Vas Shenoy

Rushdie and Bombay, a fatwa and Khomeini

A young Salman Rushdie. Image source Twitter @sayantansunnyg

A 24-year-old Muslim, Lebanese man with sympathies to the Hezbollah and Iran stabbed Salman Rushdie in New York. He is on a ventilator. I still remember the day Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died.  It was the 3rd of June 1989. We were at Khotachiwadi, an East-Indian suburb in the heart of Bombay, visiting the parents of Fr. Orville, a Salesian priest who was a godfather to my Hindu orthodox family.

My sister was wearing black, and Fr. Orville joked that she was probably mourning for the Ayatollah. My sister’s choice of color hasn’t changed much since and, in a way, I believe that she mourns– not as much for the Ayatollah, but for all the hate he left behind. Hate that he will never be able to walk back. Evil hate…

The Ayatollah died and one would have expected that he would have left behind a legacy of love, peace and all that is warm and fuzzy that one expects from men of God. Catholic priests, Hindu priests, Rabbis, Buddhist monks, Muslim Imams. Not necessarily. History is witness that the most barbaric hate has been spewed by the men of God. From Torquemada to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, they have left behind nothing that is holy or dear to any God. Broken bones, broken spirits, broken people, and nations, that has been their legacy in the name of the one and only true lord. In Rushdie’s words “From the beginning man has used God to justify the un-justifiable”.

Ruhollah Khomeini was different, he left behind more hatred and venom than any holy man arguably has, in history. He marked all of humanity with his hate and his intolerance. We all continue to pay the price for his humiliation at the hands of the Shah of Iran and he is a gift that has not stopped giving.

Salman Rushdie and I have little in common. He is a prince of literature; having won several awards for wonderful stories and novels, I struggle with my words on my laptop. He is a Kashmiri Muslim by birth, I am a Goan Hindu. Rushdie is as old as my late father would have been, we are 33 years apart. He was born, like my father, in the year India won its independence and I, when Indira Gandhi won her election in 1980 after the emergency. Both very dark eras in India’s history.

Despite our differences, we are brothers, Bombay brothers. We were both born in Bombay (not Mumbai), he in the fashionable south of the city, I in the poorer north. We both grew up in the myriad allyways in the smelly, humid, crowded city of dreams almost 33 years apart.

We both had myriad languages and dialects assaulting our ears with Jesuit and Salesian priests imparting, often with a cane, the basics of grammar, language, and all of our basic schooling. Our alliteration comes from Indian English, Goan English, East Indian English with Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati, Bambaiya, Kannada, Telugu and other rhythms which he captures so marvelously in his prose. But we also learnt what Bombay, an alcoholic parent that you can’t live without, teaches you. To survive you pray and you challenge… everything. Nothing is absolute, everything has a price. Criminals, authority, the police, your idea of god, my idea of god. Adjust please…

For me a Rushdie book has always been a therapy session. He walks me back into my childhood. We dance and alliterate through the sweat of our nightmares. When you are as choked as a rat drowning in a Bombay monsoon flooded subway, you break through for fresh air with the same elation of breaking through the oppressive smelly humidity of inland Bombay when you reach the sea. His words then, like the salty balmy sea air would sooth my dreams, my hopes, my fears. He challenged me, depressed me, elated me. His nonsensical rhymes a secret code deciphered only by those that have tread in his footsteps in the city of dreams, sab-kuch-chalta-hai (everything goes).

My first Rushdie book was “The Moors last sigh”, which I read on the recommendation, nay insistence of my Brighton sixth form high school teacher. Sitting on the Rilke path, on a cliff near Trieste, I could hear Rushdie whisper “Suspiro ergo sum” while the Borellina quietly ever slightly started blowing.

Rushdie lived his life defending against a charge that would seem ridiculous to a Bombay boy. God had three daughters, and he was condemned by men, nay the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, who hadn’t even read his book, for basically stating a fact. He didn’t read the book, didn’t understand his alliteration, just condemned him like a frustrated Bombay sub-inspector would condemn an angry young man for being a smart-ass in the 1970s.

That fatwa, he bore with grace and that travelled with him for much of his life. It finally caught up with him, his would-be assassin, 9 years younger than the 33-year-old death sentence. All for words. Words that were meant to question, debate and not hurt. Instead, Khomeini’s words were only meant to hurt and silence. And that’s essentially what the Iranian regime has continued to do.

Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan during his time in office, spent a lot of money that Pakistan could ill spare, in lobbying for Islamophobia to be recognized internationally. It is men like Khan, following in the path of the Ayatollah, who have used religion to continuously target men like Rushdie.

The attack on Rushdie is why I would say to Imran Khan that the world fears a politicized Islam. We are scared Mr. Khan, scared that in a Bombay minute you would applaud at our throats being cut, without really understanding what we said. Just because you thought we meant disrespect and the unwashed, illiterate masses, believed you.

We all hope Salman Rushdie will come back, stronger than ever. I wait for another book where we will visit alleyways of Bombay that now exist only in our memories. Ice-cream soda, cold coffee with ice-cream or a treat of pav bhaji with thumbs up.  Memories of a shared childhood. Until then “Suspiro ergo sum”, and caro we wait….

About the Author
Vas is a political researcher, consultant and entrepreneur who has worked in Europe, Middle East and Africa for two decades. He has had the privilege to interact with leaders, decision makers and work closely with people from all walks of life, all over the middle east.
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