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Salman Rushdie Speaks out in India, at Last – and Invokes the Langauge of Violence

Posted on the 30 March 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost
Salman Rushdie speaks out in India, at last – and invokes the langauge of violence

Salman Rushdie in 2008. Photo credit:

Earlier this year, writer Salman Rushdie was prevented from speaking (even via video link) at a literary festival in Jaipur because fears of violent protests.

This week, Rushdie was invited by India Today to speak at its Conclave in Delhi. As he said: “They called me and suggested that we needed to put that matter right, and that this would be a way of doing it.”

One of the other celebrities due to speak, Imran Khan, subsequently pulled out of the event because of Rushdie’s presence. This did not amuse the novelist, and he used the start of the speech as a devastating series of taunts at the former cricketer: “You know, there was a time when I would have felt very uneasy indeed to face Imran Khan… on the cricket pitch. But times change; and now it seems that it is Imran who is afraid of facing my bouncers.”

And: “Imran is a man of the old school. Maybe he doesn’t understand how this new-fangled stuff called email works.”

And then, sharpest of all: “By the way, The Satanic Verses is a book which I would be willing to place a substantial bet that Imran Khan has not read. Back in the day when he was a playboy in London, the most common nickname for him in the London circles was ‘Im the dim’.”

Forget bouncers, this is Bodyline.

At the end of these taunts at Khan, Rushdie remarked: “This is what we call the exercise of freedom of speech. It feels pretty good.”

One gets the sense of a boxer in a ring, the sense of enjoyment in  landing punches. And of course that is the exhileration of speech making for someone as accomplished as Salman Rushdie, able to take Imran Khan’s claim that he wouldn’t dream of being seen with Rushdie because of what he called “the immeasurable hurt” the writer has allegedly caused Muslims and use it against his opponent with a simple twist of a word: “Immeasurable hurt” is caused to Islam by people like the fanatic who killed this young man (Aatish Taseer)’s father and by those who showered the killer with flower petals when he came to court. Immeasurable hurt, Imran? This kind of hurt is measurable.”

In this little twist of immeasurable to measurable not only overturns Khan’s comment but also shows why language is so powerful. Changing just one word can devastate your opponent.

The rest of the speech is devoted to familiar territory for Rushdie, defending freedom of speech: “Here in India also, a combination of religious fanaticism, political opportunism and, I have to say, public apathy is damaging that freedom upon which all other freedoms depend: the freedom of expression.”

Rushdie is arguing that fanaticism is leading to a new “cultural war” while all about the economic miracle of modern India continues to bloom. That’s an interesting insight, but not as interesting is the language of violence Rushdie uses to for his argument. For example: “There is a line in my novel Shalimar, the Clown in which one character says to another, ‘Freedom is not a tea party, India. Freedom is a war.’  You keep the freedoms that you fight for; you lose the freedoms that you neglect.”

“War”, “fight”, “defend” all carry the sense of violence. And suddenly one sees that language is far more than words. It is violence. It is a weapon. A speech is a fist fight. That is why speeches matter and why they are feared: because they are a means of violence, sharper, stronger, more destructive than guns or knives. This insight seems all the more appropriate  emanating from a man sentenced to death by a fatwa, issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini for the words he used in The Satanic Verses. One can argue Rushdie is an innocent victim of fanatics, or one can recognize that people use language as violence and may not be altogether surprised at the violent reaction it provokes.

Rushdie ended this speech in India with the observation that: “The human being, let’s remember, is essentially a language animal… The attempt to silence our tongue is not only censorship. It’s also an existential crime about the kind of species that we are.”

We are the language animal indeed, whose deadliest weapon is speech.

Read the full text of Salman Rushdie’s speech in Delhi at VoiceGig.

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