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A Measure of Hypocrisy: Salman Rushdie and the Inevitability of a ‘Vijayanagara Ghar Wapasi’

A Measure of Hypocrisy: Salman Rushdie and the Inevitability of a ‘Vijayanagara Ghar Wapasi’

  • Why pretend you care so much about Salman Rushdie today when his pain will be an excuse at the end of the day for you to go back to bashing your ancestral cultures and traditions instead of the imperialisms.

Strangely enough, just two hours before Salman Rushdie was brutally stabbed in upstate New York, I was exchanging messages about his new book with my friend, a Brooklyn-based movie-maker and old Rushdie fan. My friend told me proudly that a young member of his extended family designed the cover of Rushdie’s new book and sent me a picture.

The book was called Victory City (“Vijaya-nagara”) and one of the two temples on the cover looked a bit like the Virupaksha temple (the other, my friend said, seemed more like Mahabalipuram’s shore temple and left us wondering).

But it was a Hampi novel, in some form or another, from Rushdie at that.

Vijayanagara Visions

Our chat ended with mixed feelings for me. I felt a rush of delight at first, seeing the name of my greatest and most powerful sacred muse-kshetra besides the name of an author I grew up admiring as a high school and college student. What would Rushdie do with the great stony landscapes of Kishkindha as his inspiration? Would he make his words sing to the gods? Would he find his Naipaul moment of truth there, a brave voice unafraid to call out the facts of the past (and the present)?

I must admit that my last thoughts on this subject were pessimistic as I drifted away from this book to something else on my phone.

I somehow doubted Rushdie had the insights and empathy frankly to really take us into Vijayanagara, let alone Kishkindha. If he went to Hampi, did he ever stop to feel what the pilgrims — not the tourists — feel before Virupaksha Swamy or Yantrodhdharaka Anjaneya? If not as a “believer” then as a writer?

After all, he showed no sign these last few decades of understanding Hindu India beyond repeating the same platitudes his fair-weather literary critic friends hid their privileged ignorance behind. He had at best a nominal mastery over “myths” and such and didn’t perhaps go out of his way to put down Hindu sentiments about the gods for cheap thrills as some of the other “progressive” South Asianists did. He was too talented for that. But his Vijayanagara, I felt, would not be ours. Still, I hoped.

On the good side though, it was pretty cool that my friend and I who had first met as college roommates in America in the 1990s and read “Imaginary Homelands” together (and of course, that first edition of “The Satanic Verses” too), were now talking about the next generation of family members growing up and designing Rushdie’s covers and such. Life and literature at their best.

Violence and Cover-Ups

Just two hours after this generational-literary musing, the news came. I felt sad that a person who had spent his life harmlessly with words and books had been subjected to such brutal violence and pain. Then, I felt angry — not only at the ideologies and actors behind it but also at what I thought was the perpetual denialism and evasiveness of some of my own friends professing concern now in suitably vague terms.

I shared the news with a sympathetic writer friend, and we speculated on how the pious propagandists of the “progressive” jet-set might play this tragedy since the attacker was quite likely not of an identity they like to rant against. I concluded that they would spin it broadly as an attack on artistic freedom by “religious” obscurantists in vague enough terms to maybe even hitch it to the other big news of the day, Aamir Khan’s film doing badly possibly because of a Hindu boycott.

I am sure I was not the only person remembering the lies and double standards, past and present. Dark humorists on Twitter joked about “Midnight’s Children” being about Indian judges opening the courts at night to offer bail to accused terrorists. Others remembered what I might call “Gems of Euphemisms” (since that phrase has become a gold standard in measuring hypocrisy in itself) like “Austere Religious Scholars” and Self-Driving Vans. One of my friends recalled how an old progressive professor of his once shared an article on Facebook justifying the Charlie Hebdo massacre with the profound statement, “Finally, some perspective.”

And I could not help remembering the scene that afternoon in that lit fest in Jaipur about ten years ago when some of the most famous opponents of “Hindu Nationalism” in South Asia ran around scurrying for cover as a group of protestors (not Hindus or Nationalists, naturally) occupied their grounds. Rushdie, of course, did not come. He could not come.

It is a comment perhaps on Rushdie’s stature as a writer, and on the changing nature and influence of media industries including publishing, TV, news, and of course, social media, that there is so much more to observe and learn from in the discourse around Rushdie than his writings alone. All my memories and feelings of sympathy (and reserved judgments) aside, this is what I hope we can think about today before the next news event comes along to distract us from the many forces and interests at work on our minds and lives today.

Art, Politics, and Truth

The mendacity and money-driven realities of what young writers and artists and activists imagine as their noble professions are sharply obvious today to most people except those youngsters dependent for their careers (and for their mental well-being) on believing the lies.

For decades, the experts on stuff like art and speech and fundamentalism dug the graves on truth itself, year after year. But it wasn’t always this bad, even in my own lifetime and memory. After all, professors and writers marched for Rushdie in the 1980s. By the time of the Charlie Hebdo massacre three decades later, a whole bunch of celebrated writers who had for many years been branded and sold to an elite consumer class as heroes fighting racism and white supremacy and Brahminical Hindutva went so far as to denounce a literary award given to the journalist-victims of that massacre!

In the old days, the story was that the Emperor had no clothes. Now, it’s the opposite – it’s the supposed Revolution that has no clothes.

Some years ago, I questioned Girish Karnad’s denunciation of V.S. Naipaul at a literary event for the same reasons. It is understandable (though not always necessary) for artists and writers to subsume their creative vision to a political idea of social justice or human suffering. Art has existed long before the present fads about politics came along, and neither the visionaries of the Natya Sastra nor the shamans of the Chauvet caves were concerned with identity-politics in the way artists and writers of today are. I am not saying the social circumstances are the same, nor that art should disdain politics. If there is inequality and injustice on mass scales today and writers wish to fight it with art, by all means, let’s do it. But why exclude or censure the writers and artists who see glaring inequities and lies and horrors your jet-set lit-fest menu does not?

Why blame Naipaul for what he felt after Hampi?

Why pretend the great Bhyrappa’s Aavarana isn’t what millions of Hindus feel today, especially those who may not be part of the elite English-only international-school Ivy-league MNC club?

Why pretend you care so much about Salman Rushdie today when his pain will be an excuse at the end of the day for you to go back to bashing your ancestral cultures and traditions instead of the imperialisms that have the psycho-biological power still to drive a stabbing arm at “10-15 times in 20 seconds” and the political-economic power to whitewash the headlines across the face of the earth tomorrow to make the victims seem the villains?

Global Indigenous-Pagan-Polytheist Ghar-Wapasi

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I hope of course Salman Rushdie recovers and finds a deeper voice and soul than before to pick up the gifts Goddess Saraswati has given him, whether he “believes” in Goddesses or not (I understand that the protagonist of his new novel is inspired by the Goddess Pampa to start a kingdom, but whether this line leads him to find deeper sensibilities than before I don’t know).

I hope also that Rushdie’s medical, creative, cultural and spiritual “ghar wapasi” after this tragedy will inspire him to speak not just for so-called liberal and cosmopolitan victims of Jihadist violence like himself but for the thousands of ordinary men and women facing the same hatred unchecked every day.

I hope someday we will live in a world where a literary festival will recognize not only a global celebrity who suffered for his words but also a humble tailor from the same state, only recently murdered for simply sharing his thoughts on WhatsApp. 

Why should we honor only famous writers and activists for paying the ultimate price for their words? Why not a poor Kanhaiya Lal? Will one lit fest in Rajasthan put his photo or name up?

Until that day when all hate and violence is opposed equally, I think writers and artists should meditate on what it is we are really here to do with our gifts and privileges.

It is hard to live by the notion that the pen is mightier than the sword at times like this. But lets at least pick up those pens from under the doormats of the rich and powerful and malevolent where some of us have placed them (see the book “The Arab Lobby” by Mitchell Ward, for example, or “Workshops of Empire” by Eric Bennet, or some of the essays by Sandeep Balakrishna on his Dharma Dispatch blog — so many seemingly “free” writers and scholars have been knowingly or otherwise played by lobbies and foundations).

Get well soon, Salman Rushdie. And let’s take a boat ride together across the Tungabhadra to see Hanuman.

Get well soon, Salman Rushdie. And let’s take a trip to your non-imaginary homelands too. Let’s put your pen to the task of rebuilding the homes of Sharada and Martanda in the valley of your ancestors.

Get well soon, everybody. The parasitic violence-propaganda system that colonized the planet these past few centuries is tearing itself apart more quickly than it can rebuild.

The gods and their ancient traces of earth and memory are waiting, waiting in the sunlight behind those words and images dancing before your eyes every day.

Tat Savitur Varenyam!

Vamsee Juluri is a Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco. His latest book is “The Firekeepers of Jwalapuram,” part 2 of a trilogy titled “The Kishkindha Chronicles,” … “because the world was a better place when the monkeys ran the world.”

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  • This was beautiful and hit on so many feelings I have been experiencing, but am unable to articulate. I actually just finished Bhyrappa’s Aavarana a few weeks ago, referenced by Mr. Juluri here, what a novel! I am so sorry I had not even heard of Bhyrappa until a few months ago despite being fairly active and knowledgeable about Indian and Indian American literature. I shudder to think of all the brave, proud voices crying out over the last 75 years, buried in the name of “secularism.”

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