Brilliant, but banned

Perspective

If you are a self-respecting reader of any worth, you must have read at least some of the following books — To Kill a Mockingbird, Ulysses, Catcher in the Rye, Brave New World, Animal Farm, Grapes of Wrath, Lord of the Flies, Gulliver’s Travels, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They are no ordinary books but familiar literary classics taught today in virtually all leading universities around the world. Yet these are books that were banned in different times for one reason or the other.

This begs the question — are most banned books brilliant? Or let us put it this way: do politicians and the clergy ban certain books because they are brilliant?

Take for example the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The Index listed books banned by the church and was regularly printed until 1966. It had banned not only books of literary giants like John Milton and Francis Bacon, but also the works of the greatest scientific and intellectual minds that we have ever known, namely Kepler, Voltaire, Pascal, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, etc.

Publications like Oxford bring out lists like ‘100 best books’ that literary snobs regularly scour to see what can be ticked off their list. It’s virtually a compilation of all the banned books in the world. With few exceptions — like Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja which was just very badly written — most banned books, in my opinion, are outstanding and have stood the test of time.

Banned books are fantastic for obvious reasons. They question the status quo, challenge existing paradigms, question idiotic beliefs no matter how sacred, and provoke you to think anew. The very reasons politicians and the clergy would not want you to touch them. But what is good writing if it won’t give you a fresh perspective? And what is freedom of expression without the freedom to offend. For how long can you read Paulo Coelho or Chetan Bhagat?

Rushdie’s Satanic Verses may not be an outstanding book. It’s admittedly not even Rushdie’s best book. Midnight’s Children stands too tall for comparison. But it asks a fundamental question: What’s in The Satanic Verses that gets the Mulla’s goat.

Most people who rile against The Satanic Verses have not read it. Ayatolla Khomeini certainly did not read it, nor have the Deobandis. In fact, most liberals have not read it either. They speak up for Rushdie being flag-waving activists of freedom of expression. I got my copy long before Flipkart.com came to our doorsteps. Just like everyone else those days, I got my copy deviously, via a relative visiting Europe.

Is the book against Islam? Yes, the chapter The Return to Jahilia is certainly a pointed satire on Prophet Mohammad and his wives, but it would be a very narrow reading of the book to say that it’s an attack on Islam alone. It, in fact, takes on all three Semitic religions, namely Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

As Rushdie has written in his recently published memoir Joseph Anton — The Satanic Verses was an attempt to question the idea of revelations. The book asks a crucial question. Must we trust a man who goes up some mountain and claims to speak with god and writes the so-called godly instructions in a book that all must revere? But it was not only Prophet Muhammad who was ‘enlightened’ on a hill by a god. Moses, one of the most revered prophet of both the Jews and Christians, went up Mount Sinai to confabulate with god before coming back with the commandments. Abraham, Noha, Joshua, and every Old Testament prophet claimed to have a direct hotline with god.

Religious enquiry has never been the tradition in Semitic religions. If you are a true Christian, you have to believe in the Immaculate Conception or the Resurrection.

Doubting any of them is striking at the very core of Christianity. Similarly, you cannot question any of the verses in the Koran. More now, for fear of losing your head than for any other reason.

In the East, religious enquiry has been the cornerstone of faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism. That’s why it’s so hard to understand the Hindu zealots who go crazy when any different interpretation of the Hindu texts are offered or their gods painted in the nude. The truth came not so much from the sacred texts or the gods but from a deep enquiry that every individual could do for himself.

The Satanic Verses is an attempt at questioning as it is a satire on the Semitic faiths. According to some accounts, though disputed by many Muslim scholars, it is believed that Prophet Mohammad during the course of dictating the Koran, got a few verses from the Koran deleted. He claimed those verses had been inspired by the devil. The Satanic Verses asks how does one verify which verse was inspired by the devil and which by god? The Satanic Verses had tried to start a debate, but alas, all that it did was open a can of worms.

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