she was a Radhakrishnan scholar) and an LL.M. from New York University, besides long experience in a leading law firm of the country. Hence, the Indian Penal Code is not unknown to her. She would be loath to present her father with a book that broke the law. I confess I have been looking for an opportunity out of my more mundane distractions to settle down to absorbing the wisdom my daughter wants me to have. Meanwhile, comes an out-of-court settlement with the publishers deciding to pulp the unsold copies.

As one who continues to support Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's mid-80s decision to ban the import of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, how do I reconcile my horror at what is being done to Wendy Doniger with my solidarity with Rajiv on Satanic Verses?

Let me begin with a confession. As a self-confessed "secular fundamentalist", I am unable to connect with the profound spiritual feelings of perhaps 99 per cent of my fellow-citizens. Years of being brought up by a mother whose favourite vacation resort was an Ashram near Rishikesh, and whose conception of a Saturday night jam session was a bhajan mandali, drove from my soul what little religious enquiry there was in my being. But because it was a home in which intense spiritual search was combined with earnest intellectual enquiry, in an atmosphere imbued with a liberal approach to free thinking, the sincerity of the spiritual feelings of others made a deep impression on me - and was the root cause of my life-long attempt to reconcile liberal values to an impassioned commitment to secularism.

I have defined my secularism in the following closing lines of my decade-old book, Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist (published by the same house that has now decided to pulp Wendy Doniger).

To shamelessly quote myself: "Secularism is not about giving primacy to my beliefs. It is about respecting the right of others to hold beliefs that I do not hold."

Rushdie's work was a work of fiction. He is certainly entitled to resort to satire. He is also entitled to distort the truth for literary effect. Yet, I was outraged by his picking on a very distinguished Parsi family, long resident in Quetta, who were known to all as having an army of unmarried daughters. Rushdie chose to viciously parody these harmless spinsters in Shame before going on to thinking it funny to mock President Zia ul-Haq's differently-abled daughter. I lived three years in Pakistan through the years that immediately followed Bhutto's hanging. There was much to hate about Zia as a person and even more about Zia as Head of Government. But the one deeply humane thing about him was his taking this daughter along with him to all kinds of official functions, unashamed of letting this differently-abled little girl cavort and gambol in front of TV cameras beaming to audiences all across Pakistan. Rushdie takes this real-life person and transmogrifies her into a monster. I could not laugh. It sickened me to the core.  What sort of a monster would make this cute little child into a fictional monster?

While that was to traduce a living, contemporary person who had the misfortune of being born with physical and mental handicaps that most of us are spared, in Satanic Verses, Rushdie marries his immense talent for sneering imagination with his vast knowledge of Islam through the medium of blasphemy for blasphemy's sake. To take but one disgusting example of this spurious humour, he deliberately names four fictional prostitutes in his satire with the names of the Prophet's four wives. There are many more such instances of his stomping with abandon on the deeply held beliefs of millions of his fellow-Muslims. For what? To get a laugh out of non-Muslims? To jack up his sales? To continue with panache his life-style as a living parody of the "propah Englishman, complete with bow-tie and an endless succession of photogenic girl-friends? To curry favour with the aliens among whom he chooses to live?

Whatever Rushdie's motives, I cannot but condemn the Ayatollah's fatwa that promised a generous reward for anyone who killed the author. But Rajiv Gandhi did not seek to murder the blasphemer. Recognizing that the core of secularism in a country and civilization as diverse as ours lies in respecting beliefs that one does not oneself hold, he referred Satanic Verses to scholars and clerics and quickly concluded the obvious: that a State which not only has no religion of its own but demonstrates this by respecting and protecting the personal beliefs and personal laws of each of its citizens and religious communities is not a State that can be seen as condoning or conniving a blatant attempt to collect kudos for a "literary work grounded in satirizing the profoundly held beliefs of crores of Indians. He stopped the import of the book; he did not order its pulping.

In sharp contrast to Rushdie, Wendy Doniger's book is a work of immense scholarship, non-fiction at its best. It is the distilled essence of a life-time of scholarship by one who, as the blurb points out, "hold two doctorates, in Sanskrit and Indian studies, from the universities of Harvard and Oxford (yes, the same Oxford where Dr. Radhakrishnan delivered his celebrated lectures on The Hindu Way of Life). For decades, Prof Doniger, currently a Professor of the History of Religions (please note the plural) at the University of Chicago, has written several highly acclaimed academic works on Hinduism and other religious beliefs, besides a magisterial translation of the Rig Veda (whose opening verse asks who created all this and answers its own question "Only He knows" and ends "And perhaps even He knows not,"imparting to the entire philosophy that open mindedness and tolerance for other views that has characterized five millennia of the evolution of spiritual beliefs - again , please note the plural -among the Hindus) as also an authoritative translation of The Laws of Manu. She has also translated the original Kamasutra with all its brilliant insights into the human condition (not the filthy unpulped versions sold on pavements and station bookstalls for the delectation of adolescents seeking cheap thrills). Alas, alas, alas. This, not Rushdie's book, is the real shame. I pray the Congress party will promise in its manifesto to repeal the obsolete provisions of the IPC that have brought us to this pass.

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